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Founding Ferris Industrial School at Big Rapids

In the spring of 1883, I visited Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, Big Rapids, and Traverse City. I then had in mind the founding of a private school.

In the spring of 1884, I had under consideration Fargo, Dakota [sic North Dakota], Duluth, Minnesota, and Big Rapids, Michigan.

I decided in favor of Big Rapids because it was sufficiently far away from colleges, normal schools, business colleges and academies to eliminate to a very large extent competition. From a business standpoint this was a foolish notion. It didn't occur to me that a man who wanted to sell shoes would refuse to locate on a South Sea island and that a man who wanted to sell fans would refuse to locate in Greenland. I failed to ask the pertinent question, "Why isn't there a private school within a radius of fifty miles from Big Rapids?" It took me five years to answer this question.

On the sixteenth day of May, after a tedious journey from Pittsfield, Mrs. Ferris, our son Carleton, and I arrived in Big Rapids. So far as I could then learn, I was generally regarded as a lunatic. The public schools of Big Rapids were first-class under the superintendency of John Cromby [sic Crombie].

Who in Big Rapids would patronize the Ferris Industrial School? It did not occur to the minds of the
inhabitants that I was establishing a school for "lumber jacks", miners, farmers' sons and daughters, girls who worked in Michigan factories and not for the sons and daughters of Big Rapids citizens.

In the summer of 1884, by visiting the villages of Mecosta County I tried to acquire useful information concerning educational needs. I did not canvass for students in the city of Big Rapids or in neighboring villages. I rented two rooms on the second floor of what was then called the Vandersluis Block on North [sic South] Michigan Avenue. In September I opened my school under the name of the Ferris [sic Big Rapids] Industrial School. I then hoped to emphasize the industrial feature. I labored under the impression that the new day was at hand when education should involve the training of the head, the heart and the hand. As I shall indicate later this ideal gradually vanished.

On the first day, I enrolled fifteen young people. Without advertising, the number increased rapidly. I now account for this growth from the view point of novelty. All the teaching was done by Mrs. Ferris and myself. At first we offered training in common English branches and bookkeeping.

Later in autumn I opened a night school which commanded the favorable attention of clerical workers. Because my accommodations were inadequate, I made arrangements for the third floor of the Northern National Bank Building, now Citizens State Bank Building, on Michigan Avenue. The Masons had occupied this floor for several years and were getting ready to occupy the second and third floors of the Harwood Block, just across the street. I had some difficulty in securing these rooms because the Masons did not believe that the Ferris Industrial School could long survive.

In February, 1885, I moved into my new quarters where I remained until January, 1894. I afterward added to my floor space, the third floor of the Roof Block and a considerable portion of the second floor and all of the third floor of the Wilcox Block.

In order to offer shorthand I was obliged to master the subject and become the teacher. I was not a practical stenographer, but I was master of the fine art of clear explanation and thorough drill. I selected Osgoodby's system, essentially Pitmanic, and for seven or eight years no other system was introduced. Among my first shorthanders were Lillian Rood, Lizzie Evarts, Lottie Morse, Dora Morton, Claude Curtiss, W. H. Varity, and E. C. Mowen.

My first commercial teacher was C. A. Wessel, who remained in my employ for fifteen years. He was a very successful instructor, always loyal to his employer, and painstaking with his students. Mrs. Anna Pease, formerly of Big Rapids, was a teacher of science in the Ferris Industrial School for several years.

Thomas Stackable was the first full-fledged Normal instructor I ever employed. While tremendous emphasis was put on the commercial and shorthand subjects the preparation of public school teachers was given marked attention.

In 1889 I examined my total five years' enrollment and discovered that the majority of my students were coming from the counties south of an east and west line drawn across the state on the southern boundary of Mecosta County. I had done ninety per cent of my work in teachers' institutes, ninety per cent of my advertising in the counties north of the line herein mentioned. In the southern counties educational sentiment existed through the work of the University, the one State Normal School and the denominational colleges. Lumbering and mining enterprises constituted the industrial activities of the northern counties. At this writing, forty years later, the majority of my students come from the southern counties. Three of the state normals are now in the southern counties of the State of Michigan, while there is only one normal school in the Northern Peninsula. Had I established the Ferris Industrial School, as it was originally called, in Lansing, Pontiac, Kalamazoo, Battle Creek or Jackson, the present Ferris Institute would have been born twenty years sooner. I mention this fact because I wish readers who wish to embark in business pursuits to avoid duplicating my mistake. No doubt locating my school in Big Rapids has been a Godsend to many young people who would not have secured an education had the school found a home farther south.

For the first ten years the higher institutions of Michigan ignored the students of my school. It seemed difficult to convince the State Department of Public Instruction that the Ferris Industrial School possessed any unusual merit.

Every summer I conducted special sessions for teachers. These sessions attracting wide attention naturally aided the other departments of this school, especially the department for preparing students for college.

In due time men and women who for some cause had missed getting even an elementary education, discovered that they could satisfy their ambition at a school organized primarily for their benefit.

No requirements were demanded for admission except a willingness to work early and late. Hundreds of individuals from the various walks of life look back to the days spent at the Ferris Industrial. Every student electing as many studies as he could carry advanced as rapidly as his ability would permit.

Our requirements for a credit were never below eighty-five per cent. As a result of our thoroughness the university and colleges of the state began to change their attitude. In forty years not to exceed a half dozen of our students have failed in the higher institutions of learning. No institution in America can boast of a higher record. Furthermore our "open doors" attracted the attention of boys and girls, men and women who possessed real genius. This class, in youth, had failed to "wake up". When they did wake up there was one school in Michigan that joyfully met their needs. I could describe the careers of hundreds who are superior illustrations of this fact.

When I began this work I entertained no thought of making the school other than industrial, commercial and English. The school, like Topsy, "just grew" out of the demands of our patrons.

For example, Louis Preysz, now druggist at Barryton, Michigan, asked for training in the subject of pharmacy. Immediately purchasing a "hand-book" covering the subjects required by the State Board, I proceeded to give him the necessary drill. In those days the State Board credited the candidate with twice the time devoted to this subject in a pharmacy school. The fact that I had been a student for one year in the Medical Department of Michigan University aided me in drilling young Preysz. He was the first student from my school to pass the State Board examination. This encouraged me to establish a pharmacy department.

At about this time W. D. Henderson from Petoskey, now professor of physics in Michigan University, enrolled for normal work. Making rapid progress he manifested unmistakable signs of more than ordinary ability. He would attend school for a time, then teach. I began trying him out as an instructor in my own school. This resulted in his becoming a permanent instructor in science, making pharmacy one of his specialties.

Mr. Henderson is worthy of more than a passing notice. He decided to take a course in Michigan University. I was loath to part with him. We compromised by dividing his work, between the university and my school. At last in the year 1895 I lost him. Following his graduation from the University he was employed as an instructor and is now a professor at this great institution.