Higher Education in Plymouth

October, 2008

The First Hundred Years

by Alice Staples

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The first page from the record book for the Holmes Plymouth Academy. This page records a meeting of the trustees on February 27, 1809. Image courtesy of the Young Ladies Library Association, the friends group of the Pease Public Library.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has,” the late anthropologist Margaret Mead is quoted as saying. On December 7, 1808, the New Hampshire legislature signed a charter for the creation of an academy in Plymouth, New Hampshire—as requested by a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens of Plymouth and the surrounding areas. They were people who weren’t necessarily out to change the world, just their little corner of it, and their names are still familiar to this region: Webster, Ward, Noyes, Cummings, Russell. Most notable among the group was Colonel Samuel Holmes of Campton, a veteran of the Revolutionary War who donated a grand sum of $500 toward the founding of the academy, which would be named Holmes Plymouth Academy in his honor.

An academy in the early 19th century can be thought of as a precursor to the modern day high school. As no formal teacher training institutions existed at the time, academies often served this purpose as well. Students who had outgrown the local one-room schoolhouses and whose parents wished them to have more education filled the classrooms at Holmes Academy. In the words of the charter, the purpose of the academy was “to promote religion, virtue and literature, and more especially for teaching and instructing youth in English, Latin and geography, logic, mathematics, history and agriculture . . .”

While the original charter is stored at the New Hampshire State Archives in Concord, little else remains to tell the story of the Holmes Plymouth Academy. However, Ezra Stearns’ 1906 History of Plymouth New Hampshire does shed some light on the ups and downs of the academy throughout the first half of the 19th century. An excerpt from his book highlights one of the more prosperous episodes in the life of the academy in 1834:

. . . the trustees manifested an enlarged ambition and the whole community became deeply interested. The fortunes of Holmes Plymouth Academy were reflected in golden hues. The old academy building was removed, a new and an enlarged building was erected, additional land was purchased, and two boarding-houses were built for the accommodation of the institution. In the work of rebuilding the academy buildings, the citizens of Plymouth, with the approval of the trustees, assumed a leading part and in a great measure bore the burden of a substantial undertaking.

Later in the 1830s, the name of the institution was changed to the Teachers Seminary and later the Teachers Seminary and Classical Institution. The stage was being set for the advent of the Normal School in 1870, but a setback occurred in 1844, leading the academy to close its doors completely. The land and buildings became the property of William W. Russell. There is evidence that between this time and 1870, the buildings were used for educational purposes, known at various times as Plymouth Academy, Plymouth Seminary, and Plymouth High School.

Once again, it took the support of thoughtful and committed citizens to bring higher education back to Plymouth. On July 2, 1870, the act for the establishment of a state normal school was approved by Governor Onslow Stearns of New Hampshire. Throughout the 1800s, normal schools were created worldwide as teacher training institutions; the normal school at Plymouth was New Hampshire’s first such school.

In the selection of Plymouth as the seat of the state institution the central location of the town, the healthfulness and the attractive natural features of the locality were deservedly considered. There were additional considerations. In the public mind forever there will remain a sentiment of fitness and the completion of a reward for an early and heroic struggle to found a permanent institution of learning in Plymouth. The Holmes Plymouth Academy, after a few years of fickle prosperity, had failed. Upon its ashes was reared the normal school. After many years, like bread cast upon the waters, the good works of a former generation were rewarded.—from History of Plymouth, New Hampshire

The normal school had a rocky start, too; it would be a decade or so before the school was on solid ground. The annual reports reflect these fluctuations, as well as the continued close relationship between the institution and the town.

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Main Street, Plymouth in 1855. Left to right are an attorney’s office, Plymouth Congregational church, the Courthouse and Holmes Academy. This image appears in Stearns’ History of Plymouth New Hampshire. Image courtesy of Spinelli Archives.

For many years, the town of Plymouth paid the normal school for the education of its children in the model school, the first of its kind in the nation. The model school employed professional teachers and served as the site for students at the normal school to gain classroom experience. This practice evolved into the current requirement of student teaching

From 1880 to 1890, the model school enrolled and educated more than 2,500 Plymouth children. In 1884, in the annual report of the normal school, the trustees stated, “Those whose children are in the [model] schools have expressed their gratitude.” The town had similar good feelings toward the normal school, as reflected in this excerpt from the 1895 Town School District report, “Plymouth is a grand good town to move into: especially for those who wish to give their offspring first class education advantages.”

Celebrating Two Centuries of Higher Education in Plymouth

It has been two centuries since the charter for the creation of an academy in Plymouth was signed, and Plymouth State University and the town of Plymouth have been celebrating this milestone in a variety of ways, with more events planned for fall and winter. During Alumni Weekend in May, alumni were treated to a performance of “Incorporate, Celebrate!” a short musical theatre interlude written by Patricia Lindberg, professor of education and coordinator of Plymouth State University’s graduate program in integrated arts, and William Ogmundson, a Plymouth State alumnus well-known throughout New England as a pianist, composer, and music teacher. Local citizens and PSU faculty and staff dressed in period costume and portrayed the original signers of the charter, including Malcolm “Tink” Taylor, a writer, Holderness resident, and Plymouth State alumnus who played Colonel Samuel Holmes.

Also last spring, Associate Professor of History Marcia Schmidt Blaine’s Local History students explored town/gown relations in Plymouth from the 19th century to the present by researching archival records of the institution as well as the town, and interviewing citizens of Plymouth, Plymouth State alumni, faculty, and staff. The fruits of their research went into the creation of informative and attractive posters, which were exhibited in downtown Plymouth and are currently on display in Lamson Library and Learning Commons.

Celebrations continued this fall at Convocation with a student performance written by Director of Theatre and Associate Professor of Theatre Elizabeth Cox, and at Homecoming & Family Celebration, and will culminate in an event on December 7, 2008, the anniversary of the charter’s signing.


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