America’s First Kindergarten
1856 - 2006
The Watertown, Wisconsin, Historical Society, owners and operators of the famed Octagon House Museum and America’s First Kindergarten, paid special tribute to the 150th anniversary of the founding of the kindergarten on Sunday, August 27, 2006.
The event was held on the grounds of the historical society, located at 919 Charles St., Watertown, WI. The public was cordially invited to attend the afternoon festivities which included brief speeches from Mrs. Jessica Doyle, wife of the Governor of the State of Wisconsin, Elizabeth Burmeister, Secretary of Education for the State of Wisconsin, John David, Mayor of the City of Watertown, Joel Kleefisch, State Representative, Dr. Doug Keiser, Watertown Unified School District Superintendent, as well as officials from the Watertown Historical Society. The celebration began at 2:00 pm and after the speeches there was refreshments and a chance to inspect the kindergarten museum building.
The kindergarten was founded in America by Margarethe Meyer Schurz, wife of the famous German-American statesman Carl Schurz. Mrs. Schurz was a native of Hamburg, Germany, and as a young woman learned the principles of the kindergarten from its creator, Friedrich Froebel [cross references [ 1 ], [ 2 ]. In the 1850s she came to London, where her sister had founded the first kindergarten there.
While in London she met and married Carl Schurz, then a fugitive from a Prussian jail. They came to America shortly thereafter and settled at first on the east coast and then in 1855 they came to Watertown where Carl Schurz had relatives. Once here Carl began an active career in politics, while his wife set up housekeeping. But she longed for something that would give purpose to her life, so she began a small kindergarten class in the Schurz family home, which was at one time located at 749 N. Church St. in 1856. The Schurz home, known as “Karlshuegel” or “Carl’s Hill” burned to the ground in 1912.
The class proved to be very successful, but the noise of the children was too much for her husband, so she was forced to move her class to a small frame building located originally on the corner of N. Second and Jones streets in Watertown. At the time the dwelling was being used as a private home by Carl Schurz’s parents.
It was in this little building that the kindergarten took off. The original class numbered only about five students, the Schurz children Agathe and Marianne, two Juessen girls (cousins of the Schurz’s) and the lone boy Franklin Blumenfeld, son of the editor of the local German-language newspaper. Mrs. Schurz ran her school through 1857 when the Schurz family moved to Milwaukee. The kindergarten continued sporadically here, always operated as a private school, through the nineteenth century, finally becoming a part of the public school curriculum after the turn of the last century.
Mrs. Schurz died from complications of child birth in 1876 and her remains are believed to have been transferred to her native Hamburg, Germany. Her husband, Carl, rose through the political ranks, first aiding Lincoln in his bid for president in 1860, then becoming a general in the Union Army during the Civil War, later Secretary of the Interior under Pres. Rutherford B. Hayes and ultimately he went to work in the publishing field. He died in New York in 1906.
As for the kindergarten building, after the Schurz family left Watertown, the building passed through many hands, becoming a cigar factory, fish store and religious book store. In the 1920s a local women’s club, the Saturday Club, erected a memorial marker to designate the historical significance of the building. Then in 1956, exactly 100 years after the founding of the kindergarten, the little building was in danger of being razed. It was through the efforts of Mrs. Rudy Herman and Gladys Mollart of the Watertown Historical Society that the structure was saved and moved to the grounds of the Octagon House, where it now rests. It has been open to the public since 1957.
The Schurz’s left Watertown in 1858 when Carl was admitted to the Wisconsin Bar and began to practice law in Milwaukee. He spoke on behalf of President Abraham Lincoln during the 1860s and went on to be Secretary of the Interior. Margarethe Schurz died at age 44 in Washington D.C. in 1876, three days after the birth of a son. After the family’s departure, others took over the kindergarten in Watertown: Carl’s cousin, Miss Juessen, followed by Mrs. Rose Kunert and Mrs. Kunert’s sister, Tante Elle Koenig who ran it as a private kindergarten for 42 years.
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150th program Watertown Mayor Jessica Doyle
Charlotte Groth John David Wife of WI Governor
Elizabeth Burmeister Douglas Keiser Joel Kleefisch
Sec of Education School Superintendent State Representative
Unveiling of Marker
Mrs. Carl Schurz Honored
Watertown Gazette, 05 09 1929
Last Thursday night a very large number of our citizens and many from nearby places, were present at the unveiling of the marker at the southwest corner of North Second and Jones streets, erected by the Saturday club in honor of the Mrs. Carl Schurz of this city, who conducted the first kindergarten school in country at that corner in the building now occupied by Charles Heimsehr and his sister. The boy scouts had charge of the unveiling of the marker, and kindergarten pupils scattered rose petals about the stone. The pupils of the three kindergarten classes under direction of their teachers the Misses Adelia L. Siegler, Florence Brownlee and Harriet Blakely, gave a series of dance games, which delighted all present, and the High School band gave a fine musical program. Mrs. E. E. Fischer, president of the Saturday club presented the tablet and the granite marker to the city, and Alderman George W. Block of the city council, made the acceptance speech, the mayor being unable to be present on account of illness. Joseph Schaefer, superintendent of the State Historical Society at Madison, was the principal speaker of the evening’s program at the Elks club, and Miss Hilda Schneider of the High School faculty directed a vocal program by the High school glee club. City Attorney R. W. Lueck was master of ceremonies.
Among other things in his address Mr. Schaefer said:
“Beginnings of great movements are always interesting and since the kindergarten has grown into a tremendous system of education for the children, the fact that the movement had its American origin in Watertown ought to prompt citizens of this town, especially, to feel proud.”
He said that he had spent much time in reading, looking up records and in personal investigations and has satisfied himself that in honoring Mrs. Schurz as the founder of the movement in America that honor is not misplaced, that the kindergarten here was the first one in America and that its influence had brought about the kindergarten system in this country.
Little is actually known of her when one compares it with what is known of her illustrious husband. Coming from a relatively wealthy family, brought up in luxury and comfortable surroundings, with every advantage, it is to her credit as a pioneer that she consented to come to America, and especially to what was then the great undeveloped west. She did so reluctantly, to be sure, but once she had arrived here she made the best of it. Although she always did long for Europe, she nevertheless played her part as a leader in this territory and her influence has been great. Her need for occupation and love of children induced her to start a kindergarten class here.
He praised the citizens of Watertown and the members of the Saturday Club especially for their great interest in perpetuating the memory of Mrs. Schurz. The bronze tablet on the granite stone contains the following . . .
Roots of Kindergarten Firm in Watertown
Watertown Daily Times, commentary, 08 29 2006
This past Sunday Watertown and area residents came to the famed Octagon House grounds to pay tribute to the 150th anniversary of the first kindergarten in the United States.
It was fitting that this ceremony be held at the site that now houses that first kindergarten building which was first used for that purpose back in 1856 by Margarethe Meyer Schurz. Although for much of her life she was overshadowed by the political legend of her husband Carl, it was her contribution to American education that has elevated her to prominence in that field.
Kindergarten started as a rather small program for two of the Schurz children and a couple neighbor children in this wild territory known as Watertown. It was only 20 years after this community was settled that her contribution to education was started.
Since that time, kindergarten expanded throughout the country and years ago became the standard offering in' all schools, public and private. Today the program has expanded so far it is now offered in forms we're sure Margarethe never even imagined - pre-kindergarten, full-day kindergarten and even 4-year-old kindergarten. All of these programs are extensions of what this remarkable lady accomplished back in 1856.
While Margarethe and her husband, Carl, called Watertown their home only a few years a century and a half ago, the marks they both left on Watertown are indelible and are forever part of our community's rich heritage.
The fact that Elizabeth Burmeister, Wisconsin superintendent of public instruction, took the time to be at the anniversary program places special emphasis on the importance this tool is in the educational community.
Watertown and Margarethe Meyer Schurz are famous because of this novel program that is now 150 years old but it is the generations of children who have passed through kindergarten who have benefited the most.
Our congratulations and appreciation go out to the Watertown Historical Society and all those who worked hard to, make this celebration successful.
2006 Webster School kindergartners scurried around the First Kindergarten building playing olden day games and learning about Margarethe Schurz. The event was held in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the First Kindergarten. Watertown Daily Times, 06 28 2006
2006 Kindergarten anniversary brings out state dignitaries Watertown Daily Times, 08 28 2006
2009 First Kindergarten video, YouTube