website  watertownhistory.org

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America’s First Kindergarten

150 years

 

1856 - 2006

 

First Kindergarten in America painting by William E. Unger, 1956

Watertown Historical Society Collection

 

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.

 

    Portion of Digital Inventory Item 00098

 

1858

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.

 

1940s

     1940s

 

1955      “First Kindergarten in America” Stamp

01 26       One of the important issues confronting the Watertown Historical Society and its board of directors at its annual meeting Monday evening at the Watertown Free Public Library is whether or not it will be possible for Watertown to gain recognition sufficient to merit a “First Kindergarten in America Stamp” in 1956, when the centennial of the establishment in Watertown of the first kindergarten in this hemisphere by Margaret Meyer Schurz will be observed.  The kindergarten was established by the wife of Carl Schurz in this city in 1856.  To date many local persons have endorsed the movement since it was first proposed some two years ago.  It is said the matter falls within the scope of activities listed by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin for local societies, namely: “Encourage the commemoration and proper observance of special historical events.”

Cross reference/related material:  02 13 1964.  The U.S. Post Office Department again has declined to approve the issuance of a commemorative stamp in honor of Mrs. Margarethe Schurz, founder of America’s first kindergarten in Watertown.  Congressman Robert W. Kastenmeier, however, was told that Mrs. Schurz would be given “very serious consideration” in the event the department decides to issue a series of commemorative stamps in honor of outstanding educators.  Referring to the failure of the department to issue the stamp in 1956 on a significant occasion, Kapenstein wrote Kastenmeier that “the ideal time to have issued the stamp was in 1956 on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the first American kindergarten in Watertown.”

 

1956      Moved / Relocated to Octagon House Grounds

 

12 29       The old kindergarten building in which Mrs. Carl Schurz established the first American kindergarten in Watertown in 1856 was moved today to what will become its permanent location, on the grounds of the Octagon House, owned and operated as a museum by the Watertown Historical Society.  The building, which was at North Second and Jones Streets, was occupied for many years by the Heimsehr Grocery.  Its last occupant was the Ryan Store, a religious goods dealer.  Rudy Herman, Lake Mills, was in charge of the moving.

 

1957      Restoration of, after move

02 22       Restoration of the first American kindergarten in Watertown will get underway in the spring as a project of the Watertown Historical Society.  The original building in which Mrs. Carl Schurz conducted her kindergarten classes after launching the kindergarten in Watertown in 1856 was recently moved from its original site at North Second and Jones Streets to the Octagon House grounds where it will remain as a permanent monument to the kindergarten movement in the United States.  Plans call to restore the building and to furnish it much as it was in the days when Mrs. Schurz conducted her classes in it.

 

1964      Child’s World Museum Proposed

04 22       Watertown, by reason of having been the first city in the United States to have a kindergarten, should be the one city in the world to have a child’s world museum.  Such is the opinion of Dr. David C. Davis of the Department of Education, University of Wisconsin.  Dr. Davis was in Watertown recently as the principal speaker at the annual Founder’s Day banquet of the Watertown U. of W. Alumni group, at the Legion Green Bowl.  In his address, Dr. David went into considerable detail about the plan and it is certainly something Watertown should think about.

 

 

 

Image Portfolio

Click to enlarge

 

                

  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

  Heimsehr Grocery, 1940s.  First Kindergarten location marker on right

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 . . .

 

2006

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.

 

Cross References:

 

c.1913

  Early Kindergarten class, Watertown

 

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

 

Facebook page dedicated to Friedrich Froebel.