Source: NMHS NEWSLETTER May 1985


“She taught my mother in the first grade at Central School in 1886.”  “I was in the first grade at the West Ward School in 1908.  My sister followed in 1912.”  “Her last year of teaching was 1931-32.”  Voices of former students still speak quietly of the remarkable span and talents of Martha Winesburg, North Manchester’s revered primary teacher.

For a full half century and an outstanding career, Martha Winesburg fostered a disciplined yet cheerful environment for learning, innovative in new techniques yet wise to maintain methods that served well in the past.  She is remembered as a tall, erect person with blue eyes and white hair, always elegantly dressed and wearing hat and gloves.  She had a blooming complexion and was always spotless.

Martha’s story begins on June 2, 1862, when she was born to James and Rachel (Heeter) Winesburg on the family farm in Sectionn 23, Chester Township, southeast of North Manchester.  The 180-acre farm is now owned by George Winebrenner.  The other children in the family were John Wesley, Mary E., William, and Franklin.

As a child she attended the Krisher School on the southeast corner across the road from the Krisher Cemetery on State Road 113 East.  There was no high school at that time.  Good students with eighth grade certificates were allowed to teach in rural one-room schools.  Often a would-be teacher remained in school, assisting the teacher for a season or so, like the practice teaching of today.

We hear of Martha Winesburg at Servia and Liberty Mills.  Since the Krisher School was near Servia, she may have begun teaching in the school where she had begun her education.  It used to be said that she taught for 50 years.   Her obituary counted 43; perhaps the informal years of training and part-time teaching were not included.

She was teaching first grade at the Central School in North Manchester in 1886.  During the 1896-97 school year, the principal at Servia, John Werking, died of typhoid fever, and Winesburg replaced him and taught second primary grade.  She continued in North Manchester schools until she resigned in 1931-32 because of ill health.

Winesburg was a dedicated teacher, attending biennial teacher institutes during the school year.  She received a two-year normal certificate from Manchester College in 1908.  This was doubtlessly acquired by summer short courses and perhaps night classes.

Summers in Posh Hotel?

Teachers’ pay was extremely low by modern standards, and there was no insurance plan, pension, or other benefits.  As late as 1918, teachers were working in rural schools for $50 a month, often doing their own janitorial work and board with school patrons.  Winesburg and other dedicated teachers spent a long life of teaching for small rewards.

Many summers, when school was out, Martha packed a steamer trunk and was off to Bay View, a rather swank summer resort on the east shore of Lake Michigan.  We imagined her sipping tea and holding forth in high society, but actually, we learned later, she worked at the hotel during her vacations!

Students Remember

Martha is described as a strict teacher.  She was, however, kind and considerate of each of her students.  Students left her first and second grade classes prepared for the third.  If a student needed to be punished, Martha took care of the matter herself.

She lived where Dr. and Mrs. Roger Sawyer live today on West South Street near the present Maple Park School.  It was a one-story frame cottage up on the slope and had wood siding.  She heated the home with coal and cooked on a coal and wood stove.  There was, of course, an outdoor privy, and a washtub inside was used for baths.

One former student, Jack Miller (“I think I was one of her pets”), whose home was near Martha’s, did chores for her, such as carrying in wood and coal, mowing the lawn, and raking the leaves.  She was a wonderful person to work for.

Mrs. Dorothy Joseph remembers Miss Mattie’s diligence in teaching musical scales.  When Dorothy did not remember them, a gentle shaking was in order, but Dorothy had no hard feels as she felt she herself had a serious shortcoming for musical scales!

Mrs. L. O. Bemis (Ruby Olinger), a pupil in 1908, recalls the school bell and yardstick with which order was kept.  She continues, “Her great effort was to teach the sounds of the vowels and consonants, illustrated by blackboard pictures with colored chalk.”  Like the Laubach method of today, phonics made it possible for pupils to sound out words and learn to spell at the same time.

Classroom a Cheerful Place

The Winesburg classroom was a cheerful place, full of plants and in season beautiful pussy willows and spring flowers and goldenrod in the fall.  At West Ward School she taught first and second grades in the same room, one studying while the other recited.  A firm sense of discipline made this routine possible.

Classes were preceded by opening exercises, usually singing a patriotic song, like “My Country Tis of Thee,”  “The Star-Spangled Banner,” or Rally Round the Flag,” accompanied by the wonderful organ, and sometimes the rousing “Marching Through Georgia.”

The shadow of the Civil War still hung over the country as late as the opening decade of this century, and at the end of the school year pupils hurried out from Decoration Day to march to the cemetery and the bridge with Civil War veterans.  Once in a while they sang the touching “Tenting Tonight in the Old Campground.”

At Christmas the mood changed; they sang “Jingle Bells,” and the teacher read from a book, “The Bird’s Christmas Carol,”  “Captain January,” or “Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch.”

Then to work with endless drills and practicing with Spencerian penmanship.  The second graders wrote with ink from little glass wells in one corner of their desk.  Miss Mattie toiled daily over the ink-stained youngsters, struggling with phonics, hoping to turn her classes into third graders.  Years passed with each new “crop” of brights and dullards, but she was always cheerful and sustained her work well.

The high point of her life must have been the day in 1929 when the masons, who had been repairing the front of West Ward building, removed the canvas to display their work:

MARTHA WINESBURG SCHOOL cut into limestone and embedded over the front entrance!

Philip Seitner, a pupil at that time, years later wrote in the News-Journal a moving account of that week.  All season long she had walked around without a hint of what was going on.  Seitner wrote that he was overwhelmed when suddenly classes were dismissed, school board officials and other interested  persons appeared, and the school was renamed in her honor.

She was 67 years old then and continued to teach all of 1931-32 when ill health forced her to resign from her life’s work.  She died on November 5, 1935, and was buried beside her parents in the Oaklawn Cemetery.

“Hundreds of people, now themselves old, remember her with respect and esteem as their first teacher.  She has had an influence for good in the community.”  Thank you Martha Winesburg.