Utah’s First Tax-Supported Free Schools

Utah’s First Tax-Supported Free Schools

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2001 issue of Pioneer Magazine

By Shirley Hatfield

Utah’s First Tax-Supported Free Schools The first settlers came to American Fork in the summer and fall of 1850, and in the latter part of 1851 a one-room log schoolhouse was erected and nearly finished before the end of the year, William Greenwood was the first schoolteacher with an enrollment of 15 pupils of various ages. Later, several other small were opened with at least three being conducted in the teacher’s homes.

In the very early pioneer days, the hiring of teachers and the maintaining of the schools in a new community was most often in the hands of the bishopric of the ward. In die case of American Fork, three persons were named to act as trustees for the schools. These men handled the funds and hired the teachers. Since money was scarce, the teachers were paid with produce and services by the parents of the students.

In February 1866, through the efforts of Leonard E. Harrington of American Fork and Lorin Farr of Ogden, a bill was passed in the Territorial Legislature giving a community the right, by a majority vote of its taxpayers, to maintain a free school by taxation. Eugene A. Henriod, one of the first teachers in American Fork under the new system, wrote: ‘

‘Bishop L. E. Harrington conceived the idea and proposed the plan of adopting the public, or as they called it, the free school. Opposition to that plan was met with in the first meeting and the meeting broke up in confusion. At a subsequent meeting held in the old meeting house in November of that year Bp. Harrington again brought the same plan up and after much talk for and against, a vote was called, tellers appointed and the men ranted on each side of the house for or against the plan. The result was a tie; Bp. Harrington, chairman of the meeting,cast the vote in favor of the plan, and thus the public school system was first established in Utah in 1867.”

The tax was approved, and trustees were immediately appointed.  Teachers began to be paid with tax monies, and two new school- houses were built. This tax system was earned on continually until it merged into the general law of 1890. How well it succeeded is told in the following excerpt of a letter written by Ebenezer Hunter and published in the Salt Lake Herald, November 28, 1876:

“For the past eight years all the children that have been taught in this place have been taught in the free school system, and I think there arc few settlements, if any, in the Territory that can show the same record as that of American Fork*.. In the winter of 1875 and the spring of 1876, we had four schools running, employing three male and three female teachers, with an attendance of a little over 500 pupils. We have had our schools open seven months in the year, but as many of the larger scholars had to leave school to go to work in the summer, one of the schools closed on the first day of May.”

In commemoration of the establishment of the first tax-maintained free schools in Utah at American Fork, the Daughters of Utah Pioneers erected and dedicated a handsome stone monument (left) on July 24, 1939. The monument, located in Robinson Park, shows a depiction of Science Hall, where the schools were first held.

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