Yesterday's Island Today's Nantucket
Volume 37 Issue 20 • Sept. 6 - 12, 2007 now in our 37th season

North School, South School

by Frances Karttunen


Nantucket traditionally had a North School and a South School.  The North School served students from the Main Street area to the North Shore. The South School served children from the Newtown area.

From 1856 to 1928, a school stood on Academy Hill.  It was near the Congregational Church.  The church was called the North Church, and the school came to be called the North School.

For a long time the South School was on Orange Street.

Sometimes children who lived on Orange, Fair, and Milk Street would go to one school on the first day of school only to be turned away and sent to the other.

Despite the overlap, there was intense rivalry between North School students and South School students.

Joseph Farnham, who attended the South School when it was on Orange Street, wrote: “Living, as I did, near the foot of Pine Street, I was classed as a New-Towner.  All who resided north of Main Street were regarded as North-Shorers, and those south of that thoroughfare as New-Towners.  A belligerent spirit well-nigh akin to international warfare seemed to exist between boys of these two sections of the town.”

In 1929, the old wooden North School was replaced with a three-story red brick building.  It housed first grade through high school, and it was named the Academy Hill School.

In 1935 a new school building was built to replace the South School. It was built on the corner of Sparks Avenue and Atlantic Avenue, where the Community Pool is today.

The new building was very modern compared to the Academy Hill School building.  The classrooms were all on one floor and opened off a central assembly hall.  The assembly hall could be used for athletics, and its stage was used for theatrical and musical productions.  Everyone agreed that the new South School was lovely, and the name chosen for it was the Cyrus Peirce School.

When it opened, the Cyrus Peirce School was used as an elementary school.  All Nantucket students went to the Academy Hill School for Junior High and High School.  Over the years, as the Nantucket Public Schools rebuilt and reorganized, the Cyrus Peirce School became the Cyrus Peirce Middle School and moved to a different building.

But who was Cyrus Peirce? Just about everyone has forgotten who he was and why a Nantucket school is named for him.

Ask any Nantucketer, “Who was Cyrus Peirce?”  Older people will tell you that you are mispronouncing his name.  It doesn’t rhyme with “fierce.”  He pronounced it like “purse.”  And that’s the way Nantucketers continued to pronounce it until they forgot.  Even the people who tell you it’s Cyrus PURSE are not likely to be able to tell you who he was or what he did.

The original Academy Hill School

Peirce spent only about fifteen years altogether on-island, but during those years his life was a whirlwind of activity. It was on Nantucket that he tested his evolving ideas about teaching that later became central to American educational philosophy.

Cyrus Peirce was born in Waltham, Massachusetts, on August 15, 1790. The Peirce family was a large one:  Cyrus was the youngest of twelve children. As a boy he was sent to college preparatory classes at Framingham Academy, but he did not stay.  Instead he continued his studies with a private tutor and entered Harvard College.  While still an undergraduate, he began teaching school.  His first teaching experience was in West Newton, Massachusetts during the year 1807-1808.

Cyrus Peirce arrived on Nantucket in 1810.  He was twenty years old and had just graduated from Harvard College.  For two years Cyrus taught students on Nantucket.  Then as the War of 1812 engulfed the young United States of America, he went back to the mainland.

He didn’t leave Nantucket in order to serve in the American armed forces in the war with Great Britain, however.  Instead, he felt a call to the ministry, and he left to prepare at Harvard Divinity School.  While he was away, the War of 1812 devastated Nantucket’s economy.

Nantucket Quakers were pacifists with deep moral objections to war. Blockaded by both the British Navy and the United States Navy, the islanders suffered from lack of provisions.  On the sea their whaling ships were seized and the crews taken prisoner.  In 1814, Nantucket concluded a separate peace with the British Navy.  This could have been considered treasonous, but fortunately for the Nantucketers, it was overlooked by the government of the United States and became a footnote buried in history.

The war finally ended in 1815, and Cyrus Peirce came right back to Nantucket to resume teaching.  Maria Mitchell and Anna Gardner studied with him.  They were both from Nantucket Quaker families, and would later become notable educators themselves.

In 1816, Cyrus married one of his students, Harriet Coffin.  Two years later he and Harriet left Nantucket so he could take up the preaching for which he had trained.  Although the Reverend Mr. Peirce was developing an educational philosophy, he was not yet ready to give up the ministry.  It took eight more years before he knew that his vocation was education.

Finally he was able to return to Nantucket.  For six years, with Harriet’s assistance, he operated a school that was described as “large and lucrative.”

Schooling in those days was not a pleasant experience.  Most schoolmasters relied on corporal punishment to maintain order in the classroom and to force students to learn their lessons by rote.  Maria Mitchell’s father, William Mitchell, wrote of one of his Nantucket teachers that, “Nearly seventy years after, one of my school mates could scarcely refrain from tears at the recital of some of his sufferings at the hands of this cruel man.”  The cuffing, paddling, and whipping that were part of the daily routine made boys run away from school.  In Nantucket, that usually meant signing on for a whaling voyage.  In retrospect the brutal discipline on whale ships probably made the memory of school seem not so bad.

Cyrus Peirce set out to change all that.  His own teaching experience convinced him that the best way to impart knowledge was to win students’ cooperation.  Following Quaker practice, he taught boys and girls together, and he sought to inspire them all to do their very best, to love learning, and to develop a sense of civic and moral responsibility.

He also believed that teachers needed training and supervised practice teaching before going into the classroom on their own.  He had shared his teaching methodology with Harriet, and in Nantucket he imparted it to others so they could work in his school.  One of his personally trained assistants was his former pupil Maria Mitchell.

Harriet’s brother-in-law, Samuel Jenks, was a newspaperman.  He owned The Nantucket Inquirer and used its pages to campaign for free public education on the island.  Cyrus Peirce was also working toward the establishment of public schools on Nantucket.  Primary, intermediate, and grammar schools finally came into being on Nantucket in 1827. The next step was high school.

Cyrus Peirce continued to operate his highly successful private school. He had just rented larger quarters for his classrooms when Nantucket High School opened in 1837. Cyrus Peirce gave up his school to be the first NHS principal.

So that is why the Cyrus Peirce School received his name.

Frances Karttunen’s book, The Other Islanders: People Who Pulled Nantucket’s Oars, and her newest volume, Law and Disorder in Old Nantucket are available in island bookstores and in the Museum Shop.

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