Princeton Times

Mercer County Memories

September 17, 2012

Mercer County Memories: Focus shifts from one-room schools to higher ed

PRINCETON — Resuming our look at the history of Mercer County, courtesy of Kyle McCormick’s The Story of Mercer County, (Charleston Publishing Co., 1957) and the signers of the Declaration of Independence, courtesy of Benson J. Lossing’s book “Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence,” which is a reprint of the 1848 original kindly provided on loan by Dr. O. J. Bailes, we now turn to the early history of education in Mercer County.

Capt. William Smith, the first sheriff of Mercer County, gave the newly-formed Mercer County the land where the Mercer County Courthouse stands. In addition, he gave the county land to build a school building, a log structure built around 1839 near the present location of the Memorial Building.

By 1850, there were 20 such one-room schools across the county, which only taught the basics of reading, writing, history and arithmetic.

The first step toward higher education in the county occurred in 1875, when Concord College (University), then known as Concord Normal School, opened three years after it had been established by the West Virginia Legislature.

The first step toward modern secondary education took place in 1882, when the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, established Princeton Academy on College Hill in Princeton, just off of North Walker Street. This academy lasted until 1901, when free county high schools were organized, seemingly eliminating the need for a Princeton Academy-type of school.

The first first effort at a public high school education was in Bluefield in the 1890s.

Going to the Lossing book, we come to a man better known in history for his descendants than for being a Founding Father. Benjamin Harrison, of Virginia, was father of the ninth president of the United States, William Henry Harrison, and great-grandfather of the 23rd president, Benjamin Harrison.

Harrison’s exact birth date is unknown, but he was born in Berkley, Va., to a family who emigrated from England in 1640. The family had married into the family of the king’s surveyor-general and were able to found a large estate in the most fertile part of Virginia.

While a student at William & Mary College in Williamsburg, Harrison lost his father and two sisters to a lightning strike. Combined with a dispute with one of his professors, he left  William and Mary without a degree and assumed management of his father’s estate as the eldest son, performing well, despite his youth.

In 1764, he was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses. He was soon elected speaker and became one of the most influential members of the assembly, where he served most of his life. Such was his influence that the colonial governor, sensing that  Harrison could become a major opponent, offered him a seat in the Executive Council, an offer rejected by Harrison, who took the colonial side and served on a committee which drafted a letter of protest to the British government over their measures even before the Stamp Act was enacted.

Harrison was one of the first seven delegates elected from Virginia to the Continental Congress in 1774, along with kinsman Peyton Randolph, who was elected president of the Congress. In 1775, he was elected to a second term and took part in a committee which met General George Washington that fall while the latter was with the Colonial Army at Cambridge, Mass. He was also appointed to a committee of correspondence to pro-American foreigners, serving until it was disbanded in 1777.

In 1776, Harrison voted for and signed the Declaration of Independence, serving as chairman of the committee of the whole during the debate on it. He resigned from Congress in 1777.

Upon his return to Virginia, Harrison was almost immediately re-elected to the House of Burgesses and as speaker of same upon taking his seat. He served until 1782, while, at the same time, serving as colonel of his native county’s militia and presiding judge in all civil courts in the county. He served ably during invasions by British forces under Benedict Arnold and Charles Cornwallis.

In 1782, Harrison was elected governor of Virginia for the first of two consecutive one-year terms, before a brief retirement. A third stint in the House of Burgesses and as Speaker followed.

In 1790, Harrison declined a nomination to run for a third term as governor. He was elected governor the next year, but died two days after his election from a relapse of stomach gout in April 1791.

We’ll pick up from there next time.

See you next time. This makes a good stopping point for this column. To share input on this column, contact me c/o Mercer County Memories,  at jharvey1@frontiernet.net or

delimartman@yahoo.com.

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