McGuffey’s birthplace in Greenfield Village today. / THF1969
William Holmes McGuffey’s easy-to-understand Eclectic Readers were influenced by his experiences growing up on the Pennsylvania and Ohio frontiers, as well as his family background and upbringing. His birthplace, a log home from western Pennsylvania now in Greenfield Village, is a physical representation of these experiences.
McGuffey’s Birthplace in Western Pennsylvania
Portrait of William Holmes McGuffey, 1855. / THF286352
William Holmes McGuffey’s family was Scots-Irish (or Scotch-Irish)—a group of strict Presbyterians who had migrated from the Scottish Lowlands to Ulster, in northern Ireland, over several centuries into the early 1700s. During the 1700s, many Scots-Irish emigrated to Pennsylvania, a colony that offered available land for settlement and the assurance of religious freedom. By the end of America’s colonial period, more than 30% of the population in Pennsylvania was Scots-Irish.
As early as 1760, land was almost unobtainable in the American East and many Scots-Irish headed inland to the western frontier, quickly inhabiting areas in western Pennsylvania during the 1780s and 1790s. This rapid settlement was only possible because the American government had, through treaties and sometimes military action, forced Native American tribes to move successively further west until they were pushed out of western Pennsylvania entirely. The major tribes that had inhabited the area, having migrated or been forced there from other areas during the 1700s, included the Lenni-Lenape or Delaware, the Shawnee, and the Seneca (referred to by European settlers as “Mingo”). Other tribes who might have traversed and/or built temporary villages in the area included the Huron/Wyandot, Chippewa, Mississauga, Ottawa, Mohawk, Cherokee, and Mohican.
William Holmes McGuffey’s family followed the typical migration pattern of other Scots-Irish immigrants. His paternal grandparents, William (“Scotch Billy”) and Ann McGuffey, had arrived during the last great wave of Scots-Irish immigration, sailing with their three young children from Wigtownshire, Scotland, to Philadelphia in 1774. They soon joined a community of Scots-Irish immigrants in York County, where they purchased land for a small farm. In 1789, they moved to Washington County in western Pennsylvania, where cheap land on the expanding western frontier had opened to settlers.
Here, they would once again be living among like-minded people, a community of Scots-Irish Presbyterians. Scots-Irish families, like other immigrants, did not leave all of their Old-World ideas and ways of doing things behind. They shared a similar heritage of music, language, foodways, and material culture. They also tried to establish familiar institutions in the move west—first churches, but also schools, stores, and courts of law.
McGuffey Birthplace in Greenfield Village, photographed in 2007 by Michelle Andonian. / THF53239
McGuffey’s maternal grandparents, Henry and Jane Holmes, moved to Washington County about the same time as the McGuffey family. The log home that became William Holmes McGuffey’s birthplace was constructed about 1790 on the Holmes acreage. It was likely Henry and Jane Holmes’s first-stage log home (meaning they planned to build and move to a nicer home as soon as possible). Their daughter, Anna, married Alexander McGuffey at the Holmes farmstead just before Christmas 1797, and they lived in this log structure as their first home. While living there, they had their first three children: Jane (born in 1799), William Holmes (born in 1800), and Henry (born in 1802).
In 1802—only five years after they married and moved into the log house where William Holmes McGuffey was born—Alexander and Anna McGuffey moved their young family further west, to the largely unsettled Connecticut Western Reserve area of northeastern Ohio. William Holmes McGuffey, then two years old, would complete his growing-up years on this new frontier (see “William Holmes McGuffey and his Popular Readers” for more on this).
During the 1840 Presidential campaign of William Henry Harrison, the log home became a romantic symbol of the frontier and the pioneer spirit, as shown in this 1840 music sheet cover. / THF256421
The log house would become an American icon, but its origins are European. Finnish and Swedish settlers are thought to have been the first people to construct horizontal log dwellings in America, in the colony of New Sweden (now Delaware) in the early 1600s. Welsh settlers carried the tradition of log construction into Pennsylvania.
Later waves of immigrants, including Swiss and Germans, brought their own variations of log dwellings. The Scots-Irish, who did not possess a log building tradition of their own, supposedly adapted a form of the stone houses from their native country to log construction, and greatly contributed to its spread across the frontier.
One of the principal advantages of log construction was the economy of tools required to complete a structure. A log structure could be raised and largely completed with as few as two to four different tools. Trees could be chopped down and logs cut to the right length with a felling axe. The sides of the logs were hewn flat with a broad axe. Notching was done with an axe, hatchet, or saw.
A closeup of the McGuffey birthplace on its original location, showing both notching and the chinking. / THF251509
The horizontal spaces or joints between logs were usually filled with a combination of materials, known as “chinking” and “daubing.” These materials were used for shutting out the driving wind, rain, and snow as well as keeping out vermin. Many different materials were used for chinking and daubing, including whatever was most conveniently at hand. Chinking usually consisted of wood slabs or stones, along with a soft packing filler such as moss, clay, or dried animal dung. Daubing, applied last, often consisted of clay, lime, and other locally available materials.
McGuffey’s Birthplace in Greenfield Village
McGuffey’s birthplace on its original site in 1932. / THF133827
Henry Ford was among the last generation of children to be educated by William Holmes McGuffey’s readers. Beginning in the 1910s, Ford purchased every copy of the readersthat he could find—amassing, by the 1930s, a collection of 468 copies of 145 different editions. By the early 1930s, Ford decided to commemorate McGuffey’s impact on his education and upbringing in an even bigger way—by moving McGuffey’s humble log home birthplace to Greenfield Village.
Unfortunately, by the time Henry Ford saw McGuffey’s birthplace in western Pennsylvania in October 1932, it no longer served as a home, but had been used for many years as a “loom house” or “spinning room” and a sheep barn. The structure had largely collapsed; no walls were completely standing. But Henry Ford purchased it anyway, from a McGuffey descendant who still owned the property. Edward Cutler, Henry Ford’s architect, measured the remaining chimney foundation for later recreation, and had trees suitable to replace the missing or deteriorated logs cut down and prepared for shipment. All these parts were shipped to Dearborn in November 1932.
From January to August 1934, the home was reconstructed in the Village with some modifications. Originally a rectangular home, when completed in Greenfield Village it was approximately 16½ feet square and was ten logs high rather than nine. A shed (smokehouse) was found on the Pennsylvania site and recorded, but was not moved with the McGuffey house. The smokehouse in Greenfield Village was a replica completed at the same time as the house. By 1942, a pen with sheep had been added.
Constructing the McGuffey School in Greenfield Village, 1934. / THF98571
The William Holmes McGuffey School was a newly constructed building in Greenfield Village, built in 1934 out of logs from the Holmes family’s original barn. Among its early furnishings was a schoolmaster’s desk made from a walnut kitchen table used by the McGuffey family.
Dedication ceremonies for the McGuffey buildings took place on September 23, 1934 (the 134th anniversary of McGuffey’s birth), in Greenfield Village. Attended by McGuffey relatives and other dignitaries, the dedication ceremonies were broadcast by NBC. A memorial program was also held at the McGuffey birthplace site in Washington County, Pennsylvania, and a marker was placed there.
Interior of William Holmes McGuffey Birthplace, 1954. / THF138606
For many years, William Holmes McGuffey Birthplace, furnished with household goods of the period, was open for visitors touring Greenfield Village. Over time, the structure was repaired many times, but some of the choices made during these renovations—like copper sheathing, wire mesh, and Portland cement—increased the rate of the structure’s deterioration. In 1998, the building was determined to be a safety hazard and closed to visitors. Happily, as part of the Village upgrade of 2002–2003, the log structure was renovated and restored. This involved replacing logs and roof shingles and applying a new style of chinking with a non-Portland cement mortar mix.
Presenter cooking over the fireplace in the William Holmes McGuffey Birthplace, 2018. / Photo courtesy of Caroline Braden
The William Holmes McGuffey Birthplace is today furnished as it might have looked in 1800–1802, the period when the McGuffey family resided there during William Holmes McGuffey’s infancy and toddlerhood. Though we have no specific information on furnishings owned by the McGuffeys during the time they lived in this home, we have excellent information on household furnishings from the same time period and geographic location, based upon probate inventories of families from Washington County, Pennsylvania. These include such furnishings as a worktable, a few mismatched chairs, iron pots for fireplace cooking, a butter churn, and kegs and barrels for storing food.
Interior of William Holmes McGuffey Birthplace, showing current placement of furnishings. / Photo courtesy of Deborah Berk
The furnishings reflect the needs and personalities of its inhabitants—William Holmes’s father, Alexander; his mother, Anna; and William and his siblings. For example, in order to emphasize the influence of the religious and literate Anna, we have included a Bible and some books. Alexander is represented by men’s clothing and the shaving set on the shelf. The children’s presence is indicated by the cradle, the small stool, the diapers on the drying rack, and the toys in the cupboard.
The placement of the furnishings in the McGuffey birthplace also shows the family’s Scots-Irish background. It was the custom of this group to make the hearth the focal point of the home, with a clear path from the door to the fireplace. Rather than being put in the center of the room, the table would have been de-emphasized and placed against the wall.
Portrait of William Holmes McGuffey reading a book, circa 1860. / THF110186
William Holmes McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers were both successful and influential. Between 1836 (when the readerswere first introduced) and 1850, seven million copies of them were sold. During the second half of the 1800s, they became the most widely circulated textbooks in the United States, influencing the outlooks and perspectives of such luminaries as Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, and the Wright brothers. How did the readers come to be, and why did they have such tremendous appeal?
A letter from President Taft to Henry Ford testifying about the importance of McGuffey Readers in his life, 1924. / THF96603
Many factors contributed to the creation and content of McGuffey’s readers, including his heritage, family background, and experiences growing up.
William Holmes McGuffey’s family was part of a group of immigrants to America who were often referred to as Scots-Irish (or Scotch-Irish). These people were Presbyterians from the Scottish Lowlands who had migrated to Ulster, in northern Ireland, over several centuries into the early 1700s. Religious restrictions and economic conditions had motivated members of this group to emigrate to America during the 1700s, and many of them settled in Pennsylvania—a colony that offered affordable land for settlement and the assurance of religious freedom. As land became increasingly unobtainable in the East, many Scots-Irish immigrants headed west and south to the edges of European settlement. In these scattered frontier communities, the Presbyterian Church remained a stabilizing force, and its tenets would become a major influence on the later McGuffey Readers.
The McGuffey family followed a similar pattern of migration to other Scots-Irish. William Holmes McGuffey’s paternal grandparents, William (“Scotch Billy”) and Ann McGuffey, landed in Philadelphia in 1774, then moved farther west to York County, where they purchased land for a small farm. In 1789, they moved again, to Washington County in western Pennsylvania—then considered the edge of the settlement or the western frontier. There, cheap land had recently become available to white settlers (see “William Holmes McGuffey’s Birthplace” for more on this). William’s maternal grandparents, Henry and Jane Holmes, had also moved to Washington County about this same time. Their farmstead, named Rural Grove, was close to the McGuffey place. This was undoubtedly how William’s parents, Alexander McGuffey and Anna Holmes, met.
The McGuffey birthplace as it stands today in Greenfield Village. / THF1969
Alexander and Anna were married just before Christmas 1797. Their first home was the log house now in Greenfield Village. This house, situated on the Holmes farmstead, had likely been Henry and Jane Holmes’s initial home before they constructed a larger frame house. Alexander and Anna’s first three children were born here: Jane (1799), William Holmes (1800), and Henry (1802).
William’s parents played a particularly significant role in young William’s life. His restless father, Alexander, embodied the values of individualism, adventure, risk-taking, and making one’s own way in the world. His mother, Anna—who was serious, pious, intelligent, and literate—enjoyed the stability of the Scots-Irish community in which they lived.
This 1870 Currier & Ives print of a settler’s family and their log home gives an impression—albeit a romanticized one—of what living on the sparsely settled frontier might have been like. / THF200600
In 1802—only two years after William Holmes was born—Alexander’s restlessness spurred the young family to move west into the Ohio Territory, to a sparsely settled area known at the time as the Connecticut Western Reserve. Here, the family settled on 160 wooded acres and established a small farm. Five more children were born there: Anna (1804), Catherine (1807), Elizabeth (1809), Asenath (1811), and Alexander Hamilton (1816). William spent his youth on this fairly isolated farmstead on the Ohio frontier.
At the time, the Ohio frontier was considered the edge of settlement—for white settlers, anyway. Although travelers and white settlers at the time described this area as a “howling wilderness” or the “solitary wilds,” in fact Native Americans had inhabited the region for thousands of years. By the time Europeans (primarily French and British fur traders) arrived in the 1700s, several Native American tribes had recently moved into the area. These included the Shawnee, Delaware, Wyandot, and Seneca-Cayuga—who had all migrated or been forced to settle there during that time from other places in the north, east, south, and west.
A hand-cut silhouette of George Washington, created around the time of his presidency. / THF142004
The influx of American settlers into Ohio with the passage of the Land Ordinance Act (1785) and the Northwest Ordinance (1787) spurred the American government—which had never truly recognized Native rights of land ownership—to evict the Native Americans from these lands. In the 1780s, a series of treaties was attempted. When these proved essentially unsuccessful, a frustrated President Washington decided to use brute force instead. He commanded a successive series of military generals to drive the Native tribes out of Ohio. Eventually, General Anthony Wayne declared victory in 1794 at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. (William’s father, Alexander, had been involved in this and previous battles in what became known as the Ohio Indian Wars of the 1790s.) The resulting Treaty of Greenville in 1795 pushed Ohio’s Native tribes into a demarcated section of northwest Ohio, until they were forced out of Ohio completely in the early 1800s.
In 1795 (the same year as the Treaty of Greenville), Connecticut, which had been deeded the strip of land in northeast Ohio Territory known as the Western Reserve back in 1662, sold this land to a group of speculators. They surveyed the land, neatly dividing it into townships and then assigning land agents who sold individually marked lots to incoming white settlers. Within about ten years, Ohio essentially shifted from “Indian Country” to a territory rapidly filling up with white settlers. In 1803, Ohio became the 17th state admitted to the United States, though the Western Reserve area in northeastern Ohio remained fairly sparsely settled until after the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825. Though only some of William Holmes McGuffey’s neighbors were—like him—Scots-Irish Presbyterians from western Pennsylvania, many shared the similar experience of adapting to the Ohio frontier from more settled communities farther east.
McGuffey’s Newly Revised Eclectic First Reader, 1848. / THF289925
As part of the 1787 Northwest Ordinance, schooling and education had been encouraged, but the ordinance charter did not create a system for establishing or funding schools. The children of more well-to-do families paid tuition to attend private schools, called academies, where both boys and girls received rudimentary training in classics, reading, writing, and arithmetic.
While education was considered a high priority by New Englanders and Scots-Irish Presbyterians settling in Ohio, many farm families—especially those migrating to the area from Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Kentucky—often lacked the money and inclination to ensure that their children received a formal education. In 1818, a traveler remarked that the schools in Ohio were very few in number and “wretched” in conditions.
William Holmes McGuffey received a better education than most children raised on the Ohio frontier. In his early years, his mother taught him basic reading, writing, and arithmetic, but she was always attempting to find ways for William to receive more education. She eventually succeeded in finding a school for him to attend in Youngstown, six miles away, run by Presbyterian minister Rev. William Wick, and William quickly developed a passion for learning. At the completion of his studies, Rev. Wick informed William that he had now received enough education to teach others and encouraged him to open a school. As a result, in September 1814, 14-year-old William McGuffey held his first “subscription school” at Calcutta, Ohio, for 48 students. His students, whose parents paid a fee for their instruction, brought their own books, with the Bible being the most common.
Two years later, and for the next four years, McGuffey attended the Old Stone Academy in Darlington, in western Pennsylvania. He then enrolled in Washington College, a Scots-Irish Presbyterian school located in Washington, Pennsylvania—ironically only a few miles from where he had been born. For the next six years, William alternated between working on his family’s farm in Ohio, teaching school, and attending classes at Washington. As he tried to educate others in the scattered and isolated settlements of the western frontier, he got a true sense of how desperately children needed an easy, standardized way of learning to read and write.
McGuffey’s Eclectic Second Reader, 1836. / THF289931
William completed his formal schooling at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, a Presbyterian school, then taught there for the next 10 years (1826–36). By the 1830s, Ohio’s population had grown tremendously, and many public schools were opening. McGuffey saw a great need for a system of standardized education, especially for children of immigrants and those living in the scattered settlements of the West (now the Midwest) and South. In the mid-1830s, Truman & Smith, a Cincinnati publishing company, invited him to prepare a new series of textbooks to be marketed in the Midwest.
McGuffey worked to make his Eclectic Readers interesting and accessible to children, based on his observations while he was a teacher. An important difference from the few earlier textbooks that existed in America was that these were purposefully developed as a series, with each reader intended to be progressively more difficult and challenging than the one preceding it. He completed his first and second readers in 1836 and the primer, third, and fourth readers in 1837. William’s younger brother, Alexander, compiled the fifth reader in 1844 and the sixth in 1857.
Cover page of McGuffey’s Newly Revised Rhetorical Guide; or Fifth Reader, 1853, owned by Bishop Milton Wright, father of Orville and Wilbur Wright. / THF250428
McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers were called “eclectic” because they included stories, poems, essays, and speeches drawn from a variety of sources. The primer and the first two readers consisted mainly of brief, simple tales and lessons. The more advanced readers included excerpts from orations, scripture, and English literature.
When students completed a reader, they moved on to the next level. With time off for harvest and farm chores, rural pupils might get no further than the second reader before completing their education in their mid-teens, which would provide reading skills equal to about a third- or fourth-grade level today.
Inside pages and outside cover of McGuffey’s New Second Eclectic Reader, 1865. / THF59806
The McGuffey Readershad a huge impact on American society, especially in the Midwest and South. The books not only taught youngsters to read; they were also often their primary source of information about history, philosophy, and science. For many schoolchildren, the excerpts in the readers from the works of authors like Shakespeare and Wordsworth were the closest they would get in their lifetimes to the Western world’s great literature. The stories in the readers also helped establish common understandings, heroes, values, and even expressions among a wide group of Americans. For example, when President Theodore Roosevelt claimed that he did not wish to be a “Meddlesome Matty,” everyone knew what he meant. He was referring to a character in McGuffey’sfourth readerwho snooped and meddled in other people’s affairs.
The kind of practical morality that McGuffey advocated in these books was based on his own upbringing and Scots-Irish Presbyterian background. The ideal character traits that were emphasized in the readers—industry, thrift, temperance, kindness, virtue—all reflected Presbyterian values. As the series was updated in 1841, 1844, 1857, 1866, and 1879, the publishers gradually muted its overt religious messages. But they never lost McGuffey’s original emphasis on moral instruction.
Over time, critics have attacked McGuffey’s readers for such flaws as not addressing the injustices of slavery, referring to Native Americans as “savages,” having anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic overtones, and reinforcing the traditional role of women as homemakers. McGuffey himself revised some of his text over successive editions. Still, the readers are of their place, their time, and the background and life experiences of their author.
Henry Ford and McGuffey’s Readers
Henry Ford perusing a McGuffey reader inside the McGuffey Birthplace, Greenfield Village, 1940. / THF126110
Henry Ford was among the last generation of children to be educated by the McGuffey Readers. Ford considered McGuffey one of his great heroes because of his ability to spark young imaginations. He believed that the books were successful because they used a narrative approach that spoke to the time and place of readers like himself.
Henry Ford had this reader, originally published in 1885, reprinted in 1930 for use in his Edison Institute Schools. / THF288332
McGuffey Readers had a deep and lasting influence on Henry Ford. They were among the earliest objects reflecting the American experience that Henry Ford collected, beginning in the 1910s. Ford bought every copy that he could find—amassing, by the 1930s, a collection of 468 copies of 145 different editions. A strong believer in McGuffey’s educational principles, Ford perpetuated these beliefs by founding the Edison Institute Schools. He even had the readers reprinted so that the children in the schools could use them.
Edison Institute schoolchildren exiting McGuffey School, 1937–40. / THF286354
Ford commemorated McGuffey’s role in educational reform by rebuilding his birthplace in Greenfield Village and constructing a school out of barn logs from the original farmstead where McGuffey was born. William Holmes McGuffey School served as the second-grade classroom for the students attending Edison Institute Schools from 1934 until the school system was closed in 1969.
Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.
Join us this Saturday, September 25, 2021, at the William Holmes McGuffey Birthplace in Greenfield Village, as a group of living historians present household and harvest activities and stories of rural western Pennsylvania in 1800.
What forces would have been in play for Anna and Alexander McGuffey in the young American nation at that time?
The first decade of the 19th century in America saw the rise, through trial and error, of a new nation—our Early Republic. The Early Republic era, which roughly ran from the 1780s through the 1830s, was greatly influenced by world events and national politics. The French Revolution, the rise of Napoleon, and the ongoing war between England and France all challenged, and at times threatened, the newly formed government of the United States. A war with Great Britain, the War of 1812, was fought from 1812–1814.
Thomas Jefferson’s election as president of the United States paved the way for westward expansion. / THF8163
The election of Thomas Jefferson, who served as president from 1801–1809, paved the way for the westward expansion of the United States. At a time when the western frontier was eastern Ohio, the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark expedition that quickly followed were huge factors for westward movement in the decades to come. To offer some perspective, the United States population in 1800 was over 5.3 million—of whom nearly one-fifth were enslaved.
By 1800, the McGuffey family, who had settled in western Pennsylvania in the 1780s, followed the traditional seasonal routines of farming. In an area that had been settled for nearly 20 years, no longer a frontier, the Pennsylvania landscape encompassed cleared fields, mature orchards, more substantial homes, and an established community.
Job Roberts’ 1804 book, The Pennsylvania Farmer, showed that farming was common in the state by the turn of the century. / THF625673
The McGuffeys were not isolated, and would have been aware of world events, regional and national politics, and trends in fashion, and would have had access to a wide range of imported goods. They would make their own westward journey into Ohio in 1802.
We hope you can visit us Saturday to learn more about the family and their fall activities.
Jim Johnson is Director of Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford.
We are closing in on the end of our multi-year project to digitize photographs related to the buildings in Greenfield Village, and one of the most recent buildings we’ve tackled has been the William Holmes McGuffey Birthplace. In the 1830s, McGuffey created a series of textbooks commonly known as McGuffey’s Readers, intended to teach reading and writing to various grade levels of schoolchildren. Henry Ford used these readers as a child and considered them an important influence in his life, so he moved the Washington County, Pennsylvania birthplace of McGuffey to Greenfield Village in the early 1930s, dedicating it on September 23, 1934, the 134th anniversary of the author’s birth. Among the several dozen images we’ve just digitized is this 1845 portrait of Harriet Spining McGuffey, who became William Holmes McGuffey’s wife in 1827.