William Holmes McGuffey’s Birthplace
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 readers that 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.
Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. Her book, Spaces that Tell Stories: Recreating Historical Environments (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), recounts in greater detail the research, furnishings plan, and current interpretation of the William Holmes McGuffey Birthplace in Greenfield Village.
immigrants, home life, Greenfield Village history, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, William Holmes McGuffey Birthplace, by Donna R. Braden