It will never be known Platteville photographer James Nye realized the significance of his photograph of Platteville’s Normal School Class of 1869.
In taking that photograph, Nye recorded a milestone that would never have occurred if not for the efforts of the people of Platteville, good timing, and a strong educational tradition.
Just four years earlier the Platteville Academy faced certain financial ruin. At the time, the Platteville Academy, which had been in operation since 1839, had established a reputation as an excellent school for teacher training. It had achieved this, to a greater extent, because of Josiah Pickard, who had served at the academy’s principal from 1846 to 1859.
Pickard owed part of his own success to the Normal School Act of 1857. This act, financed by, of all things, the “sale of swamp and overflowed lands,” was the state’s first attempt at establishing normal schools by allowing academies across the state to set up normal departments for teacher training. This worked well in Platteville, but on balance the various normal departments failed to train teachers adequately. By 1864 the state concluded that “the plan is defective.”
To remedy this situation, the state passed the Normal School Act of 1865. This act repealed the 1857 act and laid the groundwork for the establishment of independent normal schools for teacher training. The proposed normal schools, moreover, were also to be financed by the sale of “swamp and overflowed lands.”
This presented a serious problem for the Platteville Academy. It had come to rely on those state funds to pay down its debt. With the swampland money now redirected to normal schools, Platteville would receive no state aid. In short, unless the academy became a normal school, as Platteville’s newspaper stated, it “is in danger of being ultimately sold for debt.”
Therefore, when the Normal School Board of Regents called for proposals for normal school sites in the summer of 1865, Platteville and 15 cities from across the state responded. At the urging of John Rountree, Platteville’s state representative, the academy trustees offered the “Platteville Academy and grounds, $1,100 to be used in repairs, and $5,000 in cash.”
Compared to the other 15 offers, Platteville’s was short on cash. Stoughton, for example, offered $35,000 in cash. Platteville, however, had two things in its favor. First, one of the members of the Normal School Board of Regents was Hanmer Robbins, a long-time resident of Platteville; second, the offer included an existing building.
After months of deliberations and onsite visits, including a visit to Platteville that Robbins hosted, the Board of Regents was deadlocked between selecting Platteville or Whitewater. At this point, Platteville got lucky. The president of the board asked Josiah Pickard, who was now the Chicago superintendent of schools, for his advice.
Pickard, who knew the board wanted to open a normal school as soon as possible, suggested the board “select Platteville where the physical plant would be ready for immediate occupancy.” Hence, on Feb. 28, 1866, the board, acting on Pickard’s advice, voted to accept both Platteville and Whitewater’s bids.
On Oct. 9, 1866, the first normal school in Wisconsin opened at Platteville. Not surprisingly, when the class of 1869, the first normal school class in Wisconsin, graduated, it was a big deal. One of the ways the Platteville Normal School celebrated this milestone was to have James Nye make this photograph of the graduating class.