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Local History: Celeste E. Bush was East Lyme’s 19th-century feminist modernizer

This is the first in a two-part series on one of the key figures in East Lyme history.

Celeste E. Bush was a creative social innovator whose energetic leadership in educational and other public institutions has left a rich legacy to the generations that have followed her both here in Connecticut and other parts of the United States.

After learning to teach in a simple Connecticut one-room schoolhouse, Celeste E. Bush (1846-1930) went on to build educational institutions in four states. She returned to her native East Lyme in middle age to spearhead the modernization of her town’s school system and rose to other important leadership roles in town affairs.

Most impressive, much of her success was achieved within the almost exclusively male world of 19th century small town politics.

Ms. Bush descended from traditional New England agrarian stock. Her ancestors were among the original founders of Wethersfield in the middle 1600s.

Bush family members later moved to other Connecticut settlements and in 1742, Amasa Bush of Saybrook bought land in (East) Lyme and began to farm what would later become “the Bush Homestead,” more than 100 acres along today’s East Pattagansett Road in Niantic.

Celeste’s generation of the family boasted a surgeon who was decorated for service in the Civil War and a brother who served several terms as East Lyme’s Probate Judge (and oddly, seems to have gambled away his life savings on the infamous “Florida Land Boom” scam of the 1920s).

Early life

Celeste E. Bush was born in Niantic and attended East Lyme’s “Toad Rock” School (named for a local landmark boulder that was said to have the shape of a toad). At age 15, after finishing her own eight years of education, she began teaching at Niantic’s Little Boston School. She taught here for 10 years and distinguished herself as an excellent general educator who earned the respect of students, parents and town leaders alike.

At age 25 in 1871, Celeste decided that her passion for teaching and education would be her calling in life. She applied and was accepted at the Normal School in New Britain (today’s Central Connecticut State University). Since the Normal School had yet to build dormitories, it was necessary for students to find room and board wherever possible.

She was invited to live in the home of the school’s headmaster, Professor Isaac Carleton. HIs daily guidance and Celeste’s own remarkable drive and progress in the classroom led to her appointment as an Assistant Instructor in History and Geography before her own graduation as class valedictorian in 1873.

Celeste revealed early signs of her combative nature in her senior thesis, which was notably controversial for a young female teacher from a school of education in 1873. In her paper, she railed against the use of “Caricature” (political cartoons) which was widespread in late 19th century newspapers and journals.

She charged that the celebrated Thomas Nast and other cartoonists of the era were maliciously manipulating public opinion at a time when much of the country was barely literate. These simple drawings were often able to unfairly make or break the careers of public figures.

Despite their popularity and modest success in helping to bring down a few of the “political machines” of the era, Celeste cast these unfiltered caricatures as major contributors to the raucous and polarizing politics of the Gilded Age … not unlike the power that social media and cable television have demonstrated to manipulate attitudes in modern times.

Professional teaching career

After graduation, Celeste was appointed as a permanent instructor at the New Britain Normal School.

She held this position for more than 10 years and became known for both firmness and patience in teaching her students the nuts and bolts of creating an inspiring classroom. She recalled later in life: “... at breakfast and dinner, the history books divided the attention of the students with the food ... nevertheless (the students) look back with gratitude now as they recall the patience of Miss Bush ...”

As a teacher of teachers, Celeste had found her stride.

She co-authored a United States History textbook in 1878 that included a series of historical challenges for students. She described her contributions to the book as “... a special and practical adaptation (of U.S. History) to the actual work of teaching.”

In the classroom she required students to follow basic lessons but also read related history from outside sources and discuss those different perspectives during class time. These different viewpoints and personal anecdotes added color and life to the facts.

She wanted to nurture “... a discussion, not a lecture...” that actively engaged students. “... a teacher who can excite students will communicate that learning is its own reward.”

A visiting journalist described her unconventional teaching style: “When I entered the room she was teaching the young teachers geography, as I never saw it taught before, having on an elevated and inclined table a lot of damp earth out of which, with her white hands, she was shaping mountains, modeling valleys, plateaux and divisions of the earth, and smashing up the continents generally.”

Word traveled through education circles about Celeste’s teaching skills and she soon became highly sought-after.

In the late 1870s she was recruited to teach and advise at the Massachusetts Normal School at Framingham (today’s Framingham State University) and the Doylestown, Pennsylvania, public school district.

Greatest challenge

Her greatest challenge, however, followed a visit to her classroom in 1884 by the State Superintendent of Public Instruction from the Commonwealth of Virginia. Dr. William Ruffner was appointed Virginia’s first State Superintendent in 1870 amid the wreckage left behind by the Civil War. He laid the foundation for Virginia’s first public school system to educate both white and newly freed black former slave children.

In 1884 he launched the Commonwealth’s first college for teachers and then set out to recruit faculty from the established Normal Schools in New England. After observing Celeste Bush in her classroom, he offered her the position of Assistant Principal of the new Normal School in Farmville, Virginia.

For Celeste, this was not to be a decision taken lightly. She wrote of her fears about the prospect of a single woman living so far from her own home during Victorian times.

“Suppose the plan went wrong; who wanted any share in a failure? ... were salaries secure there? The late war was less than two decades away; would a daughter of the North be welcome to the people?” At first she refused the offer, but she relented after Ruffner agreed to give Celeste a free rein to organize the school as she saw fit.

She wrote that Principal Ruffner “had ... the great virtue of allowing his Vice Principal to work out her plans without irritating interference from him.”

The grounds for the new Virginia Normal College were a dusty old girl’s boarding school that had been abandoned since the Civil War. Dr. Ruffner revealed that “all they had to start with was a principal, an appropriation, a rough scheme, and an old academy building — not a teacher, nor a book, nor a piece of apparatus or furniture.”

Celeste quietly agreed: “No factory or warehouse could be more frankly ugly without or artlessly jumbled within, ... The old shell offered a small, primitive assembly hall and two shabby classrooms. It had grown old not gracefully but gloomily and grimly.”

Embracing the job

Nevertheless, Celeste threw herself into the organization of everything from equipping classrooms to appealing to the community for donations to furnishing dormitory rooms. She organized the teaching staff, wrote curriculum and kept a caring vigil over the girls’ welfare and comfort. She coordinated a schedule of social events for her students, built relationships with the Farmville community and attended to dozens of other details to bring the academy up to her exacting standards. All this in addition to her own teaching duties in History and Geography.

Her enthusiasm for her work in Virginia is obvious in a letter home to her parents during her first year: “... we had not begun (entertaining guests) because our parlor was not furnished before. Now the square room is papered with gilt paper. We have a very handsome braid carpet. We have a piano, center table, chandelier, chairs, etc. We looked very fine indeed on Friday evening and everything went off well.”

A journalist covering the Farmville Normal School in 1886 was effusive in his praise for Celeste: (One) ... “will not be in her schoolroom 10 minutes before he comes to the conclusion that she is one of the born teachers as well as a born lady. She is courteous and polite to all, gentle but firm, obeyed without question, and universally liked; and it pleases a Virginian to see how entirely absorbed she is in a Virginia institution, in which she seems almost to have forgotten her Yankee identity.

“She is as proud of its success, and as proud of the talents and the progress of her Virginia girls as she could possibly be if they hailed from the Nutmeg State.”

When her three-year contract was completed, Celeste returned to Massachusetts. She left Virginia in 1887 having played a leading role in creating the first college for teachers in the state. The Virginia Normal School’s first graduating class of three students accepted their diplomas in June 1885 as Celeste stood and applauded.

Today’s successor to the Virginia Normal School (Longwood University’s College of Education) counts 613 undergraduates enrolled in teacher preparation tracks.

NEXT WEEK: Celeste Bush returns to East Lyme and reforms the schools.

Ted Welsh is a member of the East Lyme Historical Society’s board of directors. He wishes to note the help of Liz Kuchta, East Lyme town historian.

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