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Third District Normal School Founding

Southeast Missouri State University Archives

Immediately after the Civil War, Missouri’s legislature – dominated briefly by what are known historically as the Radical Republicans – established a free public education system supported by local taxes as a recipe for political, economic, and social reconstruction. Teacher colleges – or “normal schools” based on the old French term “école normal (Ecoal normal)” – were part of that original system to train the state’s new public-school teachers.

In early 1873, the state created a third district normal school for southeast Missouri, joining district one in Kirksville and district two in Warrensburg. With a service area of 26 counties running essentially south of the Missouri river to the Arkansas line, the state wanted to locate the third normal school in the most geographically and economically advantageous location within this broad area.

After a rather fierce competition, Cape Girardeau was awarded the school, narrowly outbidding Iron, St. Francois, Madison, Jefferson, and Ste. Genevieve Counties.

By October 1873, the Third District Normal School opened under the leadership of “Principal” Lucius Cheney with five faculty members and 57 students. For $35/term – tuition which included books, incidental fees, off-campus room, board and washing – scholars pursed a two-year course of study in pedagogy, teaching, and school administration.

Teachers at the turn of 20th century were almost by definition female. In fact, in Missouri’s five normal schools (which eventually included Springfield and Maryville), out of 13k students, 10k were women. Considering rural public schools generally prohibited married teachers, in those earliest years locals lightheartedly referred to the Third District Normal as the “Old Maid Factory.”

Joel P. Rhodes is a Professor in the History Department of Southeast Missouri State University. Raised in Kansas, he earned a B.S. in Education from the University of Kansas before earning his M.A. and Ph.D. in History from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.