Woodville School & The Teacher Who Influenced American History

This page in local history has a corresponding page in American History, so it is easy to assume that if we talk about a Woodville teacher it will be the one championed in national lore during his lifetime as the “American Eagle.” 

After all, there are books written about him, and he has been called, “one of the rarest souls who ever lived and died.”

Anyone who studies the American Labor movements of the 1890s knows him as a hero of working men and women, whose courage in the face of powerful opposition gave him a popular momentum that might have made him President had he been born in the U.S.

His name was John Peter Altgeld and he was Governor of Illinois in the aftermath of the famous Haymarket Riots; a man who Clarence Darrow called, “a soldier in the everlasting struggle of the human race for liberty and justice on the earth.”

As a young man, Altgeld taught school in a one-room schoolhouse outside the south end of Mansfield in 1867-69. But he is not the Woodville teacher who truly shaped the course of American history—that was the teacher at Woodville who came after him, from 1869 to 1879.

Her name was Emma Ford.

She grew up on a farm near Little Washington and John Peter was her neighbor.  He was a barnyard-smelling farmer’s kid in the 1860s, and he was in love with Emma. She didn’t spend much attention on him, however, because he had a very rough-hewn character, a scarred face, and he could barely speak English.

He was very aware that if he was going to get her to look at him seriously he needed to do some self improvement. At the age of 15 he walked to Mansfield to take classes at the High School. 

This infuriated his father, whose peasant upbringing in Germany made him wholly distrust anyone with an education.  John Peter’s mother supported her son by smuggling food to him through a friendly neighbor during the school year, but when he came back to the farm after school let out for summer, his father was plainly abusive.

So, at age 16, John Peter went off to the Civil War.

Army life was not kind to him either: even though his Regiment operated largely behind the battlefield, he was laid low by fever.

By the time he staggered back to Richland County, his suffering had tempered the clarity of his spirit to recognize his deepest need was to be of service to his community.  At that point in his life, his idea of service took some sort of religious context, so he enrolled in the Gailey Seminary in Lexington.

It was Rev. Richard Gailey who saw in the earnest kid a powerful quality of leadership. Gailey taught Altgeld fundamentals of education and then made arrangements to have the young man engaged as a teacher.

In 1867 John Altgeld took over Woodville School.

He brought with him a quality that made him rare among Richland County teachers—he spoke German like a native.  And he had mastered English as well, so he knew exactly how to lead little German-speaking kids into American culture.  At that time in the city’s development, most of the children he found in rural Mansfield had German parents.

And once he grew a beard to cover the scars on his face he actually took on a kind of charisma.

Altgeld became something of a hero in local Educational circles. When Emma Ford graduated from Oberlin College and came back to Richland County with a teaching degree, she was amazed to discover that the rough, illiterate boy from the farm next door had become a champion in her profession.

That was what opened her heart.  It didn’t take much re-introduction to make them understand that fate had acted with purpose when it placed the two of them in proximity on Washington South Road.  There was little courting before they decided to be married.

Emma’s father, however, never stopped seeing the Altgeld kid as a peasant.  He refused to let him into the family.

John had too much respect for Emma to ask her to disrespect her father, so he bowed out.

With a ragged hole in his soul and utterly despondent, he walked away from Richland County.  To his family, his teaching associates, and his students he simply disappeared.

It was then that Emma stepped up to take over his classroom.  She didn’t have that native German tongue, but she was utterly determined to uphold the excellence in education that her John had established, so she completely immersed herself into the local German culture and became one of the family.

John’s walk away from Woodville school was literally that—he wore out a pair of shoes on the road, and didn’t stop until he was in Missouri.  It was there he lost himself in working on the railroad until his fever came back.

Ultimately, he landed in a small town where he read law with a hometown attorney until he passed the Bar.  Then, shortly thereafter, he was elected to be the county State’s Attorney. That was just the beginning of his skyrocket legal career.

By 1879 he was a judge of the Superior Court in Chicago. 

That was when Emma’s brother wrote to Altgeld that her father was dead.  Judge Altgeld dropped everything, hopped the first train to Mansfield, and married Emma in the German Church.

As was already noted in the front of this story, John Peter Altgeld went on to write a whole chapter in American justice: influencing child labor relations, and speaking powerfully to the rights of American working people.  Altgeld’s name, according to historians, “is synonymous with the dawn of the Progressive era.”

John Peter Altgeld (1947 – 1902) is remembered today in Chicago with this Lincoln Park monument.

John Peter is the one you read about in the history books, and he is a remarkably influential spirit of the times whose courage and integrity still stand today as a measure of the American character.

But he is not the Woodville teacher who truly shaped the course of American history—that was the teacher at Woodville who came after him, from 1869 to 1877.

Because it is quite evident the more you study John Peter Altgeld, that he would not have become the man he was had he not needed to earn the respect of Emma Ford Altgeld.

Emma Ford Altgeld (1847 – 1915)

For more background:

Mowing The Graveyard: John Peter Altgeld

Thank You!

Images come from collections of Robert Carter, Virgil Hess, and the Richland County Chapter Ohio Genealogical Society.


Before Altgeld left Richland County in 1869 he was known in the community as Peter, in order to distinguish him from his father who was also John Altgeld. This book of sermons and Bible studies was presented to him at the St. Peter’s Evangelical Church where his family attended German-speaking services, and where young John had his first English lessons.

For a young man who spoke only pigeon-German in Washington Township, he certainly became highly literate in English: having published no fewer than five books in his later life.

Known for many generations as the German Church, and source of the name for German Church Road, St. Peter’s Evangelical was where John Peter Altgeld and Emma Ford were married. His parents are buried there.

The old German Church is known today as Hilltop Community Church.

This map from the 1890s shows the location of Woodville School, particularly in relation to the community of Little Washington where John Altgeld and Emma Ford lived.

The Woodville institution survived 171 years through a number of different buildings. An original wooden structure was replaced by the brick schoolhouse where Altgeld and Ford taught classes. (seen in the beginning of this article.)

The short road seen on this map in front of Woodville School was eventually connected with one farther west to become the thoroughfare we know today as Cook Road.

This third version of Woodville School was built in 1895 with a striking new tower for the old school bell. An auditorium was added to the back in 1929. The site is today a wooded lot on the north side of Cook Road, just west of the southbound on-ramp for State Route 13.

This Woodville School burned in 1978 after having stood idle for more than two decades when the new Woodville was built several hundred yards farther east out Cook Road. (Photo by Jeff Sprang for the News Journal.)

The last “new” Woodville School was opened in 1951 on Woodville Road, at what was then the end of Cook Road. This building was razed in 2014.

A twin of the last Woodville School can still be seen on Grace Street at the former Lincoln Heights School, today the Madison Early Childhood Learning Center.

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