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