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William H. Reed

Teacher in Burr Oak school during the years 1876 and 1877.

“He was an eloqutionist and I have always been grateful to him for the training I was given in reading.” – Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1947

After the death of Freddy Ingalls in August 1876, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote in Pioneer Girl that her family remained at Uncle Peter’s for a while, then moved on to Burr Oak, Iowa, in cooler weather. Living in the Masters Hotel, it is not long until Christmas, and Mary and Laura attended school in the schoolhouse up the hill.

In November 1876, W.H. Reed was hired by Matthew Relihan, head of the school board, to teach a sixteen week term of school in Burr Oak, beginning on Monday, November 27. He was paid $45 for each four week period consisting of five full days of school. His contract read, in part, that he would: “…faithfully and impartially govern and instruct the children and youth who may attend the [school]; that he will refrain from every species of profanity and improper conduct while in their presence; will institute no cruel or unusual mode punishment in the administration of discipline, and will promptly report to said Board of Directors or their successors in office, the names of all scholars who may be guilty of gross immorality or a persistent violation of the regulations of said school.” He also agreed to “keep the school-house in which said school is to be taught, in good repair, and to see that it is furnished with the necessary fuel and appendages for the comfort and conveniences of the pupils…” His contract was signed by Mr. Relihan and Peter Pfeiffer, the board’s secretary.

William Herbert Reed was born in Allamakee County, Iowa, on June 19, 1860, the son of William Cross Reed (1835-1923) and Phoebe Ann (Knight) Reed (1838-1921). Educated in local public schools in Iowa, his teaching job in Burr Oak may have been his first; although Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote in Pioneer Girl that Mr. Reed was twenty-one years old, he was just sixteen when the term started and only five years older than Mary Ingalls. In a 1947 piece published in The Decorah Opinion, Laura Ingalls Wilder recalled that they originally were in the primary room downstairs, taught by Sarah Donlan, they were later moved to Mr. Reed’s classroom, and she recalled his lessons in elocution (training in clear and expressive speaking) with gratitude. Others didn’t recall Mr. Reed quite so fondly, it seems. The following complaint was filed on September 29, 1877, but the case was dismissed because no students would testify against Mr. Reed:

We, A.M. Perry and A.H. Starr, being duly sworn deposes and say. We are residents of Independent District No. 5 in Burr Oak Township Winnishiek County. That William Reed the teacher employed to teach in said Independent District No. 5 is incompetent and unqualified in this:

1. The said Reed is profane.

2. The said Reed is guilty of using vulgar and obscene language in public places acting in a drunken and disorderly manner, singing improper songs and disturbing the quiet of public meetings and imposing upon peaceable strangers.

3. That said Reed has manifested in a public manner and place: disturbing the peace and quiet of the community and leading him to use unjustifiable languate in the control of some of the pupils attending the school.

4. That he is guilty of indecent improper and immoral conduct toward some of the female pupils in attendance at said school. In this: That he did on divers occasions tickle and squeeze the hands and use improper signs and do other immoral acts towards said female pupils by dropping chalk down their backs and during the years 1876 and 1877 at Burr Oak school.

The charges against said Reed… and we believe the same to be true. …therefore move the Superintendent to revoke said Reed’s certificate.

After teaching in Burr Oak, Will Reed taught in a school west of Burr Oak. On October 16, 1882, he filed on a homestead in Ransom County, Dakota Territory, about ten miles west of Lisbon, the SW 6-134-57, and taught school in the area. He converted the claim to a preemption, paying cash for the land in January 1884, remaining in the area until 1889, when he returned to Winneshiek County. He married Emma Lucetta Webster on February 6, 1889. Emma was a former pupil of Reed’s and he had boarded with her parents, Esther and Chester Webster; she was born June 11, 1873. The couple had six children, only son William and daughter Ethel lived past infancy.

The couple often lived with Emma’s parents in Canton, Minnesota, as Reed suffered from what was most likely rheumatoid arthritis and unable to withstand the rigors of farm life. In Canton, Mr. Reed served on the school board and was mayor for a number of years. He operated the local drug store and telephone exchange for years until declining health forced him to retire. William H. Reed died at age 91, on January 20, 1952. Emma died just over four months later; they were both buried in Elliota Cemetery in Canton.


The Laura Ingalls Wilder Park and Museum in Burr Oak, Iowa, has a number of artifacts belonging to the Reed family, including a frock coat and vest worn by Will Reed (shown at right), photographs, and teaching certificates and contracts. For more information on the Reed family, see silasknight[dot]com, the Winter 2003 Burr Oak Leaf (museum newsletter), and “Burr Oak, a Lovely Place” in William T. Anderson’s A Little House Sampler (University of Nebraska Press, 1988), 26-27.


Mr. Reed (PG)