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Willard Seelye

Teacher of the De Smet town school from the summer of 1881 to the fall of 1882.

W.L. Seelye is one of the most successful insurance agents in South Dakota, and in selecting him for special agent the Yankton company has made a wise choice. – The De Smet News, December 1889

     
Although he wasn’t mentioned in the De Smet Little House books, Laura Ingalls Wilder included Mr. Seelye (she spelled his name Seeley) in Pioneer Girl, writing that he was teacher of the De Smet school after she returned from teaching the Bouchie School.

Wilder was incorrect in all accounts as to when she historically taught her first school (it was during the winter 1883-1884 term, not the winter 1882-1883 term); Willard Seelye was one of the first three candidates receiving a teaching certificate on October 28, 1880, a first grade certificate good for one year. He earned another first grade certificate the following year, on October 29, 1881, also receiving a territorial certificate entitling him to teach in any school in Dakota Territory. Seelye taught the De Smet school for three terms, from the summer of 1881 through the fall of 1882, when Eliza Jane Wilder was hired to teach. He went into the insurance business in 1884, as agent for the Yankton Insurance Company.

In Pioneer Girl, Wilder wrote that Mr. Seelye was a particularly disgusting man who was asked to resign. She told the story that Mr. Seelye was constantly scratching his back with the pointer during recitations, running it down inside his shirt – when he wasn’t otherwise occupied in chewing the end of it. One day the girls had had enough, so they each brought something nasty-tasting to school (Laura’s contribution was cayenne pepper) and they boiled everything together, then soaked the end of the pointer in the brew. The first time Mr. Seelye put the pointer into his mouth, he was suitably shocked, and spat on the floor. This portion of Wilder’s memoirs was not used in any Little House book, but a familiar sounding back-scratching teacher eventually appeared in one of the chapters of Roger MacBride’s “The Rose Years” books. The validity of the story is unknown.

     


     

Willard Levi Seelye was born in New York, December 1853, the son of Adaline and Lyman Seelye of Oneida County, New York. He graduated from Winona Normal School (shown above) in May 1877, and came to Kingsbury County from Faribault County, Minnesota, prior to the Hard Winter. Willard had a preemption claim just north of De Smet, and for a while, he had a tree claim there as well. On December 27, 1877, Willard married Adaresta Geneva Owen (1854-1905), daughter of Samuel Burdette Owen, early De Smet shoemaker. Ada’s younger brother, Vidocq, was the “Mr. Owen” of Little Town on the Prairie and These Happy Golden Years. Her sister Frances married Daniel Dwight and Laura Ingalls taught some of the Dwight children in the Wilkin School. Both Willard and Ada were teachers in Minnesota.

The Seelyes had four children. Their son, Owen, was born in September 1880, and was an infant when they moved to De Smet. They had three more children while living in Kingsbury County, but all died in February 1893 after suffering from diphtheria. Ada also was afflicted with the disease, but she recovered.

That summer, the Seelyes moved to Mankato, where Willard returned to teaching briefly before resuming his career selling insurance. Ada (Owen) Seelye died in Mankato in 1905; she was buried in De Smet. Willard Seelye married Sylvia Queen a few months later, and settled in Watonwan County, where he died November 14, 1911.

     

Mr. Seeley / Willard Seelye (PG)