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Lafayette Bliss: Pioneer of MN education

Author’s note: After a leave of absence during Winter Term, I’m happy to resume writing this column. I gave this week’s edition a personal twist: the piece’s subject was the Superintendent of Schools in Virginia, Minnesota, where I attended high school.

Lafayette Bliss was born in Chicago in 1859. After attending public schools in southern Minnesota, he entered Carleton Academy at age 13 and the College at 17. He belonged to the Oratorical Association and the Adelphic Literary Society and was Editor-in-Chief of The Carletonia (renamed The Carletonian in the 1920s). Bliss was also active in athletics; one account stated he held the school half-mile record of 2:19 for four years. Some time after his graduation in 1884, he completed postgraduate studies at the University of Wisconsin, where he specialized in psychology and pedagogy.

In the summer of 1884, Bliss succeeded Carleton alumnus W. A. Selleck as school principal in Mantorville, Minnesota, where he met and married Anna Cohoon. Bliss later served as principal and superintendent of schools in Henderson, Minnesota; under Bliss’ leadership, University of Minnesota president Cyrus Northrop declared Henderson the best high school in the state. The School Board of Waseca, Minnesota, elected Bliss in 1895 as their superintendent, a position he held for nine years. During that time, Bliss encouraged civic enhancements in Waseca, wrote much of a new City Charter, and was the main editorial writer for the Waseca Journal-Radical.

While inspecting Minnesota summer schools in 1900, Bliss visited Virginia, a mining and timber town on the Mesabi Iron Range. He saw much potential in the growing city and gladly accepted the superintendency there in June 1904. When Virginia’s Roosevelt High School was dedicated on November 22, Bliss read a letter from President Theodore Roosevelt extending “hearty congratulations to the board of education…to the teachers and scholars under them, and to all the good men and women among [Virginia’s] citizens.” The student population outgrew the Roosevelt building in just five years, and Bliss contributed to and supervised the design of a new $250,000 high school, completed in 1911 and still in operation.

Bliss quickly gained a reputation in Virginia as an innovative educator. Professor Bliss, as he was known, supported the liberal arts and introduced a diverse curriculum that included Latin, rhetoric, botany, and physical education. He enjoyed interacting with students by directing plays and giving lectures with his vast slide collection. Bliss created school playgrounds, manual training classes, and an eighty-acre school farm. He visited the rural schoolhouses in his district on horseback and via bobsled. The Virginia School District won the award for best school exhibit at the 1909 Minnesota State Fair and won a gold medal for the same at the 1910 World’s Fair in Nagoya, Japan.

In his first year in Virginia, Professor Bliss created and taught the first night school in the region. The Iron Range in the early 20th century was home to thousands of immigrants of over forty nationalities. The night school offered free classes to advance the Americanization of newcomers through lessons in English and civics. The Virginia classes alone at one time enrolled 700, and Bliss’ model was followed in dozens of nearby towns.

Bliss’ political activities were mainly in the interests of education. As a member of the Minnesota Education Association, he supported legislation to create a State High School Inspector and to give aid to rural schools. In 1907, Bliss was a staunch opponent of a proposed tonnage tax on Minnesota iron ore mines, a tax Bliss felt would adversely affect public schools, which financially benefited from having mines within district limits. Bliss entertained nine Minnesota legislators at his home, urging them “to save these schools and communities from a law which could only be passed in ignorance of the evils it would work.” The tax was defeated in the state legislature.

Bliss remained involved with Carleton for decades after his graduation. He visited Carleton several times in the 1880s and wrote guest columns in The Carletonia. In 1912, he invited his alma mater’s Glee Club to perform in Virginia, where the young men said “no more interesting and instructive place was found on the whole trip than the immense open pit iron mines and saw mills.”

Testimonials on his behalf called Lafayette Bliss “one of the very best exponents of the gospel of work to be found among the educators of the state” and “the very man to take charge of the education of your children if you expect them to compete in the world’s work with any chance of success.” Therefore, citizens of Virginia sorely missed Professor Bliss’ leadership when he resigned the superintendency in 1913. He did remain active in the community as a member of the Library Board and the Masonic lodge and as a frequent contributor to the Virginia Enterprise. His final public position was as municipal judge, to which he was elected in 1920. Mr. and Mrs. Bliss, well-liked and respected in the community, were described as “constant companions and chums in all undertakings.” Bliss died at the age of 66 in 1925. He is buried in Mantorville, where he began his legacy of educational excellence.

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