October 1989

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What Manner of People Started

Franklin Academy?


Bill Treichler

Remembering Franklin Academy, a program of the Prattsburgh Community Historical Society

The organization of a college preparatory school so early in such a remote settlement as Prattsburgh may not have been as unusual as it would at first appear.

The older towns of Geneva and Canandaigua and Bath did not have such a school, yet they were larger and more prosperous. They were located on lakes or on a river that was seasonally navigable and all three were on main overland routes of the time. Prattsburgh was not on any thoroughfare.

Men in thriving towns were busy with business and speculation. They were engaged in the short-time pursuit of wealth, and likely they didn't think much about self improvement other than in the money sense. They were confident, ambitious and in a hurry to get on.

Joel Pratt's mind seems to have been set in a different way when he settled Prattsburgh. He wanted a place in the new country where a community of like-minded people could settle. He had come originally from Connecticut and many of the people who followed him came also from Connecticut. Some of these families had ties still in New England and had other relatives pushing out into the new country. They were people who were seeking to establish permanent homes and farms for their families; they tended more to be idealists than opportunists.

As soon as these people in early Prattsburgh became somewhat settled they thought about education for their children, probably because they had received schooling themselves and felt obligated to provide for their children at least as much as they had been given. They were young people who must have felt the great exhilaration of liberty that followed the separation from England and they wanted to move westward in the spirit of the times in search for greater freedom for their own families away from the rigidities of the established communities. They wished to set up and be a part of an ideal community.

In some of the earliest settlements people were drawn together by a dynamic personality such as Jemima Wilkinson, or by strong communitarian desires or religious convictions.

Joel Pratt was a forceful and energetic man, and he did want to bring a preacher to the village as soon as he could, because he very much desired a religious community. The families who settled Prattsburgh thought of themselves as devoutly religious. Why then was any institution for instruction other than a church built? And why was the academy that was established given the name of a man who wasn't much of a churchman? Hewas recognized as America's great universal intellect, a man who had schooled himself, who had always championed self-improvement for everyone, and who had become lionized in Europe as Dr. Franklin. Obviously the organizers of the academy were thinking of an educational and not just an indoctrinal institute.

There evidently was a desire for intellectual fulfillment in these families of early Prattsburgh that went beyond their religious feelings. Several remarkable men and women who came to Prattsburgh had experienced a view of a wide range of ideas and knowledge that men like Franklin saw and sought. Two of these were John Niles and his wife Hannah Elliott Niles. They came because Joel Pratt had sent back to Connecticut his earnest desire to have a preacher come to his village.

John Niles went to Yale College just after the Revolution when the school was at a low time, and he was a student there when Timothy Dwight became president. Dwight, with his great teaching and tolerant administration, had revitalized the college.

Much influenced by the preaching of Timothy Dwight, Niles had joined the church in his later years at Yale and then with his close friend and classmate, Lyman Beecher, stayed on for two years of theological study with the president. Dwight was the man who had worked out the accord between the Congregationalists and the Presbyterians that ministers from either church could preach in the other denomination's church, and members could come together at church without worrying about doctrinal differences. Dwight, unlike his famous grandfather Jonathan Edwards and other churchmen of the day, did not believe in original sin. He said that the descendants of Adam may have inherited their earliest ancestors' disposition to sin, but he didn't believe that they had inherited any of their guilt.

When Niles was ordained and ready to have a congregation at Durham of his own, Dwight convinced him that competent and consecrated teaching was quite as important as preaching, and persuaded him to accept instead the position as first principal at the new Hamilton Oneida Academy that was just being built at Clinton, New York.

John and Hannah Niles took the assignment and successfully inaugurated the school. In a year's time he had worked himself to exhaustion and Hannah took him back to her parent's home and her father's farm at Killingworth.

Her grandfather Jared Eliot has been cited in our time as the foremost farmer in the country at that time. He was also well thought of as a Congregationalist minister and the most consulted physician in New England. John met Hannah when he visited her father because of his interest in farming. George Elliott's practices had a great influence on his son-in-law.

When John had recuperated, instead of taking a New England congregation, Hannah and John came to Prattsburgh in answer to Pratt's call and offer of 80 acres. They lived in a log house, two more children were born and John put into practice the farming skills he had learned from Hannah's father. They bought another 80 acres and yet another 160 acres from the Pulteneys.

Early in their stay at Prattsburgh he preached his first sermon in Jared Pratt's house and became the first resident preacher in Prattsburgh. His classmate and friend Timothy Field came down from Canandaigua to help organize the first church.

John and Hannah lived in Prattsburgh five years, and then were enticed to move to Bath and start the first church there in 1808. Four years later in, 1812, he died at 37 probably of typhus brought on by exposure and overwork.

By this time, however, his brother Noah, who may have studied medicine at John's suggestion, had come to Prattsburgh. This Dr. Noah Niles was one of the principal founders of Franklin Academy.

The other name most closely connected with the beginnings of the academy in Prattsburgh was that of Robert Porter, who also had gone to Yale, and whose nephew, Noah Porter, later became president of Yale College.

Coincidentally, Robert Porter was the man who had ably succeeded John Niles as preceptor of the Hamilton Oneida Academy. Porter was another man of high ideals who believed in education.

There were other people in Prattsburgh who felt the need for schools. Very early there were four different private schools in the area. The first school and possibly the largest one was in the village. It was taught by Horace Bull in the years 1806 and 7.

Other people strove for the academy, too. For such a small rural community to raise $6000 to build and run their new school is proof of very devoted support for the aims of education.

Men like Robert Porter and Noah Niles wanted to establish a school that would provide more education for the young people and they worked and supported the academy. Robert Porter made the largest contribution of wealth to the school and was a great benefactor to the town in many ways. He erected the first grist mill and planted extensive orchards. Porter, also, was a successful agriculturalist and he delivered the address to the first agricultural society in Bath. Always a kind, exuberant family man and fond of children he was the first presiding officer of the board of trustees of the academy. It was a position he held for many years.

Many young men and women who later achieved prominence had gone to Franklin Academy, such as Guy McMaster, Henry Harmon Spaulding, and Narcissa Prentiss Whitman.

One who isn't often noted in the lists of Franklin students, perhaps because he was identified as the chief proponent of an idea that went completely out of fashion, was Orson Fowler, the phrenologist. Here again was a man who thought for himself, who was tolerant of new ideas, who encouraged people by his lectures and books to improve themselves and their condition, and who worked tirelessly for what he believed.

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