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BUITENHUIS: Mary Arms White: the Grand Haven area's first teacher

• Mar 23, 2018 at 3:30 PM

When the Rev. William M. Ferry and his family settled in Grand Haven, during the autumn of 1834, there were countless obstacles to be tackled. While Ferry worked to build them a home, his wife, Amanda White Ferry, sought out means to educate their children. Amanda requested her younger sister, Mary Arms White, to come live with her family and fill that role.

Although Mary was only 21 years of age, she had already been teaching for several years in Massachusetts.

Michigan was still a wilderness at this time. It was no easy task for Mary when she decided to pack her bags and follow her passion. Accompanied by her brothers, she traveled over 70 miles by stagecoach to Albany, New York. From there, they used the relatively new Erie Canal to cover more than 350 miles to Buffalo, New York, where they boarded a steamer to Detroit, Michigan.

The next step in their journey may come as a bit of a surprise, since it would be another 20 years before the Detroit and Milwaukee Railroad Co. would connect the state of Michigan from east to west. At this point, the majority of the state was not travelable, so the easiest option was to head north. Mary and her brothers boarded a large sailboat that took them up Lake Huron, through the Straights of Mackinaw, and then down Lake Michigan until they reached Rix Robinson’s trading post in Grand Haven.

When Mary arrived in Grand Haven on June 10, 1835, the area hosted just three buildings. Two of them were log houses, which served as Rix Robinson’s trading post. The third was a house the Rev. Ferry was building at the end of Washington where the Kirby House restaurant stands today.

It was in the unfinished attic of the Ferrys’ house where Mary began the first school in Ottawa County. Her first students were her sister’s three children, the three Duvernay children, and after a couple of months the three newly arrived children of Timothy Eastman joined them.

Grand Haven grew quickly as settlers continued to arrive, and the attic was simply not large enough to contain the students. In 1836, the First School House was erected by the Rev. Ferry. As the first framed structure in Grand Haven, this multi-functional building served as a school, court house and church. It stood on the corner of Second Street and Washington, where the parking lot behind the Tri-Cities Historical Museum is today.

For the next 15 years, Mary A. White educated an entire community. She taught all the children in the area during the day, and offered night classes to help educate adults both in the community and the numerous sailors and lumbermen who were passing through. It was through these travelers that word of her teaching spread across the country, as she instilled her passion onto so many that were moved by her.

Mary also founded and acted as superintendent of the Sabbath School, which quickly became a focal point of social activity for children during the winter months, often with around 100 students in attendance.

In 16 years, Mary had built a strong foundation for the education system in Grand Haven. By the time the school was evaluated in 1850 to determine funds, the Examining Board not only contained two of her former students, but the school also passed with flying colors.

Mary became known to all in the area simply as “Aunt Mary,” due to the level of care and interest she expressed in all she crossed paths with. Mary made a great effort to strengthen the youth’s literacy by securing books, and loaned out many from her own library. She also offered painting classes and incorporated physical exercise for the community.

Mary left in 1851 for a position in Steubenville, Ohio. A year later, she moved to teach mathematics and natural science at the Rockford Female Seminary in Illinois. Mary taught in Rockford for 12 years, and also served as an accountant during her final year, before she retired and returned to Grand Haven. Upon her return, she lived out the rest of her life with her nephew and former student, U.S. Sen. Thomas White Ferry, and she maintained his house while he was away.

She continued to dedicate the rest of her life toward education and the church. Mary passed away just six days before her 88th birthday, on Sept. 12, 1901. Her service to the community is still remembered today as the Mary A. White Elementary School was named in her honor.

— By Chad Buitenhuis, who works in curator services for the Tri-Cities Historical Museum.

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