The Holbrooks

Copyright * All rights reserved
J.C. (Jim) Tumblin, OD, DOS
3604 Kesterwood Drive, East
Knoxville, Tennessee 37918-2557
(865) 687-1948

Fountain Citians Who Made A Difference

The Holbrooks

(Alfred, center of top row; and Josiah II, far left of bottom row)

The story of Holbrook Normal College begins in 1826 in New England with the birth of an idea. Founded in 1892 the College admitted its first class in 1893 and closed its doors in 1904. In those few years it made a major impact on the quality of education in Fountain City. Our citizens respect the Holbrook family tradition as exemplified by its continuing influence in our community.

Josiah Holbrook I

PHOTO (not available)

The patriarch of the Holbrooks was Josiah, an American educator, who was born into a prosperous farming family in Derby, Connecticut, in 1788. While attending Yale College, he developed an interest in chemistry and mineralogy under the direction of a noted scientist of the time, Benjamin Silliman.

After graduating in 1810 Holbrook started a private school in his hometown in which he conducted manual training for the application of science to farming. He also traveled widely throughout New England lecturing on geology and founded a business in Boston that manufactured and sold equipment for schools and colleges. His book on the use of scientific apparatus in teaching was widely used. His company was the major national distributor of terrestrial globes, something that every school needed. The profits of this successful business enabled him to travel throughout the states promoting his ideas for adult education.

Individual associations to investigate and disseminate new knowledge existed prior to Holbrook. However, he envisioned a broad social institution that would join groups together and would organize the advancement of knowledge. Always ahead of his time, Holbrook published a seminal article describing the focal point for the effort "The Lyceum" in 1826 in the American Journal of Education. That same year he started what he called "Millbury Lyceum No. 1, Branch of the American Lyceum" in Millbury, Massachusetts. His goal was to expand educational opportunity for adults by providing "a system of mutual instruction."

(The Lyceum was the gymnasium in which Aristotle [384-322 B.C.] taught in Athens, but Holbrook thought the name appropriate for a system of popular education that would provide discussions, lectures, demonstrations, concerts, etc. There is even some suggestion that, late in the 1800s, the Lyceum model furnished the germ for the development of the Chautauqua movement.)

Within a short time neighboring towns, including Concord ("The shot heard ‘round the world"), followed Millbury’s example. By 1827 delegates from these Lyceums formed the first cooperative in Worcester, Massachusetts. Holbrook gradually organized the lyceum system into a national organization. He wrote and published many instructional pamphlets and edited a journal called the Family Lyceum in 1832-1833.

In addition to providing programs of lecture and debate, the Lyceum also promoted local libraries and museums to support the educational effort. The lectures ran a broad gamut of subjects including literary, scientific, historical, social, and political--controversial as well as non-controversial. The New England Transcendentalists were most closely and actively associated with the lyceum. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Theodore Parker, Jones Very, Frederic Henry Hedge, James Freeman Clarke, and others were speakers.

Emerson and Thoreau were speakers at the Concord Lyceum with Emerson its most frequent speaker and Thoreau its secretary. The lyceum was a powerful medium for disseminating knowledge and ideas and was important in communicating Transcendental philosophy to parts of the country outside of New England.

Beyond the Transcendentalists, some well-known lyceum speakers included Louis Agassiz, Daniel Webster, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony.

Holbrook’s personal magnetism and hard work spread the movement rapidly. Soon, the lyceum was not confined to New England. Once established, it spread rapidly westward as new regions were settled and by 1834 had spread to 3000 cities and towns. The most aristocratic of all, the Lowell Institute of Boston, was founded in 1839 with an endowment of $250,000 bestowed by John Lowell, Jr. Until the time of the Civil War, the town lyceum flourished, and was particularly strong east of the Mississippi in the Northeast and Midwest.

Men of letters, science, religion and politics used the lyceum platform for the demonstration of scientific method and laboratory technique. During its early years, there was a strong emphasis on popular science. To assist in the "show and tell," among the first purchases many local lyceum organizations made were an orrery (apparatus for demonstrating the motion and phases of the solar system), an arithmometer (numeral frame with 144 discs), a set of geometric shapes (26 solids with sheets of diagrams), geologic specimens (the basic kit had 20 labeled rocks, the expanded one had 50), a chemical set (a "collection of materials not commonly found in druggists’ shops" with tubes, retorts and flasks) and, of course, a globe. Holbrook’s firm and others made the kits readily available at reasonable prices.

The movement helped publicize America's need for improvements in educational curriculum and promoted better teacher training. However, soon after the Civil War, more formal means of education steadily overshadowed it. Others in the mold of the pioneer, Josiah Holbrook, would be catalysts for advances in education over the years.

Josiah Holbrook married Lucy Swift in 1815. They had two sons, Alfred and Dwight. At the end of the 1840s Josiah moved to Pennsylvania, then to New York and finally to Washington, D.C., hoping to make the city the national center for the movement. He continued to write about the benefits of the lyceum and to engage in geological expeditions. In the 1840's Alfred and Dwight established Lyceum Village in Berea, Ohio and sold apparatus for educational use nationwide. Around 1854 Dwight moved to Hartford, Connecticut and started the Holbrook School Apparatus Manufacturing Company.

Tragically, when he was 93 years old and walking alone collecting mineral specimen near Lynchburg, Virginia on the morning of June 17, 1854, Josiah Holbrook fell from a cliff into a creek and was drowned.

Carl Bode in his landmark book, The American Lyceum (Oxford University Press, 1956), credits Josiah Holbrook as the major figure in the development of the local, public, adult-education movement known as the Lyceum. By the time of the Civil War, the trend toward university extension courses, vocational schools and in-service training had begun and would replace the lyceum. Writing in the April 1887 issue of Harper’s, Editor Curtis said, "The lyceum of the last generation is gone, but it is not surprising that those who recall … its golden prime should cherish a kindly and regretful feeling for an institution which was so peculiarly American, and which served so well the true American spirit and American life."

Alfred Holbrook

Josiah’s son, Alfred, was born in Derby, Connecticut, on February 17, 1816. He would come to possess formidable inventive talents and a taste for civil engineering but, in the end, would devote his life to teaching. His autobiography, Reminiscences of the Happy Life of a Teacher (Elm Street Publishing, Cincinnati, 1885), provides insight into the evolution of his career in education.

The History of Warren County Ohio (W. H. Beers & Co. of Chicago publishers, 1882) contains excerpts from that memoir:

"He lost his mother when three years of age, but was tenderly cared for by several aunts, who faithfully laid a sturdy Christian foundation to his character; his school-days were almost entirely during his first twelve years; he read a chapter from the Bible when 3 years of age, his father giving to the aunt who was his instructor a promised silk dress for teaching him this feat.

"When about 11 years of age, he went to school to Elizur Wright, at Groton, Mass., where he boarded with the distinguished John Todd, than a Congregational minister of that place. At the age of 13, he went to Boston, where he was employed a year and a half in his father’s manufactory of school apparatus; he was here an indefatigable workman and a most zealous student, his studies being directed by his father.

"For a watch, promised by his father, if he should accomplish the task, he read Day’s algebra through in three months, very thoroughly, working all the examples; but his work and his study broke his health, and he returned to his native village, where he lived until 17 years of age, when he entered upon his first experience as a teacher in Monroe, Connecticut.

"A year later, he went to New York and engaged for some eighteen months in the manufacture of surveyors’ instruments, he having determined to become an engineer. One of the few requests his father ever denied him was the one to go to Yale College, of which his father was a graduate. The reason assigned was the bad methods and the bad morals of colleges. Again overwork and study impaired his health and compelled him to relinquish this business.

"He migrated to Kirtland, Ohio, where he expected to engage in surveying, but his health was still too feeble; he went with an uncle, David Holbrook, to Booneville, Indiana, where he remained a year and a half, occasionally employed in surveying; his health proving too feeble for such work, he returned, in 1840, to Ohio, on horseback, and began teaching in Berea (one of his father’s lyceum villages), under the auspices of John Baldwin. The school rapidly increased in numbers and Mr. Baldwin soon erected a commodious building for the accommodation of his pupils. This was the foundation of Baldwin University.

"Here he remained nine years; here he married Melissa Pierson, who has shared most nobly and heroically the responsibilities and vicissitudes of her husband, not only presiding over his home with Christian refinement and faithfulness, but oftentimes aiding him as an efficient assistant in the school-room, and always exercising a most tender and pure influence over his pupils. When they were married, his salary was $15 a month, and their home was without carpets; nevertheless, they were considered very prosperous by their friends and were the recipients of numerous congratulations to that effect. John Baldwin had given them a deed of a house and lot in Berea.

"He next took charge of an academy at Chardon, Ohio; soon after, he became a partner with Dr. John Nichols, in the Western Reserve Teachers’ Seminary, at Kirtland, Ohio. He subsequently accepted a call to become superintendent of the public schools at Marlboro, Ohio, where he remained three years, when he moved to Salem, Ohio, to superintend the schools of that place.

"When Lebanon, Ohio was selected as the site for a Normal School for southwest Ohio, it was Alfred Holbrook, then superintendent of the public schools of Salem, Ohio, who was elected principal, with a salary of $1,200 per annum, to come from the proceeds of the school. The school, first called the Southwestern Normal School, began its first session on November 24, 1855, with about ninety pupils from Lebanon and four or five from other localities. There were three teachers in addition to the principal.

"Mrs. Melissa Holbrook, wife of the principal, was teacher of the model school with a salary of $500. The attendance in this department was about thirty girls and boys from Lebanon. The school grew and prospered as the first institution advancing the theories of Independent Normalism and its founder became known as ‘The Father of Normal Schools.’"

Professor Alfred Holbrook, the school's beloved president, was the author of two educational works which had very wide circulation, Normal Methods and School Management. He also wrote two textbooks on the English language, Training Lessons and English Grammar. For their time his views and methods as given in these volumes made a deep impression upon education throughout the country. During his lengthy career, Holbrook probably had more students under his direct classroom instruction that any other person in the field of education. He would often conduct enthusiastic recitations to classes of 300 to 400 students.

By 1881 the school was called National Normal University occupying a dozen buildings with an enrollment of 1,850 students, the largest in the Midwest. Alfred Holbrook retired in 1897, having been president of the school for almost 50 years, during which over 80,000 students had passed through its doors. Many famous graduates, including 1945 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Cordell Hull, a Carthage, Tennessee native, spread the school's influence widely. The school finally closed in 1917 when it could no longer compete with tax and church supported universities. 

Having furnished his school’s leadership for almost 50 years with his life’s work complete, 93-year old Alfred Holbrook died on April 16, 1909. His beloved wife, Melissa Pierson Holbrook (1818-1884), whom he had married on March 26, 1843, had preceded him in death. His second wife, a Georgia-born physician, Dr. Eason Thompson (1861-1919), whom he had married on September 3, 1892, survived him.

Tragically, as his father had, his youngest son, Alfred Henry (1853-1868), died of drowning at 16 years of age in an ice skating accident. His other three sons and two daughters also survived him: Josiah (1844-1921), Reginald Heber (1845-1910), John Baldwin (1848-?), Agnes Irene (Clark) (1850-1921) and Anne Lucy (1851-1932).

Alfred Holbrook had left a legacy at Southwestern Normal School (later National Normal University). The teachers who were trained there spread his influence over the Midwest and, as will be seen, to other geographic areas as well. Additionally, it was said of Alfred Holbrook that, "no student has ever left any institution of which he has had control morally worse than when he or she entered it."

Holbrook College, Fountain City, Tennessee (1893-1904)

The Holbrooks’ contribution to adult education had begun with the first Josiah Holbrook’s seminal idea for the lyceum movement in 1826. Under his dynamic leadership, a national organization with 3000 local branches was in place by 1834 and the movement remained strong until the Civil War. His son, Alfred, became the leader in the normal school movement and his long service as head of the normal school in Lebanon, Ohio was a major influence in strengthening that movement. The third generation of the Holbrooks, the second Josiah, would make another contribution to the field of adult education.

Fountain Head (later Fountain City), Tennessee--a suburb of Knoxville--had roots as a Revolutionary War era outpost and fort, founded by John Adair in 1788. For about a century the community grew slowly, but by the 1880s establishment of a tourism resort surrounding the large spring that gave the community its name. The real estate development that resulted would bring unprecedented growth.

The Fountain Head Improvement Company built the Fountain Head Hotel and Resort in 1886, making the spring and beautifully landscaped park increasingly popular. By 1890 Col. J.C. Woodward, Lexington, Ky. capitalist and real estate developer, had arrived. He and his associates would soon create a real estate boom. To further stimulate growth the picturesque heart-shaped lake was impounded and the 5.25-mile Fountain Head Railway (The Dummy Line) made its first run in that same year.

The city fathers realized that a college would provide another stimulus. For one thing, they calculated that eight to ten boarding houses would be required to house and provide food service for the students. Having heard of the Normal School in Ohio and its offspring, Valparaiso University in Indiana with 8,000 students, they approached the Holbrooks with the idea.

Early in 1892, the agent for the college, G.M. Beall, presented his plan for the school and was impressed with the potential and the Knoxville and Fountain City Land Company’s offer of assistance. He accepted their offer and, jointly, they immediately chose a 13-acre site overlooking the business center and the park.

The architectural firm of Baumann and Baumann designed the three-story pressed brick school building, two wooden dormitories for male students to the west of it and the impressive 12-room president’s home on the east side. Female students would live in the nearby Fountain Head Hotel. A local construction company, W.H. Dawn and Co., contracted to construct the $41,400 project and had it ready for occupancy by April 1893. Classes began on September 4, 1893 with an enrollment of more than 100 students.

Josiah Holbrook II

The second Josiah Holbrook would become the first president of Fountain City’s Holbrook Normal College. He was born on January 28, 1844, at Berea, Ohio. In 1855 he moved with his family to Lebanon, Ohio. On May 13, 1861, during the first few months of the Civil War at age 17, Josiah enlisted in Company F, 12th Regiment, Ohio Volunteer Infantry (USA). While serving for more than three years with the Union army, he participated in the battles of Scarey Creek, Carnifax Ferry, Bull Run Bridge, Frederick, South Mountain, Antietam, Fayette Court House, Lewisburg, Cloyd Mountain, Lexington and Lynchburg.

While still very young, Josiah proved his mettle during the Battle of South Mountain, Maryland (September 14, 1862). In "Civil War Discharges, Warren County, Ohio" (Warren County Genealogical Society, 2002), a collection of military records, this account is printed:

"The brigade to which the 12th Ohio was attached was ordered to charge a high stone wall behind which the rebels had formed and were, as they thought, impregnable. The Union soldiers charged the rebs, routing them, and chasing them some distance into the wood, where of course there was the usual breaking of lines and detaching of men from regiments and companies.

"Holbrook, being ahead of his company, overtook a six and a half foot North Carolinian who was a walking arsenal, having a gun, a pistol, and a large knife with fixed blade, about fifteen inches in length, which was supported by a fine belt with leather sheath.

"The soldier boy, Holbrook, when confronted by this armed giant, undaunted, ordered him first to hand over his gun, next his pistol, next his belt with knife, next cartridge box and next the rebel himself was marched off and turned over to a guard."

One of his home newspapers published an account of the campaign summarizing his feat, "Josiah Holbrook, mere boy as he is, fought with a coolness and courage that was remarked upon by all who saw him."

For his bravery at South Mountain and elsewhere, Josiah was offered a promotion, which he declined. Later, having served his enlistment, he was discharged on July 11, 1864. His commitment to the military would not end there as he served as adjutant general for the Ohio Chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic for many years.

After returning from the war, he attended his father’s school and then went for three years to Montgomery, Alabama. As superintendent of public schools there, he completely reorganized the system. On September 20, 1876, he married Laura A. Mason (1849-1931). There were two children born to the union, Irene Hebe and Alfred (1879-1906).

During the 1880s, Josiah was a professor and the secretary of his father’s school in Lebanon, Ohio. He came to Fountain City in 1892 to oversee construction of Holbrook Normal College, to develop the curriculum and to hire faculty. The college opened in the Fall of 1893. Holbrook remained its president until 1896 when he returned to Lebanon. He suffered his first paralytic stroke in 1911, but recovered to become recorder of Warren County in which capacity he served for eight years. Then he suffered several other strokes as his health continued to fail.

In an article entitled, "Death Came Peacefully Last Thursday, December 15th, 1921," Lebanon’s major newspaper "The Western Star" carried the sad news of his passing at 77 years of age: "It was with profound sorrow that the sad news of the death of Josiah Holbrook reached the people of Lebanon on last Thursday, December 15th. His passing came at his home on Sycamore street and his spirit passed into the great beyond as peacefully as had been his life. It was thus he had wished it."

His wife, Laura Mason, whom he had married on September 20, 1876, his daughter, Irene, and one sister, Anne Lucy, survived him. His funeral services were held at the family residence with his comrades of the Grand Army of the Republic in attendance, followed by interment in the Lebanon Cemetery.

When Josiah Holbrook returned to Ohio in 1896, he was succeeded by a series of presidents at Holbrook Normal College: John J. Crumley (1896-1898), James C. Blasingame (1898-1900), Wyatt C. Blasingame (1900-1902) and William S. Bryan (1902-1904).

In 1900 the Knoxville and Fountain City Land Company sold the Holbrook campus and buildings to the Tennessee Baptist Association for $13,000. Two months later, on August 12, the main building was destroyed by fire. Fortunately the insurance was sufficient for rebuilding. School was conducted in the hotel and the hotel annex until the new building was ready to occupy. The property was soon acquired by a group of businessmen and educators, including Rev. J. Pike Powers, Jesse Groner and Rev. M.D. Jeffries. In 1902 they obtained a new charter from the state and changed the name to Tennessee Normal College.

A comparison of "The Normal Advocate" (Vol. 2, No. 1, July 1901) and the "Tennessee Normal College Catalogue" (Gaut-Ogden Printers, Knoxville, 1902) indicates that the curriculum and the goals of the institution remained much the same, even though the name changed. By 1906 it had become obvious that the college could not compete with the land grant colleges and state and church-supported schools. The buildings and property were sold to Knox County and used by Central High School until 1931, when it was replaced by the structure still used for classrooms by Gresham Middle School.

In a chapter entitled "A Normal College," the 1902 "Holbrook Normal College Catalogue" defines the goals of the college:

"What kind of school is it? Some have the idea that it is a school in which teachers are trained. While this is true it is not the whole truth. The training of teachers is of great importance. It means better public schools all over our country, when teachers take such training as we give them. This in itself would be sufficient reason for the establishment and maintenance of Normal Schools.

"But a Normal College does more than train teachers. It offers the most sensible and practical courses of study, uses natural methods of instruction and discipline, and thus reduces the time of obtaining a general education at least one-third.

"The day is upon us, and has been for some time, when the old idea of keeping young men and women in college six or seven years has ceased to satisfy their demands and the requirements of the age.

"What portion of the boys and girls of our country ever complete a college course? The number is astonishingly small as compared with the vast number who succeed in life without such. If college graduates are the only persons who have an education, very few are educated.

"Something is wrong. The colleges are failing to reach a great majority of the sons and daughters of our land. We believe that a course of study to be used by the present generation should give more attention to English and the practical features of life, and not so much to reading, year after year, great quantities of Latin and Greek. We would not dismiss these subjects from the course of study (by no means), but they should not consume five years of the very core of college work. We believe that the foundation principles should be taught in a thorough, practical manner; and we are ready to demonstrate that this can be done in less than five years. By using the more practical methods of Independent Normalism, the time for accomplishing the work of a college course has been greatly reduced.

"Does the New Education deserve recognition, and is it succeeding? The fact that flourishing normals are already firmly established all over our country speaks in language too loud to be ignored; and all this in the face of the fact that the independent normal has gained and is maintaining its position unaided by any endowment fund, while the colleges have been aided by vast endowments, and often by church and State."

The following chapter, "Some Points of Difference as Practiced in Tennessee Normal College," cites ten distinctions between the old education and the new. The following four distinctions are representative of the Normal School methods of the early 1900s some of which have long been used or are presently being advocated as answers to the perceived crisis in education:

Two former Central High School principals were graduates of Holbrook Normal School: E.E. Patton--principal from 1918 to 1919--a 1900 graduate and Hassie K. Gresham--principal from 1919 to 1947--a 1902 graduate. Probably, there is no one still living who graduated under Mr. Patton. However, those who graduated during Miss Gresham’s tenure will recognize that many of her principles were derived from the teacher education she experienced at Holbrook.

Although he had been on the local scene for only four years, Josiah Holbrook, following the Holbrook family tradition, made a major contribution to the quality of education in Fountain City. His positive influence lasted as long as the Holbrook College endured and the educational principles learned there were practiced by several generations of Fountain City’s teachers even to today. It was said of Alfred Holbrook that, "no student has ever left any institution of which he has had control morally worse than when he or she entered it." The same could be said of principals Patton and Gresham.

Author’s Note: The author  wishes to thank Arne H. Trelvik, Ohio historian and webmaster for the Warren County (Ohio) GenWeb, who assisted immeasurably with the information and photographs for this essay. Warren County Genealogical Society and the Warren County Historical Society (Lebanon, Ohio) were also very helpful and gracious in supplying reference material and photographs. Lebanon is in southwestern Ohio, 30 miles north and east of Cincinnati. Thanks also to the C.M. McClung Historical Collection (Knoxville, Tennessee) and Mrs. Lucile Jones for copies of the "Normal Advocate" and the "Tennessee Normal College Catalogue." The Heritage Committee of Fountain City Town Hall is seeking additional copies of Holbrook College documents.

Addendum: What is a "Normal" School: From Lebanon, Ohio Celebrating 200 Years (1802-2002) by the Warren County Historical Society (Heskamp Printing Company, 2002): A translation of the French ecole normale; from the fact that the first French school so named was intended to serve as a model, or norm. Usually a two-year school for training chiefly elementary teachers, it could be said that the "normal school" is a method or standard program for the education of teachers.

D-Holbrooks-The.ShopperC.doc (75 para., 4697 Words) (9/3/05)


Cordell Hull 


(Nobel Prize 1945)

 Source: The Memoirs of Cordell Hull, Vol. I and II, The McMillan Company (New York, 1948), pp. 22-23:

"... in Fentress County while riding with Russ toward school in far-away Lebanon Ohio. Father drove us in a wagon some eighty to ninety miles far back on the Cumberland Plateau so that we could take a Cincinnati and New Orleans train to Cincinnati. ... Next morning we drove on the train, and in due course arrived at the National Normal University at Lebanon, Ohio, a few miles from Cincinnati. This, under Professor Holbrook, was the parent school of the one we had attended at Bowling Green, Kentucky. The normal schools founded by Professor Holbrook gave at that time splendid instruction. A boy could learn as much there as anywhere, within limitations. They did not have the curriculum of universities and colleges, but theirs was full enough.

"I studied higher mathematics, including calculus, advanced rhetoric which covered all the best phases of literature, and some of the sciences. I also read law books I carried with me. Both there and at Bowling Green I took part in the strenuous discussions held by the schools' debating societies. At Lebanon, for the first time in my career, girls took part in the debates."


"In attending this school I quickly realized the broader vision and understanding that one experiences who goes to an entirely new section of the country and is thrown with those who have different habits and ideas. It was wholesome and beneficial to a boy from the South to attend this school above the Ohio. The other students were from many states, both North and South, and a fine fellowship and comradeship sprang up among all alike.

"Russ and I lived in the school dormitory. Our board cost us each $1.25 per week. We passed through Cincinnati on our way to and from the school, but did not visit the city.

"Russ and I returned to Lebanon in September, 1889, but that winter I caught the grippe, in the first influenza epidemic noted in the United States. I went back to the hills of Tennessee to recover."