It has been 125 years since a successful entrepreneur, reflecting late in life upon his wealth and the education of the young, set about establishing the first free kindergarten in the United States.
Social vision was not a product of Samuel L. Hill’s accumulated wealth. When he first came to the Florence meadows in 1841 at the age of 47, he immediately joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, a short-lived cooperative effort of the young community. The association failed, but Mr. Hill continued to manufacture silk, organizing the Nonotuck Silk Company.
His civic sense was as well developed as his business acumen. The first street plans of Florence were largely his design. He served a lengthy term on the school board and was among the founders of the Free Congregational Society which built Cosmian Hall and later merged with the Northampton Unitarian Church. Mr. Hill was a Quaker by birth, but his marriage to a non-Quaker required him to withdraw from the Society of Friends.
The Florence Kindergarten, which assembled its first class of 15 children in Mr. Hill’s front room at 33 Maple Street, on January 3, 1876, became the enthusiasm of the last six years of his life.
A speaker, Elizabeth P. Peabody, came to Florence in 1875, presenting the ideas of German educator, Friedrich Froebel, who advocated “play gardens” for young children. After two or three lectures, Mr. Hill was convinced. There were then only a few kindergartens in the country, and Mr. Hill knew they were the exclusive property of the wealthy. Certainly the need for this early training, he thought, goes beyond the ability to pay for it.
He was quickly proven right. The first kindergarten class of 15 outgrew his front room and found temporary space in lower Cosmian Hall. During that summer of 1876, the present Pine Street School was built. The kindergarten became just one part of what is now called Hill Institute.
Because of his ill health, Mr. Hill appointed the first seven trustees of the Florence Kindergarten just before the new school opened. At the time of the building’s dedication in December 1876, Mr. Hill wrote the trustees, “I hereby commit to your direction and discretion the entire management of said institute” with the purpose of promoting “a healthy physical, intellectual and moral development of young children and…to afford some appropriate education to the mothers.”
The kindergarten at 83 Pine Street opened its doors in December 1876, with an average attendance of 36 children. Its first principal and kindergarten teacher was Mrs. A. P. Aldrich. As the program began to attract pupils from neighboring communities, the trustees imposed a $1-per-week tuition for non-residents of Florence. With enrollments increasing every year, it was necessary in 1885 to conduct two kindergarten classes. In 1894 another kindergarten class of 50 pupils was started in the lower room of the Lilly Library building. The Lilly Kindergarten, discontinued in 1938, has been assumed by the Northampton School Department.
The Florence Kindergarten was open to innovation over the years. In 1877, a teacher training program was instituted but discontinued in 1882 upon Mr. Hill’s recommendation. He thought the program interfered with the participation of mothers, who were invited to attend as teacher aides. Soon after it started, the kindergarten became a four-year course with the oldest pupils, in 1878, receiving reading instruction in preparation for second-year work in the public schools. Children were admitted as young as three years of age. Apparently, the four-year program over-burdened both staff and budget, for in 1896, the trustees phased out the fourth year class. By 1922 the kindergarten became a one-year program. In 1913, just six years after Maria Montessori announced her method of self-education for young children, the kindergarten trustees implemented the system at Florence for several years before abandoning it.
At its largest, the kindergarten accommodated 120 children.
Since its start, the Florence Kindergarten had never been an expense to the town.
With the kindergarten thriving, Mr. Hill was anxious to do more. He was a practical man who knew the value and satisfaction of working with the hands as well as the mind. However, he saw that the Massachusetts Agricultural College, established in 1863, was successfully filling the need for agricultural instruction. The idea of a trade school appealed to him, but he knew that the Oliver Smith fund would meet the requirements of trade education for the town. He had not settled on a plan before his death in 1882.
However, Mr. Hill did leave a large part of his property for the establishment of some kind of school that would benefit the young men and women of Florence.
In agreement with the founder’s purpose, Alfred T Lilly left his entire estate to the trustees to be administered by them for educational purposes. A part owner, with Mr. Hill, of the Nonotuck Silk Co., he also was generous to the community. He contributed toward the construction of Cosmian Hall, a Florence landmark until 1948, the Lilly Hall of Science at Smith College, the first of its kind for the education of women, and the Lilly Library in the center of Florence. With Mr. Lilly’s estate added to Mr. Hill’s endowment, it was expected that a regular trade school would be formed.
After a year of observing various industrial training schools, the trustees voted on November 7, 1891 to provide for an educational and industrial institution with instruction available to pupils of both sexes. But a diminishing of available funds caused the trustees to revise the scope of the trade school plan. Rather than endow a comprehensive program, they decided upon a selective curriculum for both young people and adults in the domestic arts (sewing).
The trustees had been experimenting with a sewing school since 1885, supervised by trustee Chiara C. Plimpton. In 1898 a professional sewing instructor was hired, dressmaking was introduced and tuition for adults was established at 20 cents a lesson for twenty-four lessons. Woodcarving was also introduced. Two years later a teacher was hired for domestic science (cooking) instruction. In view of its expanding programs, the Pine Street building was renamed the Hill Industrial School in 1900.
The trustees also voted that “at some early date a demonstration of the work of the instruction of cooking be given to which the public is invited.” So in the Spring of 1901 a Florence tradition began; Exhibition Day, as it is now called, happens annually on the first Friday and Saturday in June.
Three years later, a basement room was equipped with enough woodworking tools to accommodate 15 pupils. A teacher was hired and the manual training program was underway in 1905. That same year, the weaving department opened. Through the years looms have been acquired to accommodate 26 students. The program offers a Master Weaver’s Certificate, highly skilled instruction, and as for all adult programs at Hill Institute for a token tuition fee.
In 1907, the title of the corporation was legally changed, and the Trustees of Florence Kindergarten became the Trustees of Hill Institute.
From its beginning, the Institute gave free instruction to children as a “private school serving the public regardless of race, creed or color.” Weekly instruction in sewing, cooking and woodworking was offered for sixth through ninth graders when the Florence Grammar School included nine grades. Until the Annunciation School closed, its students also participated. Domestic Art and Science instruction was expanded to Saturday morning, with sewing for third, fourth and fifth grade girls and cooking for the sixth grade boys.
The institute has increased its adult classes well beyond weaving, sewing and woodworking to include instruction in a variety of handicrafts.
On Exhibition Day the work of the students is displayed.
With the generous support of Alfred T. Lilly and the careful management of the trustees, Hill Institute remains as Mr. Hill envisioned it over 125 years ago, a “private school to serve the public.”
When the Hill Industrial School was officially established in 1900, the adult program was expanded. In the Domestic Art Department courses were offered in general sewing, dressmaking, millinery, shirtwaist, and instruction was provided for making such period fashions as “plain corset covers” to “elaborate unlined dresses (lace trimmed or embroidered).” The Domestic Science Department offered instruction in general cookery, invalid cookery and chafing dish, which included such specialties as fricasseed oysters, English monkey, lobster a la poulette and minced veal on toast.
Through the years, courses were changed and new ones added to meet the interests of the students. While interest in the Domestic Science program has diminished, sewing, weaving and woodworking have remained in popular demand. In the past twenty-five years, there has been a revival of interest in handicrafts. At Hill Institute, classes have been offered on metal work, basketry, cake-decorating, hammered aluminum, net weaving, smocking, rug braiding, spinning, macrame and crewel.