722 Holyoake Road
Leclaire’s kindergarten program began in the fall of 1892 in the Leclaire Club House at 722 Holyoake Road. In 1895, the Club House was moved to 743 Hale Avenue so that a new education building could be constructed on Holyoake. The 1895 Leclaire School House is now home to the Edwardsville Children’s Museum. (The former Club House building is no longer in existence.)
There were many experiments in education in Leclaire’s early years, but the kindergarten was the only one that lasted beyond a few years. From 1896-1898 there was a Leclaire Academy and for some of those years a Leclaire College offered classes for older students and adults free of charge, but these did not last long. After this time, the building’s daytime educational endeavors were dedicated to the kindergarten. While the building was called the Leclaire School House prior to this, it now became known as the Leclaire Kindergarten.
The kindergarten was a two year program that enrolled students in September who would turn four-years-old before Dec 1. It used a method of instruction developed by German educator Friedrich Froebel that still inspires early childhood education today. Children were taught about nature, mathematics (geometric forms, etc.) and the arts in the form of music, drama, and hand-work. Through this guided play children were gently taught self-awareness and social skills. Froebel believed children should be nourished like plants in a protected garden, and called his program Kinder-Garten which is German for “Children’s Garden.”
The first teacher was Miss J. Colt of Collinsville who started with a class of 16 students in Sept 1892. The kindergarten was free and open to residents of Leclaire or Edwardsville until 1916 when the company began charging students who were not the children of Nelson employees or residents of Leclaire. The cost to “outsiders” was $6 per semester. In 1931, due to financial strains brought on by the Depression, they began also charging Leclaire residents a small tuition if they were not the children of employees. At the time they were quoted as saying “The kindergarten is being kept up as a memorial to N. O. Nelson” who was known for his affection towards children.
The Leclaire kindergarten had a number of outstanding teachers over the years and they were all women because Froebel believed women to be more nurturing. As was usual in those days, when a woman married, she no longer worked outside the home, so there was quite a turnover in educators.
One teacher who stands out is Mildred Shaw. Mildred was born in St. Louis in 1896 and the family moved to Leclaire the following year. Her father, William Shaw, had been commuting to work in Leclaire for some time, and according to Mildred, the great cyclone of 1897 in St. Louis spurred the move of a number of Nelson employees to Leclaire. Their home was located on the corner of Jefferson and Hale so was near the school. Mildred attended classes (K-3) at the Leclaire School House before continuing her education in the public school located on Kansas Street in Edwardsville (Columbus School). She graduated from Edwardsville High School in 1914.
A few years later she applied for the position of teaching assistant at Leclaire Kindergarten and was hired. In an interview conducted and filmed by Bob Gill in 1989, Mildred said she had musical and recitation talents that seemed to be a good fit. When Pearl Wilson, the lead teacher, married in 1928, Mildred did not apply for her position, but Louis Lawnin, president of the N. O. Nelson Manufacturing Company, came to her home and told her, “The people want you.” Mildred accepted the position.
It should be mentioned that during the 1920s Edwardsville still did not offer a free public kindergarten, although there was a second kindergarten in town operated by Mrs. Blanche Klein. Prior to her marriage to Emil Miller in 1916, Blanche Miller was a public school teacher for many years, but had to resign when she married. Soon after her marriage she established a private kindergarten which began in rooms at the Wildey Theatre. It then moved to 120 East Vandalia Street and in later years to the Klein home at 829 North Buchanan Street. It is unknown how many students were at the Klein kindergarten, but through the 1920s the Leclaire Kindergarten had an enrollment of approximately 40 students. Students attended half-day sessions.
When Leclaire was annexed by Edwardsville in 1934, the School House was sold to the Edwardsville School District. The building was then divided into four permanent classrooms, one for Miss Shaw’s private kindergarten, and the other rooms for grades 1-3. The building closed as a school house in 1963. Mildred continued to teach her private kindergarten students until 1943 when she married Edwin Briggs and, like the Leclaire teachers before her, left teaching to become a house wife.