For me, there’s no better destination during the back-to-school month of September than the McGuffey House and Museum in Oxford. William Holmes McGuffey lived there when he wrote the iconic textbooks – the McGuffey Eclectic Reader series – that schooled generations of American children. Located in the heart of Miami University, the house is surrounded by an abundance of towering trees and august brick buildings creating the splendidly scenic academic setting that Robert Frost once proclaimed the “prettiest campus that ever was.”
In the early 1830s, a Cincinnati publisher asked McGuffey to develop textbooks suitable for the children of working families settling America’s raw-boned heartland. McGuffey, who was then a Miami professor of languages, is believed to have compiled the Readers at a specially designed octagonal table with eight individual drawers that allowed McGuffey to store his notes and grade-by-grade drafts.
It’s now one of the McGuffey Museum’s prime attractions, says museum administrator Stephen Gordon, “The table is set in a pedestal base so that McGuffey could turn it and work on different texts without getting up from his chair.”
Since the McGuffey Museum keeps copies of the Readers on the table, visitors can leaf through the books to see for themselves how McGuffey ingenuously used everyday things like an axe, a cat, or a mouse to teach children how to read and write.
“McGuffey is still relevant today,” observes Gordon “He realized that literacy is something we all need to be functioning adults in a diverse society.”
The Readers quickly caught on increasing the standard public school textbooks and selling tens of millions of copies which earned McGuffey the nickname, “Schoolmaster of the Nation.”
Today, McGuffey’s Federal-style house is both a National Historic Landmark and one of the nation’s few campus-based house museums. Furnished with antiques and paintings that have a connection to McGuffey and the university, it offers a unique trove of art and the nineteenth century decorative arts.
Whenever I take a guided tour of the McGuffey Museum, I’m always fascinated by the collection of vintage pottery exhibited in the kitchen’s 1840s pie safe as well as the elegant dining room sideboard that belonged to Miami University’s first president.
While the dining room also features a fine portrait of McGuffey, I think one of the museum’s greatest treasures is its grassy side yard, where McGuffey gathered groups of neighborhood children to try out the lessons he was creating for the Readers.
Tip: to experience the side yard for yourself and learn about McGuffey and Miami, plan to attend the museum’s annual ice cream social and state of the museum meeting. Open to public, the free event takes place September 15 this year and features a talk by history professor Curtis Ellison.
McGuffey House and Museum, 401 E. Spring St., Oxford, OH 45056. 513-529-8380; miamioh.edu/cca/mcguffey-museum
For more historic experiences, Find It Here at Ohio.org.