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The Night of the Big Spelling Bee

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, February 25, 1934


By Howard Burba


     This country has been getting back to the simple life at a pretty rapid pace during the past four years.  Not only has the frown-producing depression which has bedeviled us for four years revealed the fact that our neighbors also have troubles of their own, but it has brought to a great many for the first time a realization of the fact that they actually have neighbors.

     It brought back the old method of barter-and-trade by which the pioneer residents of the Miami valley lived through long and useful lives.  It brought a return to the old system of shinplaster currency, though it came back in the form of scrip.  And now it has brought into popular favor, after a lapse of half a century, the old-fashioned “spelling bee.”

     Today a chain of newspapers, some of them the largest in the country, are actually engaged in promoting a “spelling bee” of nation-wide proportions.  Counties are having their “spelling bees” to determine the champion spellers, and these in turn are assembling at state capitals to contest for the honor of representing their respective states in a great national “spelling bee” to be held later on at Washington City.  A few new frills are being introduced and the old rules under which such contests were held are being shifted about a bit, but up one side and down the other it still is the old-fashioned “spelling bee” of your grandfather’s day.

     Up to the moment it has only struck the Miami valley in a mild way.  But it is coming back fast, and even before this is in print you may be served with an invitation to attend one in the schoolhouse down the road.  It will be a new form of entertainment to you, granting you are among those making up the younger generation.  But you will find it a delightful event, now that the depression has deprived you of a lot of things your fathers and mothers never had, and fixed it so you can better enjoy the things that brought them happiness.

     Three-quarters of a century ago “spelling bees” were among the chief forms of entertainment in Dayton and surrounding towns.  Fifty years ago they were still in vogue, but losing their popularity as newer forms of amusement came with a newer generation.  But as late as 1875 the “spelling bee” held the limelight locally, and was able to claim preferred position on the very front page of Dayton newspapers.  On March 16, 1875, just 59 years ago, the last of the great public “spelling bees” in Dayton was held at old Music hall.  There was a generous sprinkling of them after that date, to be sure.   But that one was the climax of similar entertainments in the valley, a sort of ”spelling bee” to end “spelling bees.”

     That you may get a fair idea of the enthusiasm prevailing on that historic occasion and that you may also acquaint yourself with “spelling bee” procedure so will not be entirely ignorant of such events when you are invited to sit through your first one, amid an atmosphere with which your forefathers were perfectly familiar, I’ve searched out the story of the greatest “spelling bee” ever to be held in the Miami valley.

     The files of the old Dayton Empire of Wednesday, March 17, 1875, provide us with a detailed account of it.  The reporter was busy for weeks in advance announcing the committees and arrangements leading up to it.  He did a bit of promotion work of which any present day press agent could be proud. He saw to it that residents of Dayton became interested in the red-letter social event of the season, and by daily ballyhoo in the columns of The Empire he succeeded not alone in sustaining that enthusiasm but added to it as each succeeding issue of his paper came from the press.  And then he spread himself with glory the day following the “spelling bee” by describing it in a manner as refreshing today as it must have been interesting then.

     “The excitement concerning the great spelling contest,” he wrote on the day following, “culminated in a crowded house in Music hall, Tuesday night—over one thousand seated at an unusually early hour.  At half past seven the house was crowded, and long before the musical program was finished the very stairs had their occupants and the gallery was filled.  The seats, by the way, in this portion of the hall afforded a fine range of sound, even the faltering tones of a defeated speller could be caught with distinctness.  The chandelier on this night ought to have been lighted up, but it wasn’t.

     “The stage was well arranged for the great spelling match.  The proscenium boxes were all filled; the lower south contained the leading ladies of the Woman’s Christian association, under whom the contest was originated.  The following musical entertainment was highly enjoyed:

     “Chorus—‘Night shades No Longer’—Mrs. J. N. Bierce, Mrs. E. B. Solomon, Miss Ella Dickson, Miss Lizzie States, James Martin, Fred Boyer, John Bell, James Brenneman and Charles Snyder.

     “Song—‘Robin Adair’--Mr. Fred Boyer.

     “Male Quartette—‘Serenade’—Messrs. Martin, Bell, Snyder and Brenneman.

     “Chorus—‘Gypsy Maiden’—Rendered by the choir of nine voices.

     “Pianist—Mrs. James Martin.

     “As the last chorus was rendered Rev. Mr. Montgomery announced that ‘we will soon have music of another sort.’

     “Col. Lowe now stepped to the front and called out his ‘side.’  The following list appeared after substitutions and absentees were ascertained: D. W. Schaefer, William Tierney, James Shaw, Mary Taylor, Cora Comer, Mrs. Ed Buvinger, Dr. J. S. Frizzell, Rev. William Herr, William Ramsey, Julia Thompson, Charles McKee, Minnie Earnshaw, Jennie Whitmore, C. W. Wuichet and Ed Baird.

     “In the array of forces we have, with other ladies and gentlemen, a veteran preacher of Methodist persuasion, the chairman of the Dayton Board of Education, one ex-magistrate, one young attorney, a veteran insurance agent, two wholesale grocers, one physician.  The high school has two representatives.

     “Chaplain Earnshaw now called his roll, which was composed of the following: D. N. Kelly, Rev. J. L. Russell, Col. E. F. Brown, Willie Mayer, A. D. Wilt, George Young,  C.W. Dustin, J. S. Manning, Ida Condit, Mary Mumma, Annie Bartholomew, Arthur Hughes, George Hoglen, jr., Abe Bickham, Homer Calhoun, Capt. R. E. Fleming, P.P. Ellis, Mrs. Homer Calhoun, Pliny Bartlett and Julia Dennis.

     “In this array we find one clergyman, one colonel and a captain in the service, a superintendent of the commercial college, a young attorney, a daughter of a clergyman, the high school graduating class and a daily newspaper had each a representative.

     “Grouped on the stage, Capt. Earnshaw’s spellers stood on the north side, and on the south were grouped Col. Lowe’s side.  Then they called time and the ‘spelling book prize ring’ closed in.

     “The expounder of the textbook now stepped to the front, had his referee’s table moved near to the footlights and the grand prize of a ‘Webster’ unabridged was displayed, with a copy of Worcester’s dictionary in easy range.  He called R. W. Steele and Rev. Montgomery to their chairs.  He pressed his foot upon the trap door of the stage as he stood ready for action and launched out the fearful words to do execution upon the noble body of spellers before him.

     “For half an hour the flow of examples and solutions kept up unbroken, and the audience began to grow impatient.  The expounder then declared that this class of 40 spellers had studied their lessons in ‘Henderson’s Test’ perfectly, and he again proceeded to do execution with certain results.  Amid a general burst of astonishment and mirth the first blood was drawn and lo, the pleasant young chairman of the board of Education C.W.Wuichet, went under on the word ‘irrelevant.’

     “This was on the south side, the first defeat, and to keep the balance the next luck fell on the north side, when ‘conspiracy’ was misspelled by Homer Calhoun and he stepped down and out, to be followed by Abe Bickham, who went under on ‘convalescent.’  On the opposite side fell ‘Squire’ Ramsey on the word ‘unparalleled,’ following President Wuichet.  The first and fourth ‘draws’ fell to Col. Lowe’s side and the second and third fell to Capt. Earnshaw’s.  The first clergyman to fall into ‘apostasy’ was Rev. Herr, and then the first lady to retire was Miss Lillie Dean.  After her went E. S. Baird and then Gov. Brown of the Soldiers Home on ‘exchangeability.’  Then to make the balance even Capt. Earnshaw surrendered on ‘centennial’ and the roll now stood, ‘Capt. Fleming, commander, vice Capt. Earnshaw, slain in action.’

     “Mrs. Ada Condit faltered on the word ‘plagarize,’ but recovered and held her place.  Mr. Manning was thrown out on the word ‘wassail’ and to the surprise of all, A. D. Wilt missed ‘hieing,’ and went out. Then came an amusing wrestle with ‘barege’ and the captain, who had succeeded to the demand of his corps, followed Miss Jamie Whitmore to the reception infirmary, which was filling up with right good company.

     “Mrs. Homer Calhoun now joined her husband, first out on the word ‘conspiracy.’  Her little word of fate was ‘referable,’ and on this word also fell Mr. Tierney.  Mr. Shaw stuck on ‘apropos,’ and C. W. Dustin, who had gazed for years in music store windows and seen ‘schottische’ in a hundred styles of type, spelled the same as in Webster, so he was thrown out of step in trying to spell it correctly.  George Young was floored by ‘mnemonics,’ and Rev. Russell to the unbounded delight of the audience, was interested no more in the proceedings as the word ‘colicky’ was too painful for him.  ‘It has been so long since I had such a spell’ he wittingly remarked.

     “Miss Julia Dennis retired on a ‘prior’ engagement, and Arthur Hughes felt a lump of despair tingle in his ‘epiglottis.’  ‘Physiology’ proved disastrous to the Misses Mary Mumma and Julia Thompson, and from their respective ‘pharynx’ issued a breath of resignation.  But now came a disaster to the forces on the southern side of the stage; the colonel is wounded.  Col. John G. Lowe, surrounded by the five points in the word ‘seize,’ doubled his s’s and rang out his spell in a clear voice and was demoted.  Capt. L. P. Thompson now assumed command.  The battle was half over, 22 having fallen out of the ranks.  Nothing could be more pleasant than to see the colonel bid farewell to his comrades and utter ‘Bless you my children’ as he went in search of repose.

     “Miss Anna Bartholomew could not realize that there was a kindred sound to aspirate so rough as ‘asperate,’ and she followed her mates.  Miss Ida Condit, who had held her ground on ‘plagarize,’ now found herself on  ‘clayey’ ground, and she too, withdrew.

     “During the evening a gentleman in the parquette called out that it was not fair for one of the spellers to have a spelling book before him while the war was going on.  This announcement created a sensation, whereupon the speller alluded to showed the ‘test speller’ upon which he was writing notes, and stepping promptly to the front asked the questioner in the parquette ‘if any man could see through the closed covers of a spelling book.’  The questioner was silenced and the audience was amused at the prompt and convincing reply of the speller, and then the war was resumed.

     “At one time the stock of hard words seemed to run out and the plunge into the proper names was about to be made on “Catiline.’  But the referees ruled this out.

     “’Tingling,’ vivify’ and ‘marquee’ proved too much for Miss Clara Comer, Messrs. Ellis and George Hoglen, respectively.  And now the contest, as it narrowed down after Dr. Frizzell went under on ‘circean,’ to a quintet became intensely interesting and exciting.  There stood in the south the quartet, Schaeffer, Hosier, Thompson and McKee, and all alone the north star shone in Mr. D. N. Kelly.  A bunch of ‘hyssop’caused him to retire.  Then fell Mr. Schaeffer on the mysteries in ‘elusinian.’  And then came the ‘anacreontic’ contest.

     “The championship seemed to a very large number of the spectators to be vested in Messrs. Frank Hosier and L. P. Thompson.  Mr. Hosier spelled ‘anacreontic.’ He was heard to the gallery to utter these letters in their order, but being ruled out, withdrew, and L. P. Thompson, seeing that this spelling had been ruled out, made a venture different from it, throwing the graceful Grecian bend of the letter “h” into the third syllable, and followed his comrade into the wings.

     “The stage was now clear for a moment and the great Webster’s Unabridged still reposed unclaimed upon the stand.  Mr. L. P. Thompson, convinced that Mr. Hosier had spelled his work right, moved that it be recalled; also Mr. McKee; and the spelling continued.  So Messrs. Frank Hosier, L. O. Thompson and Charles McKee stood up again.  The work ‘ipecacuanha’ threw Messrs. McKee and Hosier out, and Mr. Thompson won at last.  He had lost on ‘anacreontic’ by throwing an ‘h’ into it, but he won on ‘ipecacuanha’ by doing the same thing.  Mr. McKee had spelled it without an ‘h.’

     “After the spelling ceased, the award of the prize was made to Mr. Thompson, and the address by Col. M. P. Nolan to the next best man who first stepped down and out—Chairman Wuichet—was received with great applause.

     “The colonel slipped out of his usual Shakesperean range and dwelt upon Bulwer’s great play of Richelieu, quoting that Cardinal statesman’s celebrated lines; ‘Into the bright lexicon of youth which fate reserves for an illustrious manhood there is no such word as fail.  But you, sir, within this little book (the best speller) will find that little word fail.  You have found it.  You will receive now this little token,” said the colonel, ‘which the ladies of the noble Woman’s Christian association tender to you for your participation in the struggles of the match tonight.  You have fought nobly and your portrait and biographic sketch ought to adorn the illustrated atlas of Montgomery co.  This is the happiest moment of your life.’  Here the little volume, the best speller, with appropriate inscription, was placed in the recipient’s hands amid prolonged applause.

     “Mr. Wuichet, in the best of humor, received the little book, remarking that he was glad that he had taken part in the exercises and proud that he was able to spell the same word a great many ways.  In fact, said he, it won’t do for a man to tie down his principles of orthography to any book like this one, pointing to the great Unabridged, but to give a freedom and variety to his spelling.

     “The expenses of the association for hall, etc, were on announcement ‘taken up,’ and a large number of dollar contributions to defray the same were made.  The ladies will realize over $300 when all expenses are paid.

     The statement was made on behalf of the ladies that a scholarship in the commercial college had been tendered them to be competed for in a juvenile spelling match, with contestants taken from the public schools.”

     We have followed the files of the old paper carefully to find if the good women of the organization, which staged this “spelling bee” followed it up with another in which the scholarship mentioned was the capital prize.  Apparently they did not, but were content to rest on the laurels won at Music Hall that night.

     Mention of other “spelling bees” are to be found in the files over a period of several years following this one, but as a rule they were conducted more for the entertainment of certain little groups than for the general public.  Then they became largely a part of the social life of rural school communities.  Something had come along to dull their edge so far as the “city folks” were concerned.  We find Music Hall given over wholly to theatrical attractions; there were no bookings for “spelling bees” following that historic night of March 16, 1875.  Skating rinks had spring into popularity.  Dayton had several of them, one of which was said to be the largest of its kind in the middle west.  Reading between the lines of the old files one cannot escape the belief that the skating rink, more than any other form of amusement, stepped in to usurp the place of the time-honored “spelling bee.”

     But 59 years later, emerging from four frown-producing years of the depression, the cycle swings once again, and it’s the “spelling bee” instead of the skating rink that is coming back into its own.  Big towns and little are brushing up their dictionaries, and the old “blue back speller” of grandfather’s day is more in demand at thousands of libraries than copies of the six best sellers.

     The simple things of other days—back when we used to be so happy, and so poor—are being dusted off and given a new birth of usefulness.  So who knows after all, but the depression will yet prove to have been the most valuable experience through which this country ever passed for the reason that it brought back the simple joy and happiness our forefathers knew.