NIAGARA DISCOVERIES: James Ferguson, teacher, librarian and head of Lockport schools

COURTESY NIAGARA HISTORY CENTERThis 1852 map shows the location of Ferguson's Boarding School in the town of Lockport (look right of center in the image): On Beattie Road where Lockport City School District's synthetic-turf baseball fields now stand. 

While looking at the 1852 Niagara County map, History Center Director Melissa Dunlap found “Ferguson’s Boarding School” on Beattie Road just south of what is now Lincoln Avenue (Newell Road then) in the town of Lockport. That road stopped at Beattie at that time. The property was located across the road from present-day Charles Upson School where the new athletic field is now.

James Ferguson, the principal, as he called himself in advertisements for the school, was born in Aberdeen, Scotland in 1804 and was a graduate of Edinburgh University. He married Ann Guthrie of England (b. 1802) and their only child, Andrew R., was born in 1823. The Fergusons immigrated to the United States in 1829 and during the 1830s James was a rector at Rutgers College. The family came to the Lockport area about 1840 and James taught school while Andrew, a graduate of Rutgers College, set up a medical practice. In addition to his teaching skills, James Ferguson spoke seven languages fluently and was a championship chess player.

By 1850, James, Ann, Andrew and his wife Catherine were living on Beattie Road in the town. Both James and Andrew are listed as teachers but in 1855, Andrew started a drug store business with Silas Brown at the corner of Main and Pine streets.

When James Ferguson began his “Family Boarding School for Boys” on Beattie Road is uncertain but an advertisement in the Buffalo Courier in 1856 stated that it was a “long established School.” Most of the ads appeared in the Buffalo papers. The school location was touted as being “one mile south of Lockport,” “secluded from town,” and “healthy and retired.”

The curriculum taught “all branches of Classical and Commercial Education” ensuring that “the pupils are thoroughly fitted for College or business pursuits” and that “No Day Scholars are received.”

The tuition rates and length of terms seemed to change from year to year. In 1856, two terms cost $140 for board and tuition (about $4,000 in 2020) but the length of the terms was not specified. A year later, the Fall term was $50 for 14 weeks. In 1858, the Summer term was $70 for 21 weeks.

There were no advertisements for 1859 but in August 1860, the Lockport Daily Journal & Courier ran an ad for an “English and Classical Academy” opening at 28 Washburn St. It stated that Ferguson, “having given up his Boarding School in the country,” would be opening up “a Select School for the instruction of a limited number of boys as day scholars.” There would be two departments, the Classical for students preparing to go to college, and the English, with “all the studies necessary to the successful prosecution of commercial or other business pursuits.” The school lasted five years and in 1865 James Ferguson began a new chapter of his life.

On September 30, 1865, James Atwater resigned as Superintendent of the Lockport schools and James Ferguson, “long and favorably known as a teacher of a classical school in Lockport,” was appointed by the Board of Education to that position. He was also appointed librarian of the Union School. His salary for both positions was $800 a year, (about $13,000 in 2020). He sold his property on Beattie Road and purchased a home at 102 East Avenue.

One of Ferguson's responsibilities as librarian was purchasing books and school board minutes show that he was eager to increase the library’s collection. As Superintendent, it was his job to distribute the diplomas and deliver the commencement address at the end of each school year, examine students who were seeking scholarships to college and periodically visit the schools to observe how students were being instructed.

One former pupil reminisced, “I distinctly remember the occasional visits of the venerable Supt. of Schools, James Ferguson, who, in his talks gave us pointers as to our duties, and with his broad Scotch accent adding his favorite phrase – ‘It’s for your own ‘gude’ (good) that you do this’...”

Ferguson was elected to both positions by the school board every year for the next 10 years. In 1875, at the age of 71, he resigned at the end of his term.

By this time, James and his wife Ann were living with their son Andrew, his second wife Julia (Catherine had died in 1860) and several of their adult children at the East Avenue home. In 1879, James Ferguson ran for a seat on the school board and was defeated. He died on Dec. 7, 1888, at the age of 84. Ann Ferguson died less than a year later and Andrew passed away in 1895. They are all buried in Cold Spring Cemetery.

Ann Marie Linnabery is the assistant director of the History Center of Niagara.

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