McGuffey is one of those familiar names of Youngstown. McGuffey Road runs from Wick Avenue through the East side and Coitsville Township. On the south side of the road in Coitsville Township is the William Holmes McGuffey Wildlife Preserve, at the location of William Holmes McGuffey’s boyhood home. There used to be a McGuffey Plaza, and later Mall. On the West side, William Holmes McGuffey Elementary was recently opened at 310 S. Schenley.
McGuffey is most famous for his McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers. Generations of children learned how to read and were taught the basics of good character through his readers. Between 1836 and 1960 130 million copies were sold. Some home schoolers still use them!
McGuffey’s connection was that he spent part of his boyhood at the Coitsville homesite. He was born September 23, 1800 in Claysville, Pennsylvania, in Washington County, about 45 mile southwest of Pittsburgh. The family lived briefly in Tuscarawas County, Ohio before moving to Coitsville. As a child, he was educated by Rev. William Wick, who knew his family from when Wick lived in Washington County. Wick taught him Latin as well as using “Webster’s Speller” and Lindley Murray’s English Grammar. It would be interesting to see how much his childhood education influenced his Readers.
He later attended the Greersburg Academy in Darlington, Pennsylvania, and, from 1820 to 1826, Washington College. While a student he was a traveling instructor, teaching for a time in Poland, Ohio. After completing his studies in 1826, he went to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio where he became a professor. It was during this time that he wrote and published his Readers. His home in Oxford, which I’ve seen, is a historic landmark and still in use. In 1836, he became the president of Cincinnati College (now the University of Cincinnati), president of Ohio University in 1839, and then president of the Woodward Free Grammar School in Cincinnati in 1843. In 1845, he moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, where he taught as a professor of philosophy. He died, and was buried there in 1872.
There is an active local William Holmes McGuffey Historical Society in the Mahoning Valley. This group led efforts to set apart the land and place a historic marker in 1966 at the site of his boyhood home. Dr. John R. White, YSU anthropology professor, led a group of students in efforts to identify the original site of McGuffey’s childhood home.
McGuffey was a giant in American educational history, contributing to a highly literate frontier population. He left his mark on three Ohio universities before taking a professorship at one of the country’s prestigious universities. Unlike many in Youngstown history, his impact didn’t come from what he did in Youngstown, but rather how he used the education that began in Youngstown to impact generations of American children.