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Cyrus Northrop: From Weary One-Room Pupil to Major University President

Cyrus Northrop's story is the quintessential “local boy makes good.” He attended the Peter Parley Schoolhouse in the 1840s, and we’ll celebrate his birth month on Sunday, Sept. 25.

The Peter Parley Schoolhouse will celebrate several of its distinguished alumni this summer, among them Cyrus Northrop, whose story is the quintessential “local boy makes good.” He attended the West Lane School (later dubbed the Peter Parley Schoolhouse) in the 1840s and we’ll celebrate his birth month on Sunday afternoon, Sept. 25.

Cyrus Northrop in 1907, president of U. of Minnesota

Cyrus Northrop began life as a Ridgefield farm boy, taught school as a teenager, went to Yale, and wound up the beloved and progressive president of a major university — with a town and a mountain named after him. He was the youngest of six children of Cyrus Sr. and Polly Bouton Fancher Northrop, both from longtime Ridgefield families.

Later in life, he offered a mixed opinion of the little school on West Lane:

A little brown building, in the highway, where several roads met, upon lands too barren and rocky to produce anything else, was the ideal of the old-time school-house,” he said. “It contained but a single room, in the middle of which was an ungainly stove and on either side of this, a row of infant boys and girls — too young for the mother to care for at home — seated on slab benches, waiting through the weary day for their chance to make one or two assaults upon the alphabet, and in the meantime, while alternately chilled and roasted, in imminent peril of the birch [a whipping], should they venture to do anything else than keep perfectly still.

…The day drags on its weary hours, teacher and scholars mutually, though perhaps unintentionally, annoying each other, until the final ‘school is dismissed’ comes as a welcome signal to both.

The High Ridge Institute, attended by Northrop, was once the boyhood home of Peter Parley (Samuel G. Goodrich).

Northrop later attended the High Ridge Institute, a private school in the former S.G. Goodrich home, now called the “Peter Parley House” on High Ridge. And at age of only 15, he was hired as the teacher at the town’s Center School on Catoonah Street.

Young Northrop went on to Williston Seminary, a prestigious prep school in Easthampton, Mass., and in September 1852 he entered Yale, graduating in 1857 after losing a year overcoming tuberculosis.

He soon returned to Yale to teach English literature and rhetoric (one of his students was Wilbur L. Cross, later a Connecticut governor) and stayed at Yale until 1884 when his wide-ranging talents and reputation prompted the then-little University of Minnesota to offer him the job of president. There he became perhaps the university’s best known and accomplished leader.

Cyrus Northrop was so much admired in Minnesota that, a century later, his name remains well-known. Both the huge auditorium and the sports stadium at the university’s Minneapolis campus are named for him. So is a mountain in the Sawtooth range in the northeastern part of Minnesota and even a small town in the very south end of the state.

In March, the Ridgefield Historical Society was able to help Cyrus Northrop’s descendants trace a bit of their family’s history and its connections not only to the Peter Parley Schoolhouse, but to the Scott House.

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