Teachers of Rochester, Unite!
The nascent union that later became the MEA, bargaining on behalf of teachers, was founded in Rochester.
Rochester has never been known as a big union town. So it is ironic that one of the state’s largest and most powerful employee unions was founded here.
It happened in August 1861, when a meeting in Rochester resulted in the formation of what became the Minnesota Education Association, now known as Education Minnesota. The union represents roughly 90,000 K-12 teachers in the state.
The timing of the organizational meeting on Aug. 27, 1861, had much to do with the Civil War, which had begun just four months earlier.
“Rebellion is the rankest weed of ignorance, bred where the common school and schoolhouse are unknown,” John Ogden, head of the state normal (teacher training) school in Winona, said in calling the meeting. “Teachers, parents and patriots, we have a home battle to fight with ignorance and its concomitant vices. Come up, then, and let us consult together before entering the field.”
Ogden published his call in newspapers throughout the state. In response, teachers arrived by stagecoach primarily from southeastern Minnesota, including from Faribault, Owatonna, Mantorville, Red Wing and Hastings. Among those making the trip was the Rev. Dr. Benjamin F. Crary, the state superintendent of public instruction, who arrived in Rochester after a two-day trip by stagecoach over the Dubuque Trail from St. Paul. Crary would end up being elected first president of the new organization.
The methods of travel are indicative of how much of a frontier state Minnesota still was, having just achieved statehood in 1858.
Rochester at the time had four schools serving 302 pupils. Male teachers were paid $50 per month, and female teachers were paid $30 per month.
The delegates met on a sweltering 93-degree day in the small Baptist church that was located along the banks of the Zumbro River on what is now Second Street Southeast. The meeting represented, the Rochester Post newspaper said, “as much talent as has ever met in this city.”
Ogden promised that “the good people of Rochester have generously offered gratuitous entertainment for those who come” to the meeting. That entertainment included a choir, which “discoursed some fine and appropriate music,” according to the newspaper.
Meanwhile, the delegates tried to ignore the heat, and got to work on the adoption of a constitution for the new organization, the election of officers and the appointment of committees to study various aspects of education, from textbooks to the training of teachers.
And while Crary was elected president of what was called the Minnesota State Teachers Association, he was unable to attend the next two annual conventions because he was serving with the Union Army in the Civil War.
As the state and its schools grew, so did the teachers union. In 1921, what was then the Minnesota Education Association affiliated with the National Education Association. The MEA was able to win for Minnesota teachers the right to bargain collectively on new contracts.
In 1961, to mark the centennial of the birth of the MEA, a historical marker was erected in Mayo Park, not far from where that first meeting was held. That marker, although it was lost for a time, was eventually rediscovered and is located along the pathway behind Mayo Civic Center.
Thomas Weber is a former Post Bulletin reporter who enjoys writing about local history.