Using her grandmother’s diaries, Maida Barton Follini writes about how the Wabanaki School was established, its activities, and the friendship between her grandparents and the Setons.
Wabanaki School, Greenwich, Connecticut
By Maida Barton Follini, Ph.D.
My grandmother, May Folwell Hoisington, first met the Setons, when she was involved in Woman Suffrage activities. May organized Equal Franchise clubs in Greenwich, CT and Rye, NY. and Grace Seton participated in the Connecticut and the national suffrage organizations. May’s and Grace’s husbands, Fred Hoisington and Ernest Seton, became members of the Men’s League for Woman Suffrage, Fred in New York, and Ernest in Connecticut. May and Grace went together to the November, 1913 National American Woman Suffrage Association Convention in Washington, D.C., and their husbands joined them later when free of business.
Following the Convention, the Hoisingtons and Setons were invited by Murray Boocock to his beautiful home, “Castalia”, in Keswick, Virginia. “That was the real beginning of my friendship with Mr. Seton, as I had heretofore been just Grace’s friend, doing suffrage work and so on,” May writes.
Grace Gallatin Seton was a daughter of a prominent Californian businessman and financier, Albert Gallatin. Gallatin supported the building of the transcontinental railroad and pioneered hydro-electric power in the state. Among his many interests, he helped establish California as a major fruit-growing state, and owned thousands of acres for stock-raising. Gallatin’s mansion in Sacramento later became the California Governor’s residence.
Grace, then, was born into an elite and prosperous family, and she seems to have inherited her father’s drive and ambition.
Ernest Thompson Seton met Grace Gallatin while he was studying art in France and was pursuing a writing career. They married in New York in 1896, and spent their time between an apartment at 512 Fifth Avenue in the city and in Greenwich, Connecticut, where they first lived at “Windygoul” an estate in Cos Cob, and later at “Lake Pequo” on Round Hill Road, northern Greenwich.
From the year 1913 through the 1920s, May Folwell Hoisington assisted in Seton’s work with the Woodcraft League, helping with meetings and councils, designing costumes, and deciding on the requirements for “coups” and honors of the Woodcraft boys and girls. Fred Hoisington helped with editing the Woodcraft newsletter, and setting standards for craft and outdoor activities. As the parents of five children – three boys and two girls, they had experience in programming for youth.
During the same years that the Woodcraft organization was being developed, May Folwell Hoisington was also involved in experimental education. She and Grace Seton had visited a Montessori school in Washington, D.C. When a friend, Mrs. Ernest M. Pease, started a Montessori School in Rye, N.Y., May sent her daughter Edith, age 5, to the school.
Meanwhile, in 1910, Charles Lanier and his wife, May Field Lanier, leaders in Greenwich society, were looking for appropriate education for their five children. Not satisfied with the current schools, they decided to start a school of their own, and, liking the approach of Seton’s Woodcraft organization, selected Bernard Sexton, the Woodcraft League secretary, to be the Schoolmaster. School was held in a small cabin on the Lanier estate in Rock Ridge, Greenwich. They called it “The Little School in the Woods.” The Lanier children were joined by others, so that a year later there were 7 boys and 3 girls attending, and four years later the enrollment was thirty-two.
In 1912, another experiment in education was Marietta L. Johnson’s “Organic Education.” She had founded the Fairhope School in Fairhope, Alabama, and in 1914 Johnson came North to extend her ideas of Organic Education. That summer, she conducted “The Fairhope Summer School” at the Havemeyer School in Greenwich. May Hoisington and Mrs. Pease met Johnson, and assisted her by arranging meetings for her as she lectured on her theory of Organic Education to educators in the North. Mrs. Lanier became interested, and in 1916 appointed Marietta Johnson to be a salaried Director of the Lanier “Little School in the Woods.
In 1915, new plans were being made by Mrs. Tarbell Dudley, previously involved with the Lanier school, to found a new school in consultation with Ernest Thompson Seton. They envisioned a school with greater emphasis on Woodcraft, and with new and larger premises. According to the Bridgeport Evening Farmer (August 14, 1915) the new school would be on Round Hill Road in Greenwich, adjacent to the property of Ernest Seton. Mrs. Dudley, as Headmistress, would run it according to Woodcraft principles, with activities based on traditions of Indigenous peoples, and emphasis on teaching through practical activities in the outdoors. The school opened in the fall of 1915, and held its first year’s closing ceremony the following spring. It was named the Wabanaki School and took in both boarding and day students.
May Hoisington assisted as the Wabanaki School got started. Two of her children attended this new “Woodcraft” school -Billy and Edith Hoisington.
In her Memoirs she wrote:
“The Wabanaki School was first in a house a short walk to the west from the Setons’ home before Mrs. Dudley bought land from Mr. Seton and the attractive building was erected with many ideas of Mr. Seton’s carried out. The big chestnut pillars inside the main living-room were his contribution…they were decorated in color with symbolic spirals of Wabanaki [School] history and Woodcraft doings and Tribal Totems by Mrs. Janus ….and by Black Wolf himself. I too made various designs for the pictured data, as I had been doing for the decorated blankets and costumes of the Wabanaki Tribe, their Totem shields and their Talley Book. …This keeping of Tallies by the Tribal members was a fine education in accuracy of observation, also they were much more interesting than cut and dried Minutes, while training the children to be at ease in some of the usual parliamentary rules.”
Continuing her Memoirs, May wrote:
“At the Closing Exercises of the Wabanaki School in 1916 we put on Scenes from Hiawatha on the shore of Mr. Seton’s Lake Peequo, with treat success. When we gave the Ceremony of Gifts, some of the gifts were mounted blue-prints of Wabanaki wild-flowers. I had shown the children how to print these and many were made that gave a good print of the flowers. Mrs. Dudley always had attractive programs printed for the doings of her School, and the Program for Hiawatha Scenes and Closing Exercises shows a number of Hoisingtons performing!”
From 1917 to 1919, May continued her assistance with councils and nature study at the Wabanaki School. May wrote,
“Among the memories of my work with Ernest Seton and the early days of Woodcraft at the Wabanaki School and at the Seton home on Round Hill Road were the stories Black Wolf told while we were getting ready for some Council or preparing the outdoor cooking arrangements for some picnic occasion. …Mr. Seton appreciated my efforts to train the Wabanaki Woodcraft group to speak clearly and to pronounce correctly the key words and vowels….”
The School put out a newsletter called the “Wabanaki Sun” which “told about the interesting Councils at which Hamlin Garland and Ernest Seton were honored guests and Speakers. Also the “Sun” gives an idea of the enjoyable times at the School.”
“The photo of the last Council of the Wabanaki School is a sad memorial. We did not know then of the desperate condition of Mrs. Dudley’s finances and that the School would never open again…..The Closing of the Wabanaki School in 1919 was really a tragic affair. We were all sorry for Mrs Dudley. She had made a gallant struggle for a worthy end, and we all felt that Fate had treated her badly, even though she had been unwise and over confident in trusting to verbal promises…to give financial aid….Mrs. Dudley had hoped that she could get an endowment of some kind from one of the educational agencies…It seems too tragic that such a School as Wabanaki could not have been helped to live and grow…[Mrs. Dudley] was so charming and so attractive and had so many good ideas that worked out well in the School it was no wonder that Ernest Seton and I spent so much time and energy in helping her. I have never regretted my work there and I am glad that Edith and Billy were pupils of Wabanaki.”
From the autumn of 1915 to the summer of 1919, the Wabanaki School had provided four years of experimental education, focusing on the outdoors, nature, traditional Indigenous ways, and democratic participation of the students in planning and carrying out activities.
Images courtesy of Bruce Museum, Greenwich Connecticut.