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May You Survive A Difficult Journey

A glimpse into the life of Willam H. Reed, grandson to Silas Knight Sr., and among many other things, a teacher and elocutionist of note to Laura Ingalls Wilder.


Sometimes the greatest agents of beneficial change in our lives arrive cloaked in a shroud of misfortune and grief. Such was the life of William Reed. William was, from a very young age, stricken with debilitating rheumatoid arthritis, challenging not only his movement and comfort, but his very enthusiasm for life as well. In the age of farming William was uniquely ill suited for that life.

Willam H. Reed
Willam H. Reed

However, William was from a family that had encountered many setbacks and challenges. His Knight family, as it was with the Reed family, were survivors in an unforgiving world, and William was raised with this pioneer spirit of survival and success regardless of the challenge. So, it came as little surprise that William Reed charted a new course, using his mind rather than his body, and at the astonishingly young age of 16 became the teacher of the Burr Oak School.

Coincidentally, several members of his class in those early times were part of the Ingalls family, a fellow group of early pioneers that had settled in this wild frontier of early Iowa, most prominently amongst them being Laura Ingalls Wilder.  This young lady would rise later as a prominent American author who would credit her interest in writing, in part, to the inspiration provided by William Reed.

Following are excerpts from her writings regarding the enigmatic 16 year old teacher that she so admired and who, amongst others, inspired her to be more than she had first set out to be, and through her writings, in like kind, inspired so many more women of coming generations.


Taken from “Laura -The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder” By Donald Zochert.
Chapter on Burr Oak. Iowa.

“When Pa and Ma brought the family to Burr Oak, two men were regular boarders at the hotel. One was a slim young man of about 21, whose name was William H. Reed. He was the principal of the school house on the hill, and he was also a very good amateur actor. The other was B .L. Bisby, one of ‘the richest men in town.–Laura liked Mr. Reed very much, but she didn’t like Mr. Bisby. The girls were soon busy in school. It wasn’t an easy task, to teach school in what the pioneers called ‘the brave old days’. One of the early teachers at Burr Oak school was Professor Dockum, about whom the boys sang:

“The Devil came flying from north to south
With Professor Dockum in his mouth,
And when he found he had a fool,
He left him here to teach our school.

There had been many other teachers in Burr Oak since Professor Dockum of course, and Will Reed was the latest. Because he was young and slim, he had as much trouble with the older boys and bullies as Professor Dockum could ever have had. In their first term of school in Burr Oak, Laura and Mary didn’t have Mr. Reed for a teacher, because be taught the upper grades and they were in the lower but Laura heard a fine story about him from her friends.

With the harvest over, the big boys who had worked in the fields had returned to school. Some of them were older than Mr. Reed and many of them were bigger. The biggest and the oldest was a boy named Mose: he was the ringleader of a gang that never learned their lessons and were always noisy in class. And when they weren’t in class, the gang of boys sang a menacing refrain; “Reed won’t be here after Christmas!’ They were going to run him out of school.

All morning before Christmas, Mr. Reed sat patiently at his desk while Mose and his gang paraded noisily into class– late, as usual. In his hand Mr. Reed had a large flat ruler, which he slapped quietly against the palm of his hand as he waited for the boys to find their seats.

Article of agreement

The boys looked and looked and looked and finally found seats, Then Mr. Reed called Mose forward. That was just what Mose wanted. Everyone watched as he swaggered up to Mr. Reed’s desk, ready to fight. Mose waited for Mr. Reed to stand up, so he could knock him down. But Mr. Reed didn’t wait for anything. He reached out and grabbed Mose by the collar and pulled with all his might. At the same time, he stuck out his foot. Suddenly Mose was stretched out across Mr. Reed’s knees and Mr. Reed’s arm was going up and down with the ruler in his hand. Smack! Smack! Smack! right on Mose’s bottom. lt looked so funny the everyone in class just laughed out loud. When Mr. Reed finally let Mose up, the bully walked right out the door, and never came back to school again.

With the Holidays past, Laura and Mary once again returned to school. “It seemed to us a big school”, Laura said, but as I remember there were only two rooms. One began in the downstairs room and when advanced enough was promoted upstairs.’ Both girls appeared to have advanced enough by February to be sent upstairs to Mr. Reed’s class; or perhaps they only went upstairs for their reading class. The advanced class was very large with 57 pupils enrolled ¬≠although only 39 or 40 showed up for school each day. Despite the size of the class, Mr. Reed was a great favorite of Laura’s.


I would, for the remainder of this story, take great pleasure in relating that Mr. Reed, other than for the unwelcome embrace of his physical maladies, led a trouble free life of exemplary endeavor but life is seldom so kind and overlooking. Two members of the local community, Mr. A. M. Perry and A. H. Starr, duly sworn and deposed gentlemen as they were, took it upon themselves to accuse the then 17 year old William Reed of the following, appealing, nay, demanding that the school board banish him from their midst; Their request of writ continues..

  1. The Said Reed is profane
  2. The said Reed is guilty of using vulgar language in public places acting in a drunken and disorderly manner, singing improper songs and disturbing the quiet of public meetings and imposing upon peaceable strangers.
  3. That said Reed is manifested in a public manner and place: disturbing the quiet of the community and leading him to use unjustifiable language in the control of some of the pupils attending school
  4. That he is guilty of indecent improper and immoral conduct toward some of the female pupils in attendance at said school. In this: That he did on diverse occasions tickle and squeeze hands and use improper signs and do other immoral acts towards said female pupils by dropping chalk down their backs during the years 1876 and 1877 at Burr Oak school.
  5. The charges against said Reed…and we believe the same to be true..therefore move the Superintendent to revoke said Reeds certificate.

The outcome of this tempest was that the complaint against William Reed, age 17, was dismissed for lack of a single witness, student or otherwise, that would stand and bear witness against him. He went on to teach, and become the principal, at the Burr Oak school for several years following this dust-up and retired from the community with a reputation held in high regard and with great respect.

William Reed will be remembered in our family for his valuing of ceaseless education and learning throughout life, his exceptional innovation and his undaunting determination. He continued throughout life as an innovator with a great diversity of activities including the founding of the first telephone exchange in Canton, Minnesota. He also was a pharmacist there in Canton, at a pharmacy he founded.

While operating the phone company, he continued to study electricity from a set of books he had purchased, and is thought to have been the first home in Canton to have an electrical lighting system. It was a direct current system operated from the same expanded battery banks used to power the telephone exchange and is believed to have been charged by a wind powered charger. He also built his own ham radio equipment; winding the copper wire coils needed on oatmeal cartons mounted on an old treadle sewing machine chassis. With his radio equipment he was able to get the World War 1 news days before it became available in the newspapers.

William Reed headstone

Will was a remarkable human being. Had he been born today he would find himself at home in the entrepreneurial world of high technology and software. This, today, would have been a wonderful and exciting world for him. But he did magnificently with what he had and thanks to him and others our family has a continuing tradition of education, hard work, and imagination.

William Reed lived to the age of 91 years and rests today at Elliota Cemetery, 2 miles south of Canton, Minnesota. At his passing a significant portion of his extensive writings, records of family history, local history, and his thoughts, were transferred to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Burr Oak, Iowa where they reside today.


David Knight