Did Springfield's First Teacher Wrestle A Wolf?

Apr 2, 2021

Someone has been putting up what look like historical plaques around the city of Springfield. But they aren’t official, and tell some pretty exaggerated tales of some of the early residents of the community. 


Reading plaque: “On this spot, in 1858 Agnes Stewart, the first teacher in Springfield, wrestled a wolf to death to win a bet against local businessman Eugene Skinner.” Wait a minute…

“I wouldn’t put it past her to be able to do that.” Said Madeline McGraw. “Like she is definitely a historical badass.”

Agnes at the Winter Photo Company studio in Eugene, circa 1878.
Credit Springfield History Museum permanent collection

  

McGraw is the curator of the Springfield History Museum. She said Agnes Stewart is one of her favorite people in the city’s history. But, she said the plaque is telling a tall tale and there’s no historical evidence Stewart wrestled a wolf to death. She did travel to Oregon in the 1850s on what’s known as the lost wagon train.

“So, the lost wagon train came out from back east and ended up taking a wrong route and ended up getting lost for months,” McGraw said. “And so, by the end of it they were eating their oxen, they were eating their horses. They were eating their shoes, basically. So that’s how she arrived in Oregon from Philadelphia.”

Stewart was an educated woman which was somewhat unusual at the time. She taught school in both Springfield and Fall Creek.  

“From her writing. She really was an extremely intelligent woman and very funny and very down to earth,” McGraw said. “And to be able to have her come here and sort of create that imprint in the blueprint for the schools here I think was very important.”

McGraw showed me the exhibit at the Springfield Museum. It displays some photos of Stewart, and her spinning wheel.

“There were only a few items that she ended up actually keeping as the wagon train went,” McGraw explained. “Because they would drop things as they ran out of oxen and as things became too heavy. And we know that she refused to drop her books and she didn’t drop her spinning wheel.” 

The museum has been closed because of the pandemic. During the closure, they moved the permanent collection from upstairs to the first floor. And McGraw has changed the way items are displayed. She said chronological exhibits can perpetuate racism.

“Where it’s the past and the people who were here before and then all of this quote-on-quote progress and everything. I didn’t want to do that,” McGraw said. “I wanted to focus on the people and their objects and how we can learn about what people thought was special about this place and why they chose to come here.”

Agnes Stewart brought her spinning wheel all the way from Pennsylvania in the 1850s on what was called the lost wagon train. It's now part of the permanent collection at the Springfield History Museum.
Credit Rachael McDonald

  

Besides the spinning wheel, a replica of Stewart’s schoolmarmish black dress is on display. McGraw thinks the teacher would find the pseudo-historical plaques around town amusing. McGraw likes them too.

“You know, there’s probably some historians out there that would be upset by those but I think they’re great just because they start conversation,” McGraw said. “And history doesn’t belong to one person or one official. There’s no capitalized H history. This is our community and it’s fun to play around with that.”

McGraw said if you see a plaque around town that makes you wonder, she wants to hear about it. The waggish plaque goes on to describe how Agnes Stewart wore the pelt of that wolf to her dying day.

The Springfield History Museum is still closed but McGraw said she expects they’ll be opening to the public once again soon. You can reach her at (541) 726-3677 or at mmcgraw@springfield-or.gov

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