The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

October 27, 2013

Spelling bees were a source of income

TERRI WARGO
The Commercial-News

---- — The following article appeared in the July 20, 1911, issue of the Warren Review newspaper.

Uncle David Sewell was one of the pioneer teachers of Warren County, Indiana. He was a very tall man, large in proportion, with a very kind and benign countenance. Uncle Davy was a splendid specimen of manhood, except in one important particular — he was born with one foot, there being only a stump where his right foot should have been.

Sewell lived to a great age, being about 97 when he died. A few years before his death, he depended upon what he called “Social Spelling matches,” for a living. He lived very frugally and never married. He had saved a snug sum of money, the interest of which would have maintained him in his old age, but in an evil hour, he loaned it on insufficient security and lost it.

It was in the late 1870s; the old gentleman had held one of his spelling matches in the Gravel Road School house. He procured the privilege of using the building from the trustee, and offered a prize of a 5-cent lead pencil to the champion speller, and charged an admission fee of 5 cents.

He cleared about $2 at the Gravel Road School, and after staying all night with a friend, went on to Independence, where he advertised to hold another spelling match in the evening. He usually wrote his ads and mailed them to the postmaster or some friend with a request to post them for him. It chanced that Ed. H. Mace of Lafayette, a nephew of Mrs. Jacob Hanes Sr., was visiting at the Hanes mansion. He noted, with a feeling of sympathy, the efforts of the aged cripple to dispose of his tickets, and to awaken an interest in his little enterprise.

No one, however, seemed much interested in the prizes offered and his spelling match tickets did not sell very fast. More determined, however, that the affair should turn out to be a financial success, he went to Attica and had a number of dodgers printed and returned with them before dinner. It was Saturday and a big crowd was in town in the afternoon and every buggy and wagon, and every man, woman and child carried dodgers announcing prizes of a $10 suit of clothes to the best speller if a male, or a $10 dress over-skirt, shoes, hose, etc., to match if that champion was a woman.

As might have been expected, the house was packed. It became evident the school house would not hold the crowd, and at the last minute Mace secured the use of the old United Brethren church that was afterwards converted into a warehouse. A lively spelling match was the result. An Independence girl, Lillie Brown, a daughter of Abel Brown, an old soldier, secured the prize. Mace bought the dress and accompaniments and Uncle Davy cleared more than $50.

Uncle Davey left Independence a happy man.

Terri Wargo is a member of the Warren County Historical Society