My Grandma and the Cyr Readers

One of the ways I find to connect to my ancestors is by having items they may have used in their daily lives. These could range from an old typewriter or camera to kitchen items or tools. Some of these I’ve been lucky to have had handed down to me, while others I’ve acquired by antiquing or from sites like eBay or Amazon.

My grandmother, Dorothy (Harris) Weller, was a primary school teacher in Appleton and Clintonville, WI before she married my grandfather. I have many pictures she took when she was a young adult. A couple of them were taken of her classrooms. One, from the mid-1920s, shows the children reading from the Cyr Readers by Grades reading primers.


Ellen M. Cyr (1860 to 1920) was an educator and author and was born in Montreal, Canada. She published her first reader in 1896.

According to The History of Reading News: “Like teachers throughout time, 18-year-old Ellen Cyr saw a problem in her primary classroom: “The stilted, uninteresting style of text books which she was obliged to use in drilling her young charges was not the very best kind for her purpose.” Also, like teachers throughout time, Ellen found a solution: “She set about writing a primer according to her own ideas.” (The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1911, p.4). What was unique about Cyr, however, was that she was among the first women in American history to have a widely sold reading series marketed under her own name. Additionally, she was the first author, male or female to have a reading series that contained eight books; previous ones consisted of only five or six readers.

Ellen Cyr wrote her first book in 1886, a combination primer and first reader, while a teacher at the Holmes Primary School in Cambridge, MA. A comparison between her primer and the others used in Cambridge schools at the time makes clear the instructional components she found lacking: (a) word recognition and (b) comprehension activities. Cyr provided opportunities for significant practice with new words before adding more words. Her books also contained many pictures and were quite different from the more popular McGuffy Reader. An excellent biography of Ellen Cyr can be found at this link.

I could see in the picture that my grandma was teaching using the Book Three reader, published in 1901.


I decided to see if I could find one. They proved to be fairly common and I was able to find a Book Three reader on Amazon and it is in great shape!



My grandma passed away when I was only 11, so I was too young to have talked with her about her childhood and early adult life. It would be fascinating to listen to a conversation between my grandmother and my daughters, who are also teachers, about how teaching reading has change over the last almost 100 years!

Having items like this book help me to both feel closer to her and understand the life she lived.


Working in the Mills

An aspect of researching my family history that really interests me is the occupations of my ancestors. A common occupation that crops up again and again is working in various types of mills.

My Harris family has a long history in the mills. Ezekial Harris owned a saw mill in Bedford, NY in the the mid 1700’s. Nelson Harris built a saw mill in Cato, WI and then in Forest Junction, WI in the 1850’s. It was Forest Junction’s first business and was later operated by his brother, Isaac. Nelson’s son, Orville, worked in the Cato mill and later was an engineer in at a flour mill in Appleton, WI.

Walter Kachelski came to America in 1870, and during his early years, was employed as a weaver in a woolen mill in Beaver Dam, WI

Reuben Perry Benjamin operated a saw mill in Pierpont, Ohio in the mid 1800’s

In 1897, Daniel Webster Allen build the first grist mill in Custer, MI.

In the mid-1800’s, Lysander Ormsby operated a stave mill in Deerfield, MI. Stave mills produced the narrow strips of wood that composed the sides of barrels.