Stop 81: The 1898 South Florida Normal Institute
The South Florida Normal Institute on Church Avenue that trained teachers in Florida!
“A teacher affects eternity; the teacher can never tell where their influence stops.” ~Henry Adams
Although the spacious frame building that occupied a space for South Florida Normal Institute on Church Avenue in Dade City has long been flattened with no lasting marker, the impact of its existence lives on for generations in Florida.
With the growth of population, educational services were an essential need for communities. It marked a critical element in the selection of a relocation site for settlers coming during the Armed Occupation Act in the 1940s to the Tin Can Tourists outgrowth and beyond. An ample supply of trained teachers was often scarce throughout Florida’s history. A method to prepare teachers expediently was paramount in the early part of the twentieth century.
Thus, the concept of a Normal Institute originated to prepare teachers by educating them in curriculum and pedagogy which was very teacher-centered and unwavering in creativity. The term came from standards or norms for consistency among schools. Often at what is now thought of as the high school level to produce primary grade teachers, many of the early normal schools evolved into teacher colleges and state universities. Had it not been for the lobbying of politicians in Tampa and elsewhere who sought their own Normal Schools to build membership, fate may have earmarked Dade City as the home to the University of Florida, as the chief headquarters for the Normal Institute were at the University of Florida for many years.
Schools were heavily intertwined with religious doctrine, thus the early educational leaders were trained clergy, as was the case of the founder of the South Florida Institute, Ptolemy Watkins (P.W.) Corr.
Historian Jeff Miller theorized that the South Florida Normal Institute’s main structure on Church Avenue in Dade City was built in late 1898. That original building was supplemented by a wooden annex in 1905 and a two-story annex in 1908.
The normal school period across the USA lasted roughly from 1860 to 1910, however the South Florida Normal Institute was still operational in 1916. After Corr’s nonappointment in 1916, he worked with the University of Florida and oversaw the Normal Institutes including the one in Dade City for many years.
P.W. Corr was the president of the Florida Normal Institute for several years and influenced its evolution throughout the state. His daughter Jessica Corr Stenstrom wrote of her father’s background a few years after his passing. As a pioneer of religious and educational work, he was born in Gloucester County, Virginia in 1854 and ordained a Baptist minister at age 24. Later a Pastor of Calvert Baptist Church in Texas, he published the state newsletter for WCTU. Jessica also shared the harrowing time he had in Gainesville when his community was stricken with yellow fever. After isolating his family, he took food to the sick and came down with the fever also, nearly dying on Thanksgiving.
Corr’s wife of 45 years, Elizabeth Morton Corr was not notated remarkably in Corr’s biography but she anchored his educational career. From the deep South, Elizabeth was trained by tutors in her privileged plantation home but reeling from the devastation of the Civil War and having obtained a teaching degree from Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, she was promoted to associate principal at the Mississippi Boy’s School (unheard of for women in the day). There she and Corr taught side-by-side for a few years and eventually married. Throughout his career, Elizabeth was on the faculties or participating in her husband’s career. They migrated to Florida in 1887. From 1888 to 1891 he was the pastor at the First Baptist Church in Gainesville and principal of the Gainesville Public school. Later he preached in White Springs, Cedar Key, and Brevard County.
Corr was a strong force in the development of the Normal School in Dade City. A look at the accomplishments of his school in 1908 in the championships in competitions at the Florida State Fair illustrate his attention to the classics, writing, and even zoology. He led the Normal School to have the highest showings in the state.
A balancing act between the development of the public high school and the Normal School, Corr held many leadership roles. For example, his Normal Institute candidates were housed in homes in the community so his coordination with the family’s and community was important. The Normal School also trained teachers during the summer, including occasional contingents of Black teachers.
After departing Dade City, Corr continued as the head inspector for the Normal Schools for several years. He and his older daughter. Alys Mae Corr worked together on several educational endeavors and did collaborative writing and publishing.