In a June 29, 1879 Plattsburgh Sentinel article, Mary Butler called for the establishment of a kindergarten in the city of Plattsburgh. Developed in the 1830s by German educator Friedrich Froebel, the idea was for a pre-school experience to teach young children about art, design, math, and natural history by stressing the socialization of the child through play. The program was finally introduced to the United States at the 1876 Centennial Exposition where advocates presented an exhibition of the kindergarten methods.
Shortly after Mrs. Butler’s call, an advertisement appeared in the Sentinel stating that Miss Helena Augustin would be opening a Kindergarten School starting that September in a building on the corner of Oak Street and Protection Avenue. This was made possible by Frances (Fannie) Delord Hall who had met the teacher at a Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) convention and invited her to be the Halls’ guest at their home. Helena Augustin lived at the Delord residence for more than 20 years while conducting her Kindergarten School.
Born in Bingen, Germany in 1850, Helena and a brother immigrated to New York City when she was 11 years old. No more information is available until she arrives in Plattsburgh in 1879. For the next 22 years, Helena taught the first Kindergarten in Plattsburgh. By the late 1880s, instruction had expanded up to the 4th grade. Many of the early prominent men and women in this city were her pupils.
A receipt for tuition for a term in the Kindergarten School. It is interesting to note that the student, Master Albert Cananagh, in the son of James Cavanagh, who will become Helena’s husband in 15 years!
The Plattsburgh Sentinel is filled with articles about the activities of the school. There were regular reports throughout the year on the various programs and recitals put on for the parents and community. All the articles are lavish with their praise of Helena and the school.
“The entertainment by the little people of the Kindergarten school at the Plattsburgh Theater, Wednesday evening was a charming affair that delighted the large audience present. So much loveliness, grace, and sweetness embodied and all the little bodies acquitting themselves so remarkably well, could not fail to captivate. Miss Augustin, her assistant, Miss Maud Madden, and their aids and abettors, have occasion for pride and genuine satisfaction over their real fairies’ entertainment.” -Plattsburgh Sentinel, June 29, 1894.
The school bell used by Helena during the time she ran the Kindergarten School. The bell was donated along with the tuition receipts and the photograph of Helena by her Great-grandson, James Cavanagh.
Another Sentinel article was more on the side of gossip:
Miss Augustin, of the Kindergarten School, and Mrs. Baker, attended the excursion of the Peristrome Sabbath School, to Willsboro Point last week. While out rowing upon the lake they had a narrow escape from drowning by their boat filling with water. Parties upon the shore rescued them, but not until they had received a thorough wetting. –Plattsburgh Sentinel, July 21, 1882
Helena married prominent Plattsburgh businessman James Cavanagh in the east parlor of the Delord House in 1902. The ceremony was described as “a quiet one, only Mr. Cavanagh’s family and the most intimate friends of the bride” attended.
The wedding announcement in the Plattsburgh Sentinel describes the scene:
“The parlor was tastefully decorated with vines, ferns and palms. A beautiful bower of the green plants, brightened by hydrangeas, was constructed in the corner of the room, and it was before this bower that the ceremony was performed. An orchestra hidden in the conservatory behind the bower rendered appropriate music.”
Rev. Hall performed the ceremony. Helena was a member of his Peristrome Presbyterian Church, where she was active in leading the youth membership
The announcement also describes Helena’s wedding attire:
“…she was dressed in light pearl gray crepe de chine, trimmed with Dutchess lace, the collar of the gown being fastened by a diamond sunburst, a present of the groom.”
Among the wedding gifts mentioned was “a picture from the kindergarten children with a collection of cards in which each child sent congratulations and greeting.” We know that the Halls presented the couple with a China cabinet, thanks to information and a picture provide by a great-grandson, James Cavanagh.
The late day ceremony was followed by an informal reception at the Hall’s residence. Then the newlyweds “took the north-bound train on their wedding journey.” Following the honeymoon, Helena moved into the Cavanagh home at 8 Macomb Street. After more than 20 years living as a “guest” of Fannie and Frank Hall, Helena now had a home of her own.
Social propriety required that married women not work, so Helena’s teaching career ended, but not her community involvement. Another result of her marriage was that now Helena identity was as Mrs. James Cavanagh throughout the Plattsburgh social scene.
For a couple years after their marriage, the Cavanaghs were cited in the social columns for the trips they took to Florida and Malone. However, those notices stopped. Now the articles only mentioned Helena’s work with the WCTU, the Presbyterian Church Youth group, and the Children‘s Home of Northern New York. In the obituary for James Cavanagh, we find the reason for this. James had a stroke two years after his marriage to his third wife, Helena. His health deteriorated for the next five years until his death in 1908. Thus, we can infer that Helena spent much of that five years looking after the health of her husband. His obituary described him “as a husband he was kind and loyal.”
This is the only picture the Museum has of Helena. This was taken on a trip to St. Augustine, FL with friends. Helena is circled and her husband is on the far left.
Helena appeared to be highly regarded in the Plattsburgh community. Even after her marriage and “retirement” the press reported on several events in her life. One reported an accident in her home:
“Mrs. James Cavanagh met with a painful accident on Tuesday evening, which resulted in her spraining her right ankle severely. Mrs. Cavanagh was ascending the stairs when her foot caught in her dress and she fell. The injured ankle necessitates Mrs. Cavanagh’s keeping very quiet, but it is hoped that she will soon be up and about again.” -Plattsburgh Sentinel June 28, 1907
It was very common for the newspaper of that time to report what was titled “Nearby News” which told all the social and personal happenings (gossip) of the day.
Another accident report was more serious:
“A badly wrecked automobile and a worse wrecked carriage was the result of a peculiar collision on the Bridge street bridge at about a quarter past nine last evening.
There seems to be a difference of opinion as to how it happened but there is no doubt that the big Mitchell taxi cab driven by a youth who gave his name a Jess DeFousor, went a long way toward demolishing the carriage driven by John Wilson, a cabman, who was taking Mrs. James Cavanagh to her home on Macomb street.
Wilson says that he was driving east on Bridge street and had no warning until the automobile crashed into the rear of his rig, which appears to have been lifted bodily and turned half way round. The horse was forced violently against the iron work of the bridge and thrown down. The driver was thrown out and was badly cut about the head and face. Several stitches were taken in his forehead by Dr. Robinson. The entire front to the rig was a mass of wreckage broken shafts, wheels and axles were strewn around the bridge.
Fortunately the body of the carriage was left intact and Mrs. Cavanagh escaped without injury except for a severe shaking up and shock…” –Plattsburgh Sentinel April 18, 1919
It is interesting to note that this article was front page news along with articles about the Peace Conference at Versailles and Bolshevik insurgency in Germany.
Helena Augustin Cavanagh died August 8, 1921. Her obituary praised her determination and accomplishments.
“From the very beginning of her life here Mrs. Cavanagh was most active in every good work. She was always a member, and for many years President and recently County Superintendent of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. She was also Leader of the Loyal Temperance Legion, a childrens temperance organization. Among her many interest was the Children’s Home of Northern New York and at the time of her death she was one of its managers…
Mrs. Cavanagh was an untiring and enthusiastic worker in any activity with which she was connected and will be greatly missed in this community.”
–Plattsburgh Sentinel, August 9, 1921