The Dingley building, an historic and handsome structure in downtown Lewiston, has played a major role in educating youngsters and their teachers since it was built in 1890.

That’s the story I started to write, but as I researched that interesting building, I discovered a fascinating story of Miss Finch, a woman who had a remarkable impact on education at Dingley and far beyond.

For 34 years, Adelaide V. Finch was the highly-respected principal of the Lewiston Normal Training School. She served in that position beginning in 1894 and, except for three years, until the school closed in 1934.

Miss Finch was as close to indispensable as can be imagined at the school where hundreds of Lewiston teachers learned their profession.

A century ago, cities did their own teacher training in a “normal school.” Its purpose was to establish teaching standards, or norms.

Diplomas were granted to 370 “young ladies” by the Dingley Normal Training School, as it was renamed to honor Nelson Dingley Jr. He was an early owner and editor of the Lewiston Journal, and he went on to political distinction as Maine’s 34th governor and as a U.S. Congressman.

Of the school’s 11 principals, the first was Olive A. Pond, and her first graduating class in 1870 consisted of six area high school graduates who aspired to teaching careers in Lewiston. The next year there were no applicants, but the new school, then known as the Oak Street School, remained open for the benefit of Lewiston teachers in the first four grades. It did not operate from 1882 to 1886 for lack of a sufficient number of applicants, as well as a lack of teacher positions at local schools.

It was 1894 when Miss Finch became principal of the training school.

An article by Theda Cary Dingley in the Lewiston Journal Magazine Section of June 16, 1934, said, “Lewiston was one of the first cities in the country to realize that training for teachers was as necessary as lawyers or preachers.”

Miss Finch was one of the first to try a new plan of teaching if she thought it had promise, the article said, but any proposed innovation underwent a rigid inspection first.

Miss Finch’s reputation for progressive teacher training had spread far and wide.

In 1900, it seemed that Lewiston was losing its prize principal when she accepted a principalship in Waterbury, Conn., at a salary of $1,500 a year. She earned high regard in that city, and soon received a $100 annual raise.

At Waterbury, Miss Finch published two books, “The Finch Primer” and “The Finch First Reader.”

For 15 years, these were the leading textbooks of their kind throughout the country, according to a 1944 Lewiston Journal story by Mary Louise Stetson.

“She demanded of herself that everything in those attractive little books be as near perfection as possible,” Stetson wrote. “An apple was to be pictured in the primer, but the model must be the very best she could have. She bought a barrel of apples and sorted them one by one until she found an apple good enough for the artist to use in illustrating her book for children to read.”

That kind of perfectionism extended to her expectations for her student teachers. She demanded punctuality. She posted a sign beside her office door that said, “Be Brief,” and no student would dare enter without thought and preparation of purpose. It was a two-word lesson she hoped all the teachers would remember in their years after Dingley Normal Training School.

Miss Finch was well aware of the imposing personality she projected. When asked if there might be anything in her style as principal that she might change, she replied, “If you mean would I be less strict, the answer is no.”

She also had strong opinions on morals. In a speech she made, she said her most important goal was to “teach obedience to the children of America or America will perish from the Earth.”

She said, “I would like to write those words in letters of fire upon the hearts of every father and mother in this country,” and she concluded the speech with, “Yes, parents, you have been asleep too long. Wake up!”

In July 1934, the Lewiston School Committee voted to close the Dingley Normal Training School in the event Miss Adelaide V. Finch would not return as principal.

Miss Finch remained adamant in her retirement plans that year. The school closed, but the Dingley building has continued in the spirit of Miss Finch’s insistence on excellence in education through later years as an elementary school and up to the present as the central office of the Lewiston School Department.

Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and a native of Auburn. He can be reached by sending email to [email protected]

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