Friday, September 24, 2010

Homestead Spelling Bee

“Cat,” the first word of the spelling bee, was enunciated clearly and slowly by the pronouncer. And Homestead National Monument’s first old fashioned spelling bee began.
The entry way to the Freeman School.

The words spelling bee are thought to originate from the age-old-custom of people gathering to help each other out, to socialize, or both. Examples of bees include: barn-raising bees, corn-husking bees, spelling bees, and quilting bees.

The Oxford English Dictionary traces the etymology of the word bee to 1769 in the Boston Gazette: “Last Thursday about twenty young Ladies met at the house of Mr. L. on purpose for a Spinning Match; (or what is called in the Country a Bee)”; other examples include: in 1809 “Now were instituted quilting bees and husking bees and other rural assemblages” ; in 1830 “I made a bee; that is, I collected as many of the most expert and able-bodied of the settlers to assist at the raising”; and in 1876 “He may be invincible at a spelling bee.”

Scripps National Spelling Bee website challenges the notion of bee as in bee-hive-type-social gathering to suggest scholars today think the word bee may have origins in the Middle English word “bene.” Bene is a prefix for well or an adverb for to perform. No matter the etymology, Scripps thinks the first use of the American term spelling bee was probably around 1875 or earlier.

Homesteaders prized education and encouraged their children in the 3Rs: reading, writing, and arithmetic. One of the ways pioneer children learned these lessons was through recitation. A typical school day would include both reciting and spelling. After studying the assigned reading the student would join the teacher at the recitation bench and recite the memorized reading. Later students would line up for the spelling match.
The pronouncer reads the rules to the spellers.

Competitors in Homestead’s first spelling bee did not follow the rule of the next contender spelling a word missed by the person before them, known as “turned down.” But did have an eventual winner of the bee, which in one-room-school house terms was known as the “head mark” - or the student that “turned down” each person before them became the best speller or “head mark.”

Words for the Homestead contest were selected from the McGuffey’ Spelling Book first published 1879 with Worcester’s Pocket Dictionary, published in 1872 by Brewer and Tileston, as the back-up list if all words from McGuffey’s were exhausted. Worceter’s dictionaries were known to concentrate on the British spellings and pronunciations of words as opposed to Webster’s approach of Americanizing spelling and pronunciation.

Participants listen intently to the spelling of a word by Lauryn Rieken. For another view click on the link.
One charming story of Webster’s youth describes how he held spelling bees at his home in the evenings after school. Noah assumed the role of pronouncer and insisted on American spellings such as h-a-r-b-o-r instead of English spellings such as h-a-r-b-o-u-r. Spellers had 10 seconds, counted down by the other spellers, to spell their word aloud. Once the bee was won, the future lexicographer and author of the American speller, Noah would teach the other children how to remember the spellings of words by drawing pictures on the pine walls of the family kitchen (Bailey, 2001).

While no pictures were drawn on the walls of the Freeman school during Homestead’s first bee there were plenty of digital pics being snapped by proud parents and the photographer from the Beatrice Daily Sun co-sponsor of the event. Coverage of the event can be read at: Spellers Flock to Homestead.

Congratulations Spellers!

We would like to congratulate the winners of the 1st Annual Labor Day Weekend Old-Fashioned Spelling Bee! They are as follows:

  • Under 7 years old: Kolbe Villa
  • 7-11 years old: November Schuster
  • 12-15 years old: Isaiah Friesen
  • 16 and older: Barb Rieken

Bailey, C. (2001, March). The spelling bee. Child Life, 80, 2, 4.

Bee. (1989). Oxford English Dictionary.

Bene. (n.d.). Unabridged. Retrieved from

Noah Webster History. (n.d). Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society. Retrieved from

Origin of the term spelling bee. (n.d.) Scripps National Spelling Bee. Retrieved from

Sample lesson plans (1900s). (2010). Blackwell Museum. Retrieved from Northern Illinois University College of Education

Worcester, Joseph Emerson. (2010). The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th edition, published by Houghton Mifflin Company. Reference Answers. Retrieved from

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