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Your Silent Neighbors: Lewis S. Mills, Educator and Historian

June 15, 2018 Community, History No Comments

By David K. Leff 
Canton Town Historian 

Son of a parsimonious and severe Canton Center farmer, Lewis S. Mills (1874-1965) grew up on Barbourtown Road.  At age three he sustained an injury that caused him to wear a steel leg brace for the remainder of his life, but that did not stop his father from putting Lewis to work doing farm chores.  He attended the one-room Canton Center schoolhouse, Collinsville High School and the Willimantic Normal School.

Mills’ first job was teaching in a one room school in Woodstock, Connecticut from 1897 to 1900 where he had 40 students ranging in age from three to eighteen.  He was principal of the Plainfield Grammar School from 1902 to 1906.  Mills later became a rural schools supervisor in Burlington between 1916 and 1928, and in Harwinton from 1927 until his retirement in 1939.

A self taught and avid photographer, Mills used his talent with a camera to help put himself through Columbia University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in education in 1908 and a master’s degree in school administration in 1912.  He would pursue photography for the rest of his life, and was especially talented at capturing rural scenes and historic structures.  He is best known for his 500 images of one-room schoolhouses.  In 2011, the Canton Public Library featured an exhibit of his work.

A public spirited man, he served as a Plainville justice of the peace and as a director of the Chamber of Commerce in that town from 1914 until 1928.  From 1933 until 1935 he was state education chairman of the George Washington bicentennial for which he earned the George Washington Bicentennial Medal.

Upon retirement in 1939 and until 1956, Mills was editor of The Lure of the Litchfield Hills, a magazine devoted to history in Litchfield County and adjacent areas.  He also wrote several books, including The Story of Connecticut, the first state history for school use.  It was published in 1932.

Mills was a progressive educator. Lewis S. Mills High School serving Burlington and Harwinton was dedicated to him in 1961.  In a ceremony attended by the then wheelchair bound honoree, Governor John N. Dempsey called him “an inspiring example of the men and women who devote their lives to education.”  Mills advocated for free textbooks, opposed dropping out before age 16, promoted student examination by school nurses, and introduced art and music programs, according to the Lewis S. Mills High School website.

“He was soft spoken,” the website quotes his daughter-in-law Dorothy Mills, “and a gentleman who seemed to command respect.  He was also a disciplinarian, but fair to all.  He had a keen sense of humor, a dry wit and enjoyed a chuckle especially if he could outsmart a politician.”

Mills married May Edith Wilder in 1908.  She died in 1934.  The couple had three children, a girl and two boys.

For more about Mills see: http://lewis.region10ct.org/school_information/lewis_s__mills_-_the_man__the_school  For a little about his photography career see: https://www.registercitizen.com/news/article/Exhibit-to-feature-Lewis-Mills-photography-at-12116667.php

Lewis S. Mills is buried in the Canton Center Cemetery.

“Your Silent Neighbors” introduces readers to people out of Canton’s past.  It will appear on the first and fifteenth of each month.  Readers are encouraged to visit these gravesites and pay their respects to the people who have helped make our community what it is today.  Any suggestions, questions, or corrections should be addressed to Town Historian David Leff at onktaadn@comcast.net

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