About our Founder
Of Scottish heritage, and the youngest of eight children, Frederick William Gunn was born in Washington, Connecticut, on October 4, 1816, to John N. Gunn, a respected deputy sheriff, and Mary (Polly) Ford, a religious woman who hoped her youngest child would be a priest. Sadly, both of his parents died when he was just 10 years old. His oldest brother, John, a successful farmer and prominent abolitionist, arranged for his education at Yale, where he majored in botany and graduated in the Class of 1837.
While contemplating a career as a doctor, he returned home to Washington and opened a school, Washington Academy, next to the First Congregational Church on the Green, and discovered he truly enjoyed teaching. He courted and won the affection of Abigail Irene Brinsmade, daughter of Mary Wakeman Gold and Daniel Brinsmade, a graduate of Litchfield Law School, who was also a probate judge, a farmer and deacon of the church.
In 1847, Mr. Gunn was temporarily driven from Washington because his abolitionist views clashed with those of the local clergy. During this time, he secured a position as a teacher at Towanda Academy at the behest of Henry Booth, who had ties to both towns. Following his marriage to Abigail Brinsmade on April 16, 1848, and the birth of their first child, Daniel Brinsmade Gunn, on January 9, 1849, Mr. Gunn was welcomed back to Washington and founded his school on the hillside, where it stands today.
Mr. Gunn served as the school's first Headmaster from 1850 until his death in 1881. During his tenure:
- He led students on the first all-school walk from Washington to Milford in 1861, which led to his recognition by the American Camping Association as the founder of recreational camping in the United States
- He welcomed girls, African-American, Native American and international students to his school in defiance of social norms.
- He installed the first lending library in Washington, Connecticut, in his living room, where local citizens periodically gathered. The right to borrow books was auctioned off to provide funds for the acquisition of more books. A group of citizens and former Gunnery students later raised funds to build the Gunn Memorial Library, which was dedicated in 1908. The architect was Ehrick Rossiter, Class of 1870, the contractor was Dallas Wyant, Class of 1902, and the fieldstone for the facade was brought from nearby farms by Gunnery students.
- He served as an early proponent of physical activity and participation in sports as a building block of character development. Worth noting: The Gunnery archives include the first known photograph of a baseball game in progress. Featured in Ken Burns’s documentary and book, “Baseball,” it was taken by Seth C. Landon on August 4, 1869, during the first Gunnery alumni reunion.
- A staunch member of the temperance movement, he believed that his students had “an inalienable right to their fun.” To that end, he organized dances, musical events, debates and plays for his students and town residents. Yearly plays were produced, which led to the establishment of Washington’s amateur theater group, the Dramalites.
- He often reiterated that one needed to have a “boy-heart” to understand and teach the young. His students recounted that he was always the first one selected when they were choosing sides for a student game. He would call a day off from recitations and accompany the children on nature walks during the glorious seasonal days of spring and fall.
- An early proponent of student government, his graduates wrote letters about his Sunday family meetings, which allowed boys to expose culprits who threatened the peace of the school as well as to determine what rules were important to keep.