Lee County Illinois
Part of American History and Genealogy Project

Dixon, Lee County Illinois, Schools

John K. Robison, later of Melugin's Grove, was the first school teacher in Lee County, and a Miss Butler, who came over from Bureau County, was the next. Both tutored the children of Mr. Dixon, Mr. Robison in 1833 and Miss Butler, later. For a time it was the custom of the Dixons to send their children up to the Kellogg 's place in Buffalo Grove to be tutored, and then in turn the Kellogg children would be sent to the Dixon home. The children of the two families thus were tutored together.

In the year 1837, a schoolhouse was built on the lot just east of the Mrs. P. P. Starin residence, southeast comer of Fourth Street and Crawford Avenue. This building was paid for by private subscriptions from the thirteen families then living here. The building was a frame one-story building twenty by thirty feet, and later was moved to the lot on the southwest corner of Ottawa avenue and the alley known as Truman court or alley running east and west between First and Second streets. In the latter location it was used later as courthouse, town hall, meeting-house, etc.

In 1838 H. Bicknell taught this first school until about the summer vacation of 1840. During the year 1840, one Mr. Bowen taught the school, but an indiscretion shortened his stay. (There were others.) One day he notified his pupils to come early, as he had a great natural curiosity to show them. Next morning he climbed through the scuttle and in the character of a bear he cut all sorts of capers. Immediately the boys set upon him with clubs and poles and that ended Mr. Bowen's school teaching days.

Beginning with the fall term of 1841 and extending to the spring term of 1842, William W. Heaton, later circuit judge, taught this school. During the tutelage of those gentlemen, Orlando and Jane Anne Herrick, (later Mrs. Col. H. T. Noble), George Foote (of Hazelwood) and Mrs. Daniel B. McKenney, are among the pupils known to have attended. During the summer of 1843, Miss Ophelia Loveland, (later Mrs. J. B. Brooks) taught this district school which included both sides of the river and upstream as far as Stephen Fuller 's. (Fuller 's cave.)

The teacher's compensation from tuition generally was paid in pork, com, potatoes, fowls, etc.

Mr. O. F. Ayres was a director during the incumbency of Judge Heaton. The latter had flogged a boy; the enraged parents proposed a flogging for the stripling, Heaton, but as in other cases of the sort, the stripling was not touched, and Mr. Ayres and the stripling averted a scene.

During the year 1844, by reason of a sale of the lot, John Van Arnam claimed the building as a part of the realty, and he declared his intention of keeping it.

John Hogan, later a member of Congress from St. Louis, originated a plan for the removal of the building. Aaron L. Porter, judge Heaton, and Nathaniel G. H. Morrill, were conspicuous aids and during the night the building was removed a safe distance from the lot and saved. That was a famous old building in its day; so famous, indeed, that I have copied verbatim, the late Dr. Oliver Everett's story of it:

"In looking over, recently, some old papers, I came across the subscription paper for building the first schoolhouse in Dixon, and have thought that it would not be without interest to many of your readers. The paper was got up in January, 1837, and contains many names familiar to the old settlers. The subscription paper reads as follows:

"We, the subscribers, agree to pay the sums severally attached to our names, for the purpose of erecting a schoolhouse in the town of Dixon. Said schoolhouse shall be for the teaching of primary schools, and shall be open for religious meetings of all denominations, when not occupied by the schools.

"Said house shall be one story high and at least forty feet by twenty on the ground, and shall contain two rooms which shall be connected by a door or doors, as may be thought proper.

"The subscribers shall meet on Monday, the 20th day of February next, at 6 o'clock, P. M., and choose three trustees to superintend the building of said house. The trustees shall have power to collect the money subscribed, contract for and purchase materials for said house, and employ workmen to build the same. They shall see that it is done in a plain, workmanlike manner, so far as the funds shall warrant.

Subscriber List

James P. Dixon, $25
Oliver Everett, $25
John Wilson, $25
Caleb Tallmadge, $20
J. B. Barr, $10
Samuel Leonard, $5
Jacob Rue, $5
B. B. Brown, $5
Samuel Gatten, $5
Edwin Hine, $5
Elijah Dixon, $15
Hiram P. Parks, $10
John Q. Adams, 10 cents, (Expunged)
Seth D. Brittain, $20, (If he settles here)
Lemuel Huff, $15
Alanson Dickerman, $5
John Snider, $5
H. Martin, $5
W. P. Burroughs, $15
John Dixon, $20
I. S. Boardman, $10
A friend, $5
M. McCabe, $10
Allen Wiley, $10
J. W. Hamilton, $5
George L. Chapman, $5
W. H. Rowe, $10
J. W. Dixon, $10
E. W. Covell, $25
E. A. Statia, $5
S. W. Johnson, $10
Robert Murray, $10
Samuel C. McClure, $15
Mrs. E. N. Hamilton, $15
Horace Thompson, $5
Mrs. R. Dixon, $30
L. D. Butler, $5
W. L. Dixon, $5
Mrs. A. Tallmadge, $5
Mrs. M. H. Barr, $10
J. Murphy, $10
N. W. Brown, $5
S. M. Bowman, $10
John Richards, $10
C. F. Hubbard, $5
W. W. Graham, $5
T. L. Hubbard, $5
John Carr, $5
George Kip, $5
William Graham, $5

"It will be noticed that many of the subscribers were persons living some distance in the country and of those who came to the county dining the next season. The reason that Father Dixon's name was not at or near the head of the list, is, that he was away that winter to Vandalia, then the capital of the state. It may also be noticed that the matter dragged somewhat, as such enterprises often do and the ladies took it up, Mrs. Dixon giving the largest subscription on the list, and Mrs. Hamilton a generous amount. Again, it may be noticed that one John Q. Adams, not our present John Q. Adams, but an unworthy bearer of a great name, in sub-scribing, put two 00 where the dollars ought to have been, making his subscription but ten cents. When his attention was called to it he said it was just as he intended to have it. His name was dealt with as was fashionable at that time; it was expunged.

"The old house was built during the summer of 1837, of the size and form specified in the subscription paper, about twenty rods west of the cemetery, on or near lot one, block sixty-nine, now occupied by Harvey Smith. It was built perfectly plain, without a cornice, and enclosed with undressed oak siding and a hard wood shingle roof. The inside consisted of two rooms, one six feet by twenty' extending across the end of the building, serving as an entrance way or vestibule to the main room, which was twenty by thirty-four feet, with three windows on either side and one at the end of the room opposite the entrance. It was plastered on the inside with a single coat of coarse brown mortar, and was warmed during winter with a wood fire in a large box stove. In 1839 it was moved down on the north end of lot 5, block 17, on the west side of Ottawa street, just south of the residence of Doctor Nash, now occupied by Daniel McKenney, fronting to the north upon the alley. There it remained for several years and was used for school-house, meeting-house, and courthouse (the first three terms of the circuit court of Lee county were held in it); elections and political meetings and conventions were held in it, and it was always used for whatever other purpose the people might congregate.

"The old schoolhouse was very plain, rough and uninviting to look upon, but there are many recollections associated with it which are always dwelt upon by the early settlers with great interest, and should make the memory of it dear to the people of Dixon. It was within its rough brown walls that the venerable and revered Bishop Chase, then senior bishop of the American Episcopal Church, first preached to the scattered members of his fold as were hereabout, and broke to them the bread of the sacrament, and where Rev. James DePui, a man of rare culture and gentle, and genial social qualities, preached for more than twelve months. It was there that the Methodist and Baptist churches of this place were formed and nurtured in their infancy. The Rev. Dr. Hitchcock and the Rev. Philo Judson, who for nearly half a century have been among the foremost laborers in the great and beneficent organization to which they belong, then in the vigor of early manhood, each preached his two years there. The Rev. Thomas Powell, a devoted missionary of the Baptist denomination, well known among the early settlers of no inconsiderable portion of the state for his indefatigable and faithful service in the religious interest of the people, then often living remote from each other, and either destitute or but poorly supplied with competent religious teachers, often held services in the old schoolhouse, and officiated at the formation of the Baptist Church of Dixon. Also the Rev. Burton Carpenter, the remembrance of whose labors here is cherished by many of the old settlers, and who, in the high standing he after-wards attained in the denomination to which he belongs, and in a life of great usefulness in another part of the state, has not disappointed the expectations of his early friends, commenced his labors in the ministry and preached about three years in this same old schoolhouse. During nearly the whole time religious services were held in the old schoolhouse, the Methodist and Baptist congregations occupied it alternate Sundays, the Methodist clergyman preaching at Inlet Grove or Sugar Grove, and Mr. Carpenter at Buffalo Grove the intervening Sabbaths.

"In the spring of 1840, there was a convention of the Whig party of the Jo Daviess representative district which embraced the whole northwestern part of the state, held at the schoolhouse, and Thomas Drummond, known in this generation as Judge Drummond of the United States court at Chicago, then a young lawyer of Galena, was nominated as a candidate for member of the House of Representatives in the State Legislature. He represented an extent of territory now constituting nearly two congressional districts. Among the teachers in the old schoolhouse was the late, lamented W. W. Heaton, whom the citizens of Dixon have seen rise by his industry and legal acquirements from the schoolmaster's chair to the bench.

"In the beginning of the year 1843, the Methodist church was finished and dedicated and the courthouse was so far completed that the courts were held in it and it was used for religious and political meetings, and the old schoolhouse fell into comparative disuse.

"Sometime during the year 1844, it began to be noised about that John Van Arnam claimed the old schoolhouse as his property, as he had purchased the lot upon which it stood. One day the people were notified that upon a tap on their windows the night following, they might know that they were wanted at the school-house, and the less said about it the better. Upon arriving there we found it surrounded by a great crowd, busy at work. Some were raising the building with crowbars and levers, others adjusting planks and rollers under the sills. There was that prince of movers of old buildings, N. G. H. Morrill, as usual directing operations, not giving authoritative orders to others, but by taking hold and show-ing them how, by doing the major part of the work himself. The industrious crowd tugged away in silence or talking in whispers or suppressed tones, now moving the heavy oak building an inch or two and again making a more fortunate move and getting ahead several inches or one or two feet, until it was thought the building was entirely over the edge of the lot, but by pacing from the street and making observations in the dark, it was thought best to give it just another little shove to make the thing sure. So all took hold with a will, and the old schoolhouse began to move again upon the rollers and made a lunge of twelve or fifteen feet, creaking and groaning as it went, as if conscious of the ignoble uses of trade to 'which it was destined, for the time came, my pen grows shaky as I write it when it was used for liquor selling. Upon this last move of the old schoolhouse every tongue seemed loosened, and all gave vent to their satisfaction in a wild shout or cheer, which rang through the darkness and by its heartiness (so I was informed) quieted the fears of some of the ladies whose husbands had at the tap on the window so mysteriously bounced out of bed and left them without saying a word. About this time, Mr. Morrill upon a vote of two freeholders at an election held for the purpose of voting upon the question of building a new schoolhouse, was building the stone structure for that purpose back of the Nachusa house, so the old building was sold and moved down onto the comer of Main and Hennepin streets, and was used for various purposes of trade, and finally burned in the great fire on Main street in 1859.'

Doctor Everett refers to the northwest corner of the streets, the comer now occupied by W. E. Trein.

Among the pupils taught by Miss Loveland were Miss Helen Williams, later Mrs. Lemuel Mulkins; Miss Elizabeth and Master James Ayres, children of Oscar F. Ayres; Frank Dixon, son of John W. Dixon, and his little brother, Elijah.

During the years already mentioned, the schools also were taught by Miss Elizabeth Johnson, later Mrs. J. B. Nash, and a Miss Curtis, sister of Mrs. Seavey of Palmyra.

During the winter of 1843-4, the school was taught by Lorenzo Wood, one time probate judge. During that season the following, among others, attended: Miss Sybil C. Van Arnam, later Mrs. Elias B. Stiles; Mrs. A. R. Whitney of Franklin Grove, as well as A. R. (Randolph), who later became her husband.

Between the years 1846 and 1849, the school was taught by a Mr. Cross and James Lumm, the former in the public school and later a private school. The hands of Cross were deformed by rheumatism and as a hair-pulling artist he was dreaded. His term in the public schools ended in 1847 when Lumm's began. He too was a strict disciplinarian and his severity created many com-plaints to the directors. Nevertheless, the school rose steadily.

He was a devoted student of natural history and he assisted Doctor Everett materially in making his splendid collection of botanical, geological and ornithological specimens. In 1849 he removed west to Oregon. Several years later, a Dixon man traveling to the coast sought out Lumm and found him in a humble cabin, surrounded by bugs, birds and animals. Subsequently he removed the collection to California and sold it for $30,000. From the year 1842 to 1849, O. F. Ayres and J. B. Nash, directors, bore all the burdens incident to maintaining good schools in a new and somewhat negligent community. In 1848-9, a Mr. McKay succeeded Lumm. He was full of learning, but just as full of eccentricities, and though he had the knack of imparting knowledge, his period and his school was not a success. In a state of mental abstraction, he would lock the door and leave the children behind. Many times, too, he had novel ways of pointing a moral and adorning a tale.

One day a boy came to school with a cigar in his mouth. McKay appropriated it and coolly smoked it in presence of the pupils.

In the year 1851, Col. Henry T. Noble began his duties as a teacher, at a salary of $40 per month.

By this time the old schoolhouse had been abandoned and the new stone building on the east side of Hennepin avenue was built on the lot now occupied by the blacksmith shop of A. J. Scriven and Son, between Second and Third streets.

The building was constructed loosely and heated at first from a fireplace, built in the east end of it. At times the room was very cold. One lady recalls a day when she froze her heel. But the school was a great success. Colonel Noble was the first teacher to bring the school into a systematic business-like institution.

During those years of 1851 and 1852, Noble established a primary department for the little children, one of whom was Henry D. Dement, and he selected from his older pupils, young ladies to teach them. One of these was Miss Jane Ann Herrick, subsequently his wife; the other was Miss Marie Sophie LaPorte, the writer 'smother.

By this time the school had grown to such proportions that Miss LaPorte was compelled to teach her class in a room of the court-house.

Other pupils there were Miss Mary M. Stevens, Miss Hannah Elizabeth Stevens, Ann Ophelia Porter (Mrs. F. A. Soule), Miss Noble, daughter of Silas Noble and later wife of Jerome Hollenbeck, and Miss Anna Eustace, later Mrs. B. F. Shaw.

One laughable incident is related about little John Gilbraith who many times got his mother to write an excuse to let him out at 3 o'clock. One day his mother refused, and in a huff he went to ask J. B. Brooks to give it to him. Brooks being absent, Mr. P. M. Alexander undertook the job by writing these lines: "Here is a boy who needs a flogging and if you don't give it to him, I will."

But Colonel Noble did not flog the boy. It afforded him a good laugh and it afforded Johnnie a useful lesson.

In 1852-3, Charles N. Levanway continued the school in the stone building.

In 1853-4, Frederick A. Soule continued the school in the same building.

In 1854, William Barge received from John Stevens, the writer's father, then school commissioner, a certificate to teach and he continued the school until 1859. Under his splendid management the same became a graded school. For about the first half of his first year, the old stone building was used; after that rooms were rented in the old "Land Office Building," later demolished, but standing on the west side of Hennepin avenue, next to where the stone People's church stands now on the northwest corner of Second street.

Dixon was enjoying a tremendous boom at this time and at times it was impossible to rent rooms. Under these circumstances, after several public meetings had been held it was decided to build the "Union School Building" on the west side of Peoria avenue, where the home of Jason C. Ayres now stands, near the corner of Fifth Street. This building was built in 1855 at an approximate cost of $6,000, and through Mr. Barge's untiring efforts Chase's patent school seats, the best then made, were installed and Dixon enjoyed the proud distinction of possessing the best equipped school rooms in Illinois.

To Mr. Barge belongs the honor of organizing the first graded schools in Lee County.

School children had multiplied so rapidly that both rooms were filled quickly.

In 1858, a high school department was established in the old Methodist church building on Second Street, opposite the court house and next the present Baptist church. Of this high school A. H. Fitch was made principal.

In 1859, James Gow was made principal of the high school, and A. M. Gow was made superintendent of schools, then consisting of five departments. These gentlemen worked together until the year 1862, when Eli C. Smith was elected to fill both of these offices. For a while rooms were rented, then the little frame building just north of the Union school, and in the same lot, was built (in 1860) and used as a primary room. It was taught for years by Miss Swinburn. The grammar school was installed in the basement, under the high school, and one of its first teachers was Miss Sephie Gardner, later Mrs. E. C. Smith.

About 1866, it became necessary to make more room for the increasing numbers of pupils and the old Lutheran church was rented and three departments were installed there.

In the year 1867, a vote was taken on the proposition to build a new and adequate building. The vote in favor of it was over-whelming. Two sites were proposed, one on block 88, owned and backed by Col. John Dement, and one further eastward on "the hill," numbered 102. The former won and today the three-story and basement brick Eli C. Smith School stands on block 88. The cost was $30,000. A Mr. Randall, of Chicago, made the plans, and the contract for building was let to W. F. Bushnell & Co. In 1868 the building was begun and in September, 1869, school was opened in the new building.

The school board during the construction of the building was composed of the following members: Henry D. Dement, James A. Hawley and David Welty.

For the year ending July 31, 1871, the Dixon schools consisted of ten grades, the primary, intermediate, grammar, and high schools. The course of study contemplated ten grades, one year to each until the high school was reached and four years for it.

The teachers at that time were: High School, Principal, E. C. Smith; assistant. Miss Abbie Purvis; first grammar, room B, Miss S. F. Gardner; second grammar, room C, Miss H. E. Gardner; first intermediate, room D, Miss H. L. Brewer; second intermediate, room E, Miss R. M. Mead; first primary, room F, Miss E. L. Babbitt; second primary, room G, Miss Addie T. Welty; third primary, room H, Mrs. M. A. Johnson, First ward primary. Miss A. Georgia Curtis; Third ward primary, Miss E. K. Anderson.

Dixon Graduates, 1864-1880

Lee County History


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