Lee County Illinois
Part of American History and Genealogy Project

History of Lee County, Illinois Schools

On this day of the happy New Year, 1914, the compiler of this department completes his work and submits his manuscript of the work attempted.

A retrospection of the history of education within the borders of Lee County, Illinois, covers a period of about eighty years and records the evolution of a school system of marked efficiency. From the most meager and humble equipment in the homes of pioneers, through the period of the log or slab housing for pupils, to the matted floor of the real ''Parlor School,'' with its standard equipment, aye, even further to the larger range of equipment to be found in our ''Superior School,'' on the one side of our considerations, and the splendid edifices known as our city high school buildings, on the other side, all have developed within the span of life accorded to many an individual living today.

Progress has been the keynote of effort, and the pursuit of ideals has ever been actuated by worthiness of motive, each year providing the very best that circumstances permitted, each improved condition being secured by sacrifices commensurate with the ideals attained, and by the cooperative organization of the work of thousands of minds, and the translation of dominant thought into action. Priceless indeed the heritage, to those who now have opportunities that today stand a mute unanswerable argument against the persistent assaults of destructive criticism.

It is well that we pause on this eve of greater and still greater possibilities, and take inventory. Some of the early history of education in specific school units has been felt secure in the writings of previous historians, and has given way for more of the conditions permeating the school systems of the present day, and portions of certain specific accounts have been compiled by duplication.

Doubtless, errors are here recorded, but conflicts of data have been presented, and revisions of date by specific contributors have been permitted. It is thought that, in the main, this series of records is correct.

The first school opened within the borders of Lee County was that conducted in Father Dixon's home at Dixon's Ferry, during the winter of 1833-34. The building was begun by Joseph Ogee, a French-Indian half-breed and interpreter, who established a ferry at Dixon in the spring of 1828. Father Dixon purchased the ferry in 1830, and completed the house, which probably stood at the northwest corner of First Street and Peoria avenue. John K. Robison was the first teacher, being succeeded by a Miss Butler of Bureau County, and here the children of Father Dixon were instructed, others coming from outside homes, as the pioneer town grew. There is a record to the effect that the Dixon children attended school at Buffalo Grove, with the children of O. W. Kellogg, during one winter, and that the Kellogg children attended at Dixon during the following winter an arrangement made mutually advantageous by the heads of these households.

In 1836 the last of the hostile tribes of Indians disappeared from Lee County, leaving the country open to settlement. While Dixon contained but four families at this time, the rapid increase in numbers warranted the erection of the first schoolhouse in 1837. This building was a one-story frame structure, 20x30 feet. It was erected by subscription and stood on lot 1, block 69, not far from the cemetery. It was moved, in 1839, to lot 5, block 17, and was the general assembling place of the (then) village for a number of years. Here school opened in the fall of 1837, H. Bicknell being the teacher, and enrolling about twenty-five pupils. Parents sending children to this school contributed to its financial support, the custom of the day.

In 1838 the first schoolhouse in Brooklyn town was erected at Melugin's Grove, near the old Chicago stage road. Zachariah Melugin, the landlord of the village inn, became the first teacher,

The organization of Lee County occurred in 1839, and E. R. Mason was the first county superintendent of schools, then known as school commissioner. Into his care was placed the organization of the crude beginnings of our school system, and to the work of the private instructor and the teacher in the pioneer school was added the first attempts at a course of study, classification, and general school equipment, his log cabin serving the twofold purpose of schoolhouse and tavern for a year preceding the erection of the school building.

Further to the east, in Wyoming town, we find a school building known as ''The Little Red Pole Schoolhouse,'' not over twelve feet square and erected expressly for school purposes, perhaps in 1836.

Thus do we find the early beginnings of the establishment of schools, principally along the Indian trails and stage routes. These schools were all necessarily small, and were, in each case, established and maintained entirely by individual contributions, the public school system not having then been established. Thus are recorded the days of ''boarding round'' by teachers, who often received not to exceed $1.25 per week for their services, and of the time when it often occurred that some pupils were older than their teachers.

The history of an old schoolhouse formerly located about a half mile southeast of the Gap Grove schoolhouse, is very obscure. The building is now a milk house on the Howard Martin farm. On the southwest comer of the farm now owned by Joseph Gooch, near the forks of the road, once stood a log house, which some claim as the true historic schoolhouse, the information indicating that fifty pupils were once enrolled here. In 1863 the old church at Gap Grove was transformed into a schoolhouse, situated on the site of the present school building at that place. Later this building was sold for $20, and converted into a barn on the old H. M. Gilbert homestead. The present school building at this point became its successor.

At an early day an ''advanced school'' was taught by a Mr. Judd, in a log schoolhouse near the John L. Lord homestead, to which many came from a distance on horseback. In 1837 there was a schoolhouse at the Gap, nearly opposite the town hall. In 1838 a small frame school building, which was never finished, in the center of Sugar Grove, was presided over for two winters by W. W. Bethea.

In 1847 a frame schoolhouse was built on or near the site where in 1858 a brick church with basement for school purposes was erected. This old ''frame'' building may be seen on the Fletcher Seavey homestead. Thus it will be seen that these old landmarks are being preserved by this substantial community, who have erected a tablet along the public highway, a memorial to the first schoolhouse in Palmyra.

The building erected in 1858 was soon partially rebuilt, to make it more substantial, only to be destroyed by fire later.

The frame building replacing the one destroyed is used for church purposes, and its basement is perhaps the best equipped one-room rural school building in Lee county, made so, largely, by the long period of superior service rendered to this school by its teacher, Mrs. Gertrude E. Russell, who taught twenty-one years consecutively in this school, retiring at the end of the last school year, 1913. Not only one of the ablest and most efficient of Lee County's teachers, but one who commanded the highest salary, $70 per month for nine school months, during the latter years of her incumbency.

As early as 1843, there was a blacksmith shop at Prairieville, while the village was located and platted in 1855. Here we find a two-story brick building erected at a cost of $3,000, some fifty years ago. A soldiers' monument, costing $900 and erected by voluntary contributions, in 1869, stood on the beautiful school grounds here for many years, only to be removed to the Palmyra cemetery at Sugar Grove several years ago. No other monument to the memory of the soldier dead in Lee County is known to the writer.

The ''Brick" schoolhouse in South Dixon, located three miles from Dixon, on the Chicago road, is notable in that it was the center of great intellectual activity for many years. Built at an early date, E. B. Edson was its first teacher, and at one time its attendance reached 120.

The first regular school in Willow Creek was started in one of Israel Shoudy's log houses in 1848. Martha Vandeventer was the first regular teacher, although others had preceded her in an irregular way. In 1849 a frame school building was erected by subscription, and while it was being completed, dwellings were used when the weather was too cold for the use of the log cabin. The first board of examiners to pass upon the qualifications of teachers for this school, consisted of John Smith, in grammar and geography; H. G. Howlett, in mathematics and reading; and John Colvill, in writing and spelling. .

In the summer of 1847 a stone schoolhouse was built on Hennepin Avenue in the city of Dixon, on the site now occupied by Scriven's blacksmith shop. Henry T. Noble was one of the early teachers. In 1845 there were 149 persons under twenty years of age in the district, and seventy-five of these were enrolled in the public and select schools.

In 1854 the first schoolhouse was built in North Dixon.

In 1855 the ''Dixon Collegiate Institute'' was opened in the basement of the Lutheran church, under the auspices of the Rock River Presbytery, under the care of Rev. W. W. Harsha. Later, m the same year, the comer-stone of the institute was laid, in what is now Bluff Park. This school was endowed to the extent of $25,000, with generous contributions in grounds, etc., by Dixon citizens. By special act of the Legislature this institution was incorporated in 1857. The school being discontinued, it later became the home of different private schools, and finally gave way to residences.

The Union schoolhouse was a two-story brick, located on the site of the J. C. Ayres residence on Peoria avenue. It was built in 1855 at a cost of $6,000 and was torn down in 1874. Here the old wooden desks were replaced by the more modern type of furnishings.

In 1857 a female seminary was started under the auspices of the Episcopal Church and in 1861 a female seminary was established in the Collegiate Institute building. In 1858, a high school depart-ment was added to the course of study of the public schools. In 1862 E. C. Smith became superintendent of schools. ''Dixon Seminary'' was opened in the Collegiate building in 1863. The Dement town school was built in 1866, and in 1868 the old building in North Dixon was erected at a cost of $20,000, and the next year the ''Red Brick'' building on the south side was built. The latter cost $30,000. A primary brick structure served a period of usefulness on the North Dixon side, it being erected at a cost of $4,000, and gave way in 1889 to the new high school building, completed the next year, just west, at a cost of $15,500.

The ''White Brick'' school, on the south side, was completed in 1887, at an initial cost of $5,500, it being enlarged and improved in 1892 at a cost of $17,000. Several years ago this was destroyed by fire and the splendid new edifice known as the Central school became its successor.

In 1902, a kindergarten was established in the North Dixon schools. It has been continued until the present time, and now enrolls seventy children, taught by three teachers. Manual training was introduced into the south side schools during the same year, the same being maintained on an improved basis today. The Truman school in Morrill town, the west end of Dixon, cost $7,000, and was erected in West Dixon during the same year.

This school was named in honor of Frederick A. Truman (now deceased), president of the board of education, and mayor of Dixon for a long period of years. The Dement town school was named ''Woodworth School" at this time, in honor of Mis. L. L. Woodworth who taught in the same room of this school for thirty-two years. At the same time the south side Red Brick School changed its name to E. C. Smith School, in honor of its former superintendent.

The Northern Illinois Normal School and Dixon Business College began its existence in the Seminary building in 1881, with John C. Flint as president and Jesse B. Dille as principal.

These quarters were occupied but one year, when, upon the completion of the new buildings in West Dixon, the permanent home of this prominent institution of learning was established. Scholarships to the extent of $20,000 were subscribed as an inducement to secure its location in this city, and the college building, proper, and the Ladies' Dormitory were completed when first occupied. The Gentlemen's Dormitory was completed in 1888.

This new school was popular from the very first and grew rapidly under its splendid business management until it registered nearly twelve hundred students (1891), with a corps of instructors numbering about forty. Courses in preparatory, teachers, scientific classic, business, music, telegraphy, art, etc., were maintained, this institution drawing students from nearly every section of the United States, as well as from Canada, and enjoying merited popularity as the leading educational center of northern Illinois. This school is today the property of Prof. I. F. Edwards, who for sixteen years occupied the position of county superintendent of schools of Lee County, and is still in operation, with an encouraging attendance.

Steinmann College began its existence in 1882, under the direction of Charles A. Steinmann, who conducted the school successfully for a number of years. It is located on a beautiful elevation on the banks of Rock River adjoining Assembly Park, on the north. Maj. F. B. Floyd now conducts a military school here, with most gratifying results.

Coppins' Commercial College is located in the heart of the city, and, under the skilled management of W. H. Coppins, this school ministers to the needs of those desiring work in its lines.

St. Mary's Parochial School was founded in 1897. Its location is in block 7, on Peoria avenue, on a plat of ground 200 by 300 feet, the same having once been a portion of the estate of G. L. Schuler. The course includes primary and grammar grades and the teachers are Sisters of the Dominican Order. The home of this order is at Sinsinawa Mound, Wisconsin. This school is prosperous, and has a strong attendance. Work of an excellent order is done.

History of Lee Center Academy
List of Schools by Town

Lee County History

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