High school history and the “Old Brick”

Here’s a chance to read one of our old Local History Room columns, first published in July 2012 before the launch of this blog . . .

High school history and the “Old Brick”

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Recently in this column, we reviewed the history of the buildings that were constructed for the purpose of high school education in Pekin. As we noted then, that history begins with the Fourth Ward School, which was built in 1867 at the site where Washington Junior High School exists today.

However, the history of high school education in Pekin starts several years earlier than that. Pekin’s first high school yearbook was prepared and published by the Class of 1908, and that yearbook commences with a “Brief History of Old ‘P. H. S.’” Here is the 1908 Pekinian’s account of Pekin’s early high school history leading up to the construction of the Fourth Ward School:

“The first building in Pekin in which high school studies were taught was on Ann Eliza Street. It was a tumble down brick building in 1859 when Mr. Blenkiron took charge of the work.

“The studies given were Algebra, Geometry, History – Ancient and Modern, Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, Etymology, and some Physics and Chemistry.

“Latin and German were not taught, for it seems the State Laws forbade the teaching of any foreign language in the public schools. The pupils who wanted languages were compelled to go to private schools, or, if the teacher was willing, he could teach such studies outside the school hours. (Mr. Blenkiron was one of the willing ones and so taught Latin after four o’clock.)

“If any experimental work was necessary the students and teacher were supposed to make their own apparatus, as none was furnished by the school.

“The pupils put up with all sorts of inconveniences, such as, a crowded and poorly heated room, and a nearly collapsable (sic) building. At last the ‘Old Brick’ became so dangerous that thoughts were directed to a new building.

“In 1865 the citizens were appealed to for support and enough money was collected to go ahead with a new structure. Some financial difficulty arose after the foundation was laid and further progress was stopped until 1867.

“Because of the long delay one of the teachers wrote a poem, two lines of which I will quote:

“‘The foundation stands in big bug town,

But the castle is in the air.

“This poem caused much merriment at the time and will long be used in jest by the old citizens.”

Additional information can be gleaned from other sources in the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room. For example, the 1949 Pekin Centenary has this to say about the “Old Brick”:

“Sometime, too, between 1840 and 1850, a two story brick building was erected on Margaret Street (sic), between Third and Capitol, by the ‘Sons of Temperance’, the upper floor being used for the lodge meetings and the lower occupied for many years as a ‘pay school’. After the adoption of the state free school system, the entire building was occupied by the free schools of Pekin. For many years older residents of the community referred affectionately to ‘the old Brick’.”

The 1974 Pekin Sesquicentennial provides further details, correcting the Centenary’s error about the location of the “Old Brick”:

“Roots City Directory of 1861 listed six ‘free schools of the Pekin and Cincinnati Union School District.’ These included the ‘Brick School House,’ built in 1849 on Ann Eliza Street between Third and Capitol. The Superintendent of the district was W. Blenkiron, a noted Pekinite of the day, and the two-story structure was the first brick building erected for school purposes. The school occupied only the ground floor of the building, so the upper story was used for a time a meeting place for both the Masons and the Sons of Temperance. Eventually the property was sold to the T. & H. Smith Company.”

It’s unclear whether or not the “Old Brick” had been erected for school purposes, however.

William Blenkiron, who for many years served as Pekin’s superintendent of schools in the 1800s.

But who was Pekin’s first school superintendent, named simply “Mr. Blenkiron” in the 1908 Pekinian?

“Pekin: A Pictorial History” (1998, 2004) tell us that he was William Blenkiron, “a Pekin resident for 60 years. He taught at Old Jubilee College and served as superintendent of Pekin schools. A prominent amateur athlete in his younger days, he pitched for Pekin’s first baseball team. In the area of philanthropy, he, along with his daughter, Anna, donated the land on which the Blenkiron Park for children or Tot Lot is located on Park Avenue.”

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