Public grade school education in Pekin through the years

This is a reprint of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in May 2014, before the launch of this weblog.

Public grade school education in Pekin through the years

By Jared Olar

Local History Specialist

The founding pioneer settlers of Pekin believed it was very important to provide youth with a good education. So it was that in 1830, the year of Pekin’s founding, the town’s first school opened. A log cabin built by Thomas Snell, it was located on the west side of Second Street between Elizabeth and St. Mary streets, at the southwest corner of Elizabeth and Second. Snell’s son John was the teacher.

Pekin’s first school house also has the distinction of temporarily serving as a fort during the Black Hawk War of 1832. The town’s inhabitants quickly threw up a stockade around the building. Thankfully, Fort Doolittle, as it was called, never had to be used, which was an especially good thing since, as the publications on Pekin’s early history relate, the fort’s builders had forgotten to provide it with a water supply.

A few years later, Pekin’s second school, called the Cincinnati School, was built at the corner of Franklin and Third streets. A one-story frame house situated near the lower end of the long vanished Bitzel’s Lake (which later would be drained to make way for the railroad), Cincinnati School would get surrounded by water every spring, so temporary bridges would be placed to enable the students to get to the school, or else the shorter pupils would have to be carried by the taller ones.

Pekin’s first brick school was Pekin Academy, a two-story building on Tharp Place where a Baptist elder named Gilbert S. Bailey taught young men and women. The structure was erected in 1836, according to William H. Bates, and later historical works say the academy opened in 1852.

Bates also quotes from early town records from 1840 that refer to a school that operated out of the old Methodist Church. In addition, the St. Matthew’s School opened in the early 1850s, a private school that operated as a reformatory, known in town as the “bad boy’s school.”

These early schools were the predecessors of the Pekin and Cincinnati Union School District, which in turn was ancestral to the present District 108 and District 303. The 1860 U.S. Census says Pekin then had 12 school houses and 503 pupils – a tally that includes religious schools. The next year, the 1861 Root’s Pekin City Directory listed six “free schools” in Pekin and Cincinnati Union School District. Those schools were:

  • The Brick School House, built in 1849 on Ann Eliza Street between Third and Capitol, which would serve as Pekin’s first high school
  • The Cincinnati School, at Franklin and Pleasant streets
  • The Yellow School House, at the corner of Second and Susannah streets
  • The Second Street School, between Court and Elizabeth on Second Street
  • The Frame School House, at the corner of Capitol and Ann Eliza
  • The German and English School, on the east side of N. Fourth Street between Market and Caroline

While the city’s public schools were operated collectively as a school district, the formal organization of a state-recognized public school district did not come until the General Assembly passed the Pekin School Charter & Law in 1869. That law governed the operation of Pekin School District until the 1920s, when the city took steps to separate the administration of the high school from the elementary schools, creating District 108, legal successor of Pekin School District, and District 303, the high school district.

A year after the formation of Pekin School District, the 1870 Pekin City Directory lists the following public schools:

  • Second Ward School
  • Third Ward School
  • Fourth Ward School, built 1867-69 at the present site of Washington Intermediate, burned down Dec. 2, 1890. The old Washington School was then built, which served as the high school until West Campus was built in 1916, and then became a junior high.  It was replaced by the current Washington Intermediate building in 1930.
  • Bluff School, built in late 1869 (later called the Fairmount School and the Allen School), at the site of the later McKinley School

Subsequently, the school district would build a succession of elementary and junior high schools, many of which have since been demolished: Lincoln School (1876, extensively remodeled and expanded in 1913, later became Good Shepherd Lutheran School, demolished in 2010), East Side School or Douglas School (1881-2, replaced in 1924, demolished in 1988), Garfield School (1894, demolished in 1981), Franklin School (1923, replaced in 1936, now a private office building), Jefferson School (1906, replaced in 1976), McKinley School (1919, demolished), Roosevelt School (1923, demolished), Fearn Wilson School (1949), Edison Junior High School (1954), C.B. Smith School (1956), Sunset Hills School (1962, recently renamed Scott Altman School), Willow School (1962), L.E. Starke School (1966), Broadmoor Junior High School (1976), Dirksen School (1984, housed in Broadmoor), and most recently, Wilson Intermediate School (built adjacent to old Wilson).

Shown below are photographs and images of many of Pekin’s former schools which have been razed and/or replaced.

The brick structure, which was built in 1836, formerly stood at the northeast corner of Haines and Tharp (now St. Joseph’s Place), and was the home of Pekin Academy which opened in 1852.
Four of Pekin’s old schools — including two of Pekin’s old high schools — are shown on this page from Pekin photographer Henry Hobart Cole’s “Souvenir of Pekin.”
A vintage photo of the Fourth Ward School, which served as Pekin’s high school until in burned down in 1890. The school stood at the current site of Washington Intermediate School, 501 Washington St.
Another view of the Fourth Ward School, which served as Pekin’s high school from the latter 1860s until in burned down in 1890. The school stood at the current site of Washington Intermediate School, 501 Washington St.
Shown here is a photograph of Old Washington School, which served as Pekin’s high school from 1890 to 1916. This school stood at the present site of Washington Intermediate School.
Another view of Old Washington School, which served as Pekin’s high school from 1890 to 1916.
This early view of the 1916 Pekin Community High School on Broadway (later known as West Campus) shows the school as it looked before the addition of its west and east wings.
Pekin Community High School is shown with its west wing addition in this photograph from circa 1930.
Lincoln School, 333 State St., was first built in 1876 but was extensively remodeled and expanded in 1913. It later served as the home of Good Shepherd Lutheran School.
Shown here is Old Douglas School, originally called East Side School, which stood from 1881 to 1926, when it was razed to make way for a much larger Douglas School on the same site.
The second Douglas School, 200 S. 10th. St., stood from 1926 to 1988, when it was torn down and replaced by K’s Super Saver grocery store (now Schnucks).
Garfield School (1895-1983) formerly stood at 1115 State St.
A view of Old Jefferson School, 905 S. Capitol St. The school was built in 1906 and was replaced by the current Jefferson School in 1976.
A view of the rear of Old Jefferson School, 905 S. Capitol St. The school was built in 1906 and was replaced by the current Jefferson School in 1976.
McKinley School, 2115 Court St., was built in 1919 on the former site of Bluff School.
Roosevelt School (1923-1970s), 212 Sapp St., later demolished.

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When Pekin was only a town

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

For the first 19 years of its existence, from 1830 to 1849, Pekin was a pioneer town, with much of the character that is associated with the Wild West rather than a modern semi-rural Midwestern city. A Native American village even thrived near the new town until 1833, first located on the ridge above Pekin Lake and later on the south shores of Worley Lake.

However, as Pekin’s pioneer historian William H. Bates tells in the 1870-71 Pekin City Directory, it was in that first period of Pekin’s history that the crucial groundwork was laid for Pekin’s civic development.

Thus, Bates tells us that Pekin’s nascent economy got a boost in Pekin’s first year with the opening of two stores – one belonging to Absalom Dillon and the other to David Bailey – and a hotel or tavern operated by Pekin co-founder Gideon Hawley. Religion in the new town also made its debut in 1830, with the construction of Rev. Joseph Mitchell’s Methodist Church on Elizabeth Street between Third and Capitol.

The following year, Thomas Snell built the town’s first school house, located on Second Street between Elizabeth and St. Mary. Thomas’ son John was the school teacher. The same year, Thomas built Pekin’s first warehouse.

The most significant of 1831’s milestones for Pekin was the transfer of the county seat from Mackinaw to Pekin. When the Illinois General Assembly created Tazewell County in early 1827, Mackinaw was designated as the county seat because it was near what was then the geographical center of Tazewell County. But Pekin’s location as a port on the Illinois River meant Pekin was less remote than Mackinaw. That greater accessibility gave Pekin better prospects.

Another thing that may have played a role in the decision to move the county seat was a memorable extreme weather event: the incredible “Deep Snow” of Dec. 1830, a snowfall and sudden freeze that had turned life on the Illinois prairie into a desperate fight for survival. Pekin was closer to other, larger towns and settlements than Mackinaw, and therefore safer for settlers.

With such considerations in mind, the county’s officials decided to relocate to Pekin even though Illinois law still said Mackinaw was the county seat.

Pekin remained the de facto county seat for the next five years. During that time, Illinois Supreme Court Justice Samuel D. Lockwood presided over the Circuit Court in Tazewell County. Court at first took place in the Snell school house, but later would convene in the Pekin home of Joshua C. Morgan, who simultaneously held the offices of Circuit Clerk, County Clerk, Recorder of Deeds, Master in Chancery, and Postmaster. That house was later the residence of Pekin pioneer doctor William S. Maus.

The Black Hawk War, Illinois’ last conflict with its Native American population, broke out in 1832. The war lasted only a few months. It began disastrously for the Illinois militia with the debacle at Stillman’s Run in northern Illinois, where the untrained and undisciplined militia recruits quickly succumbed to panic and fled, leaving behind the few brave men in their number to be butchered and scalped. As Bates sardonically put it, “The balance of the command, so history hath it, saved their scalps by doing some exceedingly rapid marching to Dixon on the Rock River.” Among the fallen was Pekin co-founder Major Isaac Perkins.

The town of Pekin itself was not directly affected by the fighting, although the townsfolk did build a stockade around the Snell school house as a precaution, renaming it Fort Doolittle. The fort never had to be used, however, which was a very good thing, because, as Bates commented, it “was so constructed, that in case of a siege, the occupants would have been entirely destitute of water.”

Despite the war’s inauspicious start, the Illinois troops quickly gained the upper hand and Sauk war leader Black Hawk (Makataimeshekiakiak) was forced to give up the struggle. The outcome of the war was the greatest calamity for the remaining Indian tribes of Illinois, who beginning in 1833 were almost to a man forcibly relocated to reservations west of the Mississippi – including the Pottawatomi and Kickapoo bands who lived in Tazewell County. Tazewell County’s Pottawatomi were soon joined by the harried remnants of their kin from Indiana, whom state militia soldiers forced to march west from their homes in Indiana in 1838 along a route that is remembered as the Pottawatomi Trail of Death.

In July 1834, an epidemic of Asiatic cholera struck Pekin, causing the deaths of several pioneers, including Thomas Snell and the wife of Joshua C. Morgan. The victims were hastily interred in the old Tharp Burying Ground, the former site of which is now the parking lot of the Pekin Schnucks grocery store.

Given the challenges and upheavals of the first five years of Pekin’s existence, it should not be surprisingly to learn that there are no surviving records of the town’s elections prior to 1835. On July 9, 1835, the townsfolk elected five men as Trustees: David Mark, David Bailey, Samuel Wilson, Joshua C. Morgan, and Samuel Pillsbury. Two days later, Pekin’s newly elected Board of Trustees organized itself, choosing Morgan as its president and Benjamin Kellogg Jr. as clerk.

One of the first acts of the new board was passing an ordinance on Aug. 1, 1835, specifying the town’s limits. At the time, Pekin’s boundaries extended from the west bank of the Illinois River in Peoria County eastward along a line that is today represented by Dirksen Court, reaching out as far as 11th Street, then straight south along to 11th to Broadway, then westward along Broadway back across the Illinois River to Peoria County. It is noteworthy that land in Peoria County has been included within the limits of Pekin ever since 1835.

This detail from an 1864 map of Pekin has been cropped to match the town limits of Pekin as they stood in 1835 — extending from the west bank of the Illinois River eastward to what is today 11th Street, and from Broadway north to what is today Dirksen Court. Many of the 1864 streets did not yet exist in 1835, of course.

Pekin’s first Board of Trustees continued to meet until June 27, 1836, when the county seat was formally relocated by Illinois law to Tremont, where a new court house had been built. Pekin then elected a new board on Aug. 8, 1836, the members of which were Samuel Pillsbury, Spencer Field, Jacob Eamon, John King, and David Mark. King was elected board president and Kellogg was again elected clerk.

Board members served one-year terms in those days, so Pekin held elections every year. Getting enough board members together for a quorum was evidently a real challenge. The board addressed that problem by passing of an ordinance on Jan. 4, 1838, stipulating that any board member who was more than 30 minutes late for a board meeting would forfeit $1 of his pay.

Another notable act of Pekin’s board around that time was a resolution of Dec. 29, 1840, adopting “an eagle of a quarter of a dollar of the new coinage” as the official seal of the town of Pekin.

On Dec. 29, 1840, the Pekin Board of Trustees officially adopted an American eagle like the one shown on this mid-19th century quarter as the seal of the Town of Pekin.

Throughout these years, Pekin continued to see economic developments. The first bank in town, a branch of the Bank of Illinois, was established in 1839 or 1840 at the rear of a store on Second Street. There was not yet a bridge across the Illinois River, but ferries were licensed to operate. Alcohol distilleries also were established in the area that is still Pekin’s industrial district, and around those years Benjamin Kellog also built the first steam mill near the river between Margaret and Anna Eliza streets.

In spite of a scarlet fever epidemic in winter of 1843-44, these economic developments were signs of Pekin’s continuing growth and progress, notwithstanding the loss of the county seat to Tremont. The pioneer town was poised to attain the status and rank of a city.

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