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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A succession of high schools in Pekin

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

A succession of high schools in Pekin

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

The demolition of the former Pekin Community High School West Campus has turned the thoughts of many Pekin residents to the history of Pekin’s high school buildings. In this column, let’s review what we can learn about Pekin’s succession of high schools from the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room collection.

As mentioned recently in this column, Pekin’s first high school was the Fourth Ward School, located where Washington School exists today. A brick structure built in 1867 at a cost of $20,000, the building housed grades one through 12. It was completely destroyed in a fire on Dec. 2, 1890.

Pekin’s first high school building, known as the Fourth Ward School, stood on the site of present-day Washington Intermediate. The Fourth Ward School stood from 1867 until it was destroyed in a fire in 1890.

A new and larger brick school, dubbed Washington School, was quickly built in 1891 on the site of the Fourth Ward School, at a cost of $28,000. While it was under construction, “classes were held in nearly every church basement and vacant building in town,” says the 1974 Pekin Sesquicentennial. It served as Pekin’s high school until 1916, after which it became the old Washington Junior High School. It was torn down and replaced by the current Washington School in 1930.

In 1916, Pekin built its third high school, the building that would become known as the “Old Building” of West Campus. Over the decades, the high school saw several expansions to accommodate the growing student population in Pekin. First came the “west wing” of the Old Main Building in 1926, followed by the “east wing” expansion in 1929 (including the theater). Next came the gymnasium, which was ready to use in 1936. The cafeteria and the shop building were added in 1949, and the English Building (or “Red Building”) and the Leeway were built in 1955.

High school football formerly was played on James Field, but that changed in 1948 with the construction of Memorial Stadium. As student population continued its steady rise, further needed expansion of the high school campus was proposed. However, in early 1959 the city announced it planned to widen Eighth Street, which made it impossible for District 303 to utilize the area needed for the expansion plans. Instead, the school district decided to build a second campus that could accommodate 2,000 students.

Construction on East Campus began in 1962, and classes began there in 1964. The new school was erected near Memorial Stadium, on the former grounds of the Pekin Country Club. “A humorous sidelight to this whole project is that from the time the purchase of the Country Club was made until the time the club house was razed, it could be stated that Pekin was the only high school district to own a bar,” says the Pekin Sesquicentennial. The total cost of the project was $4.6 million.

The next phase of expansion of Pekin high school was the construction of the vocational center. The high school had established a vocational center in 1968, but the vocational center building was not built until 1974, at a cost of $3.1 million.

In 1998, District 303 consolidated all high school operations at East Campus, which underwent a major expansion at that time. West Campus was auctioned off and was purchased for $60,000 by Merle Huff – and the sequel to that story is being written this year [2012].

This aerial view of West Campus from circa 1956, reproduced in “Pekin: A Pictorial History,” shows the high school complex soon after the completion of its final expansion projects.

#aerial-views-of-pekin, #fourth-ward-school, #old-washington-school, #pekin-country-club, #pekin-high-schools, #pekin-history, #west-campus