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.