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Question prompts look at county schools

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By The Staff

An internet query from Jane Cox, a Leader-Union reader, is the impetus for this column. Jane wanted to know if a list of county schools was available, along with information about those still standing. 

The answer is “yes.”

In 1996, working with all available records, I put together a comprehensive list of schools, by district number, and published it in "Fayette Facts," Volume 25, No. 2, pages 59-77. In addition to a list of more than 150 schools, the township numbers were given, along with availability of photos, records, and names of students and teachers. This list is available in the genealogy section of the Evans Public Library.

For example, Dunn School, also known as Woodyard, in Section 4 of Kaskaskia Township, was begun when John T. Dunn, a widower, deeded one acre of land on July 28, 1899, to the trustees of schools for the township – William Clarkson, Jacob Schmitt and George Willett. No records were found in the office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. The last term held there was 1956-1957, and the building burned in July 1972.

Wheatland and Ramsey townships top the list for having the most schools in their respective townships, with 12 schools each.  In Wheatland Township, the schools were Berry Hill, Centerville, Eldorado, Kepler, Old Loogootee, Old Osbrook, Pippin, Point Pleasant, Prairie View, Rush, St. James and Walnut Grove.

For Ramsey Township, the 12 were: Big Four, Big Three, Chandlerville, Fox Den, Hanson, Little Democracy, Monclovia, Oak Grove, Oakdale, Ramsey, Sanders Hill and Sturgeon.

The earliest schools were of log construction. In Ramsey Township, Henry Walker and Zelah F. Watwood are identified as the first teachers in the township, with Henry Walker having the distinction of being the first to teach a school in the township.

As told in the Ramsey history section of the 1878 History of Fayette County, “The first schoolhouse was built in Section 35, Township 8, Range 1 E. It was a small, log building, but was the best they could afford in those days.”

Frog Pond School was in operation at Howard’s Point as early as 1834. Necessitated by the settlement of workers on the National Road, the town grew around the original camp. Howard’s Point, for the most part, ceased to exist when St. Elmo was founded near the new east-west railroad.

Many of the earliest schools were subscription schools, where the teacher would advertise for students, with the parents paying the $1.50 fee per student. In Vandalia, subscription schools were taught in the evening to allow the men who worked during the day to attend. In the early 1830s, a school for young women was operated in Vandalia,  with training on how to run a house and to be a lady.

The legislature provided for schools by setting aside Section 16 in each township as the "school section," wherein the proceeds from land sold in the section would be used to build and maintain the schools. 

Moving forward to the 1860s, the schoolhouse had its place in the political affairs of the township. In Loudon Township, the schoolhouse became the center of controversy. It was not so much the school building that was controversial, but rather the brightly painted green ballot box that sat on a table in the school.

The ballot box was in the possession of a certain person who lived near the school.  He may have even been the one who painted it green, but he insisted that since he was in possession of the ballot box, the polling would take place in the school near his home.

A second faction insisted that the voting take place at a second school more centrally located within the township. Sides were taken and voices raised when voting day finally arrived. 

As the certain person unlocked the door to the schoolhouse, it was discovered that the green ballot box had been spirited away to the other schoolhouse during the night by some unknown person or persons. From that day on, as long as schools were used as a polling place, this school, more centrally located, was used for polling.

The school also figured greatly in the social life of the community. I recently read a report of the schools from 1905 prepared by the county superintendent and published in a back issue of The Vandalia Union. 

The superintendent, after visiting a number of rural schools, observing the teacher and noting the condition of the schools (interior and exterior), made an annual report. 

In 1905, it appears that the emphasis was on the schools obtaining bookcases and books for the classroom. In his report, he mentions several schools that were raising money for the purchase of these items.

While visiting Hillside School in Sharon Township, he enjoyed a debate over the question taken up by students and faculty from Hillside and McKinney schools over whether Illinois was the best state in the Union.

Pie suppers and box dinners were held to raise money for books and items needed in the classroom. An auction was held for the pie or lunch box prepared by the girls, and the young men would then bid on these delicacies. The high bidder would then win the pie, or share the lunch with the young lady who prepared it.

One time, the boys from another Bayle City School attended a box dinner held at Bingham School, upping the ante on the box dinners prepared by the Bingham girls. 

Availability of records in the office of the Superintendent of Schools varies greatly. In Pope Township, records for West Chapel School are available for the years 1944-1948, but none is available for East Chapel School. For Rush School in Section 16, Shafter Township, records are available for the years 1901-1907; 1911-1916; 1922-1933 and 1939-1946.

Records for parochial schools are kept in the school or church. Those accompanying this article are from St. Paul Public School, also known as Bundy. Later known as District #62, this school stood one mile south of the village of St. Paul. My great-grandfather, Jacob Yund, served on the school board, and several of his children attended the St. Paul Public School. 

The history of the county schools is very interesting when you starting looking for it.  An example is Clover Leaf School in Section 30, South Hurricane Township. The school was first named Old Spunk School. The building was moved and renamed Prater Hill, moved a third time and named Clover Leaf.

Many have been converted into dwellings, such as Prairie Mound in Section 10 of North Hurricane Township, Bayle City School and Bluff City School on Route 40 east of Vandalia, to name a few.

Although fast disappearing, Fayette County’s one-room schools, the places of so many good memories, still dot the landscape of our county.

I agree with Jane Cox that it would be interesting to know how many still stand, whether as an abandoned school, a shed for hay storage or a dwelling.