A History of the High Schools
in Petersburg

 

Petersburg Jr. Sr. High School, Menard County, IL (current picture)
submitted by Jeanie Lowe

In 1837, the first subscription school in Petersburg was opened in the extreme south end of the town. It's teacher was Charles B. Waldo, a cousin of Mentor Graham, Lincoln's tutor and a brother-in-law of John Bennett, Esq., the first Representative to the General Assembly from Menard County. A year or two later, a small frame schoolhouse was built west of the town, on the brow of the hill near "old Dr. John Allen's place."

In 1845 or 1846, the Masons started a school in the lower story of their hall for the benefit of their own children and others who paid a certain subscription. W. A. Dickey taught this school until the building was bought by the town in 1855.

The Seminary, a school for girls, was opened in 1856 in Petersburg by the Presbyterian Church, in a two-room brick structure, just north of the church building. It was taught by two sisters who came from New England, Misses Amanda and Marian Scilsby, who were members of the first graduating class of Rockford Seminary, now Rockford College. With the interest of Squire Davis Masters of Petersburg as a member of the General Assembly of Illinois, the law establishing the present free school system was passed in 1847. However, the first free school in Petersburg was not opened until eight years later in 1855. Judge J. H. Pillsbury taught the first free school in the Masonic Hall, purchased for that purpose by the city. By remodeling the Masonic Hall, a large commodious building was provided answering all the classroom needs of the town until 1874, when the Third Ward School building was begun.

In 1870, a group of residents who desired to provide better instruction for their children than the public schools offered, established the Petersburg Seminary. A joint stock company was formed by John A. Brahm, Isaac White, H. W. Montgomery, David Frackelton, J. M. Robbins, and B. F. Montgomery. A building was erected on the hill, a half-mile west of the public square. Tuition charges were $36.00 per pupil for a nine months' term. After four years, the enterprise was abandoned.

About 1890, a new and modern seven-room schoolhouse was built in the First Ward. This building burned in 1912, and a modern structure replaced it.

Under the direction of Edith L. Masters of the History Department of the Petersburg Harris High School, Lester R. Ott (Class of 1927) compiled a record of the high school as a teacher, with the subjects taught and the teachers' salaries. From this 1927 record we learn that as early as 1875 some high school subjects were taught, while Higher Mathematics, English, Latin and German were found in the curriculum as early as 182. The first class to complete the high school course graduated in 1887. We also know that in the Spring of 1887 a petition was granted to erect a two-room building which was completed in the Fall of 1887 on the site of the old high school. The Board of Education at that time was composed of N. W. Branson, President; Dr. J. D. Whitley, Vice President; J. M. Ott, Secretary; Dr. T. T. Antle, J. R. Carver, and N. P. Nelson. In March of 1902, a referendum election was held for the purpose of building a high school. The issue failed as it did also in April, but in May the same question was given an affirmative vote. The election was declared illegal, however, in June since the petition had not been signed by three-fifths of the legal voters of District 28. In three weeks the election was reheld, legally, with a greater vote in favor of it than had ever been the case.

A group of community minded women gathered on June 17, 1868, and incorporated on May 12, 1879, an organization which later became the Harris Academy Society. An educational fund was begun with fifteen dollars which, with interest for thirty years increased over four times. When a new school building was proposed in 1903, the Society, lead by its Board of Directors, Mrs. Sarah C. Cheaney, Mrs. Lucy Bennett, Mrs. Minerva Fischer, Mrs. Mary E. Carver, Mrs. Martha Clark, Mrs. Mary Laning, and Mrs. Ella D. Braden, decided on September 22 of that year to contribute their funds to School District No. 28. These funds were available to the Board of Education upon the condition that the new building be called Harris High School in honor of Major Thomas L. Harris (1816-1858), a lawyer with a 16-year local practice who served two terms in Congress and died on the day of his election to a third term.

In 1903, the Board of Education was comprised of President Reep, Secretary Stewart, and members Salveson, Carver, Thompson, Zeigler and Nelson. With their guidance, the new high school was completed on January 6, 1905, and dedicated with appropriate ceremonies on January 13, 1905. The following spring, Harris High School was struck by lightening, claiming nearly all of the second floor and leaving considerable water damage on the first floor. During the summer of 1906, the school was rebuilt in was ready for occupancy in the following autumn. The records show that Harris High School has been accredited by the University of Illinois since 1909. By 1923, there was a growing concern over the absence of a gymnasium. In the spring of that year a successful referendum made possible the annexation of a suitable gymnasium, which was finished in November of 1924 and dedicated on December 15th of that year.

Six years later the first band in Petersburg was organized by Thomas D. Basso. In the early days, the band boasted eighteen players. New Salem Sphinx the name given the first yearbook, was produced by the Class of 1934. The Class of 1912 was the first class to wear caps and gowns for graduation, but the Class of 1934 was the first class to establish the tradition of wearing caps and gowns for graduation.

With the assistance of the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Work, the south addition to the school was built in 1936.

Petersburg Forever, the Loyalty Song was written and composed in 1938 by the bandmaster, Howard E. Akers.

Here's to Petersburg forever,
May we always be so true.
May our courage never falter,
May we always be loyal to you.
RAH! RAH!
May your memory live forever,
And stand for all that's right,
So let's Fight! Fight! Fight!
With all of our might,
For the honor of the Blue and White.

The school district was enlarged in 1942, creating Petersburg Harris Consolidated High School.

A school newspaper The New Salem Log, was originated and published by the Class of 1942.

A modern Farm Shop and Industrial Arts building consisting of two large shops and two classrooms was completed in 1953, with more than half of the funding realized from the sale of houses owned by the school. Ten years later, Petersburg consolidated its school system with the schools of the neighboring communities of Oakford, Rock Creek, Tallula and Atterberry.

Transcribed by: Bertha Emmett


Copyright 2007 Jeanie Lowe & contributors
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