The Rise and Fall
Miriam C. Carlson
From 1885 to 1940 Rockford had one high school, Rockford Central High. Its history begins in the 1850s. Central High's founding and its closing was a reaction to overcrowding and friction between the east and west sides of Rockford. It is also a story of the city's response to state education laws.
In 1852 Rockford's Common Council created a common or graded school in response to the recommendations of a committee studying Rockford schools headed by H. P. Kimball. At this time, parents had to pay $4,540 a year to send 460 children to the seven private schools in Rockford. The schools included the Rockford Female Seminary, the Classical Institute, H. R Kimball's school in the Baptist church, and Miss Stewart's, Mr. Remington's, Mrs. Squire's, and Miss Kenfield's schools. In 1855 the Illinois legislature passed a bill requiring communities to provide public schools. In 1857 the aldermen of the Common Council created two districts. District 1 was the east side with Lincoln School, and District 2 was the west side with Adams School. On August 14, 1857, the schools opened with fifteen teachers and 350 students. No school board existed. The Common Council ran the schools and appointed a Board of School Inspectors. The city paid $25,000 for each of the two stone schools. After two weeks the two districts had nearly 900 students from first grade through high school. Significantly, there was no law yet for mandatory attendance.
Within nine years there was trouble. By 1866 overcrowding occurred. Adams School had 600 students, with 60 meeting in a nearby fire house. The Board of School Inspectors recommended to the city council the founding of a single high school for the city. This would save the city $2,000 by having only one high school faculty. Instead, the city council founded two new elementary schools, named Hall and Ellis.
In 1872 Illinois passed a new general school law. Mayor Taggart recommended dropping Rockford's charter school district and reorganizing the districts in Rockford under the 1872 school law. The city was furious over this possibility, the "much-discussed school question." The city council feared loss of the schools. Mayor Taggart suggested consolidating the three school districts of Rockford into one district. The Rockford City Council approved this plan on April 7, 1884, and was about to create a Board of Trustees. But that month a referendum to create a Board of Trustees lost by 1,200 votes. The city council continued to run the schools. In spite of the defeat, the Common Council hired Professor P.R. Walker as superintendent for a unified Rockford district. He immediately recommended the establishment of one high school for Rockford.
The next hurdle was where to locate the high school. Half of the city wanted the school on the west side of the Rock River and the other half wanted the school on the east side. The proposal for an east-side location resulted in a tie vote in the city council. Taggart cast his vote for the east-side location and broke the tie.
Instead of waiting for the new Rockford Central High to be built, Walker rented rooms on the second floor of a building on 113 West State Street at the river's edge. One hundred fifty high school students from Adams, Kent, and Lincoln schools began classes at Rockford High in September 1884 and the following spring graduated twenty students.
On March 18, 1885, the opening ceremony witnessed speakers on the platform with the board of inspectors. The new building was packed, and as many people gathered outside. A letter was read from Miss Brown, who had opened the first school in Rockford in 1837. Professor Freeman, Central High principal, said that "he hoped it would be dedicated to truth, to moral as well as intellectual culture and that the Bible will 'never, no never cease to occupy an honorable place among the textbooks.'" Superintendent Raab also spoke of "intellectual and moral disciplines."
Four years after Central's opening, three seniors published the school paper, The Owl. In 1892 the school published its first Annual. In 1907 Rockford founded the first high school band in the nation. The Women's Club also began serving hot lunches that year for twelve cents.
Only sixteen years after opening the school, the city built an addition. Others followed in 1906 and 1914. In 1923 the city opened an industrial arts building in the old Rockford Watch Factory. Despite adding this building, they had to ease the crowding the next year by moving the ninth graders into two new junior highs.
By the 1930s the school was rundown. Many alumni interviewed mentioned "Rat Alley," where there were wooden lockers. "I don't know what made it so special to have a locker down in Rat Alley," one student recalled. In the 1930s there was no bus transportation. Marion Larson Clikeman walked more than a mile to school. Lack of a car kept many students from being active after school. What once was a beautiful building with Georgia pine trim was now attacked by parents, fire mar-
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shals, and the state government as a fire trap. Dorothy Bell Belin, a 1937 graduate, felt bad about the coming closing. She said the students did not want to talk about the coming of the two high schools, because they were afraid the two would split.
In 1938 the city sold bonds to raise the building funds. On June 13, after three hours behind closed doors, the school board unanimously approved a $3-million-dollar building program that included two new high schools: Rockford East and Rockford West. Forty-five percent of the funds were to come from the Federal Works Progress Administration. Growing from twenty graduates in 1885 to 940 graduates in 1940, Rockford Central closed, to become the offices for the Rockford School District.— [From student historian's interview with Dorothy Bell Belin, Sept. 21, 1998; Catalogue: Rockford High Schools, 1862-1914; student historian's interview with Marion Larson Clikeman, Sept. 22, 1998; Richard Conklin, ed., Rockford High School, 1890-1940, Annual; The Democrat, Sept. 8, 1857; student historian's interview with Beatrice Hakes, Sept. 23, 1998; C. Hall Nelson, Sinnissippi Saga; 1910 Annual Board, Tenth Annual Yearbook of Rockford High School; Register Republic, Aug. 10, 1931, Feb. 26, 1935; The Rockford Gazette, Ap. 8, 1884, Ap. 17, 1884; Rockford Morning Star, Dec., 1898, June 13, 1935, June 3, June 14, June 19, June 22, June 28, July 2, July 10, July 14, Aug. 5, 1938, June 15, 1952; The Rockford Register, Ap. 17, 1884, Mar. 16, Mar. 18, Mar. 19, 1886; Rock River Democrat, Aug. 25, 1857.]
18 ILLINOIS HISTORY/ DECEMBER 1998