‘Education For All’: Elgin High School Celebrates 150-Year History — 1869-2019
- Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was written by Elizabeth Marston, director of the Elgin History Museum.
Elgin High School is celebrating 150 years in 2019, and the school’s motto “Education for All” is as true today as it was when the school was opened in 1869.
In a world of constant change, the Elgin High School has pursued this goal in a variety of ways.
- Preparation of students for college
- Direct vocational training
- “Life adjustment skills”
- General education for citizenship
From academics to athletics, from arts to politics, from good citizens to good people, EHS graduates have spread across the globe to excel and to distinguish themselves in all walks of life.
Elgin reflects the national trend in the development of a strong system of public education by the 1860s. Elgin, Aurora and other Fox River Valley communities were setting up high schools in the 1860s and 1870s. The early school systems evolved with standardized instruction, teachers with Normal School training, and the need for an educated citizenry to read, write, and vote.
Public education was built on the idea that everyone in the community — regardless of class or wealth — has a right to educate their children.
Early Elgin High School
The school started as the work of Elgin’s first professional educator, Charles F. Kimball (1830-1907), known as the “Father of Elgin High School.”
Kimball came to Elgin in 1868 as principal of the “New Brick” school and the next year became superintendent of schools. It was “Professor” Kimball’s task to find the classroom space for the growing number of students in a booming town.
Enrollment jumped from 12 pupils in 1869 to about 50 in 1871-72. Kimball recruited and trained a constantly changing staff of teachers. Through it all, he steadily improved instruction and developed a considerable reputation as an educator.
Kimball is a relation to Elgin’s pioneer Kimball families.
It was not until 1874 that the first boy received a diploma.
Through the class of 1895, there were 203 girl graduates and only 66 boys.
Measured by the occupational choices of its graduates, one of the main functions of Elgin High School was the education of future teachers. Possibly as many as half became teachers in the Elgin schools or in the many one-room district schools in the surrounding rural area.
The high school gave no instruction about teaching methods or child development until 1892, when a training school was established. This was necessary because of the growing number of inexperienced teachers in an expanding school system.
Experienced teachers could not be attracted from outside the community because most preferred to cut expenses by living at home and Elgin salaries were not sufficient to attract them here.
The educational requirements for positions in business and industry were rising. In 1903, for example, the superintendent of the watch factory wrote the superintendent of schools seeking high school graduates for the machine department “skilled in mathematics, physics, and chemistry.” In the same year, the watch company president offered to equip a manual training room, and that fall two classes were formed in the Branch High.
The girls were not forgotten as the school adjusted to a changing student body. In 1903 the Elgin Woman’s Club furnished the equipment for a domestic science room in rented quarters near the high school.
Elgin High School Buildings
Elgin High School has been housed in four different buildings.
The most iconic is the 1911 building on DuPage Street, now the administrative offices for School District U-46.
From the first Maroon yearbook in 1911: “Beyond a shadow of a doubt the finest high school building in the state of Illinois for any city the size of Elgin.”
Elgin voters finally approved a new school in 1905 to solve school overcrowding. Designed in a classical style by local architect David Postle, the east wing opened in 1906.
The school was completed in early 1911 with 50 rooms and an enrollment capacity of 1,050. The library was located on the second floor over the main entrance. There were rooms equipped for vocational training, domestic arts, and science labs.
The auditorium could hold the whole student body with 1,100 seats, providing space for entertainments, debates, contests and graduation exercises. Above the auditorium was a gymnasium with a running track and showers.
World War I
During World War I, a military training class was authorized.
Boys enlisting in military service were able to graduate early. Boys working on farms as members of the Boys’ Working Reserve were excused from school.
The students bought thrift stamps and participated in Red Cross drives. The war hit many students personally, when word reached Elgin that Nellis Clark, president of the Class of 1917, had perished from a shrapnel wound in August 1918. Two faculty members and eight graduates died in war service.
The patriotic fervor altered the curriculum. French was added, and German dropped in 1918, and not until 1928 was the language of the enemy restored as an elective.
Student life in the post-World War I years reflected the younger generation’s growing interests in dancing, flapper styles, automobile driving, movies, cigarettes, and even the prohibited liquor. Dancing and movies both arrived at EHS in 1919.
Principal Goble was reluctant to accept these innovations. Students had been attending dances sponsored privately or by the classes for several years, but they had never been allowed in the high school building.
The issue had split the clergy and townspeople since 1914, but the Class of 1919 successfully petitioned the board.
The first dance, under strict rules and supervision, took place at the senior class party in the gymnasium in May 1919.
That spring, the seniors gave a dance for the juniors and the juniors gave a dance for the seniors, and the prom tradition at year’s end was under way.
Elgin was devastated by the Depression. In the spring of 1930, to avoid the expenses of new suits and dresses, the graduating class voted to wear caps and gowns.
That fall, 29 of its members returned to EHS as “post graduate” students, and the following year there were 73 alumni enrolled.
The jammed high school building had to accommodate those who had nowhere else to go. The average daily attendance in 1931-32 reached 1,539 in a structure built to house a maximum of 1,050.
For the school year 1932-33, most teachers had their salaries reduced 10% and all automatic salary raises were suspended. Another 10 percent cut in salaries was made in 1933-34.
EHS retrenched in other ways, too. The summer school was abandoned in 1932 after nine years of operation. The school was closed to post-graduates the same year. To pool resources, the separate junior and senior proms were combined in 1934.
Elgin changed when Larkin High School opened on Elgin’s west side with sophomores and juniors in the fall of 1962. The Fox River became the dividing line between the two schools within the city of Elgin.
The high school had been a place where everyone went to school together. A new school created an east/west rivalry and illustrated Elgin’s growth.
With the graduation of the EHS Class of 1963, the last to contain west side students, the overcrowding ended temporarily. South Elgin students were enrolled at Larkin, while those from Bartlett and Wayne continued at EHS. Streamwood and Hanover Park students were split between the two high schools.
The Elgin High School Archives holds a wealth of information on the history of the school. Volunteer alums meet each week to catalog new items donated items and create exhibits to tell a story of Elgin High School’s development.
The Wall of Fame is a program continued by the Archives that documents the biographies of dozens of successful and famous Elgin High School Alumni. Bios are available at https://www.u-46.org/domain/3280
The Elgin History Museum is opening a new exhibit on Elgin High’s 150 years. School sweaters, prom dresses, jackets, beanies, pins, rings, and other high school memorabilia will be on display along with photographs, pennants, and high school publications.
History teacher John Devine will present more information on Elgin High, its students, faculty, and administrators at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 10, at the Elgin History Museum.
Read The Kane County History Series!
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