Kane County History: Educator Joseph Freeman Stands Among The Giants of Aurora

Kane County History: Educator Joseph Freeman Stands Among The Giants of Aurora

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s post is contributed Eric Pry, G.A.R curator for the city of Aurora.

Aurora’s G.A.R. Post No. 20, founded in 1875, was not only one of the largest union veteran organizations in the state but also home to some of the most influential men.

Henry H. Evans, Fred O. White, Alexander C. Little, and many more are well known to anyone who has researched Aurora politics in the late-19th century, but one other man is only briefly discussed: Joseph H. Freeman.

Freeman, a veteran of the 14th Maine Volunteer Infantry, was an avid proponent for a stronger education system in Illinois.[1]

Freeman as the local board president. (CREDIT: Colors from Aurora, J.W. Greenway)

He was first appointed as principal of Brady Elementary School – named after Soldier’s Monument Association co-founder Lorenzo D. Brady – in 1869 but shortly after left his position when he was asked to serve as the superintendent of schools in Polo, IL.[2]

Freeman returned to Aurora in 1879 as the superintendent of the West Aurora School District. During his tenure, the Old Stone School – the first school in Aurora to be constructed through taxation of residents in 1852 – was destroyed by a fire. Freeman oversaw the construction of the new Oak Street School, which provided the city with a modern school facility for children.

Freeman’s career is a series of continual advancement resulting in him receiving an offer to be the deputy superintendent for the entire state of Illinois in 1886.[3]

Three years later, he would assume the office of state superintendent after the death of Samuel Inglis.[4] Although Freeman’s tenure as the state superintendent would be short-lived – being removed by Democratic President Grover Cleveland – Freeman would continue to exert his influence over Aurora’s, and Illinois, youth.

Three major institutions have some sort of connection to Freeman’s tenure, although materials that directly connect the educator to these is quite limited. Northern Illinois University, Eastern Illinois University, and Western Illinois University all opened or were founded during Freeman’s tenure with the Department of Public Instruction.

Freeman (CREDIT: G.A.R. Memorial Museum’s collection)

Freeman was also an early proponent of a publicly funded library having seen the immense benefit the free library in Aurora – housed at Memorial Hall – had on the city.

The essay titled, “Opportunity of Developing a Civil Consciousness Through the Traveling Libraries” was published in the Public Libraries journal in 1910 and argued for libraries to implement a traveling library to visit rural schools and areas to better educate children where schools may be unable to effective operate due to budget constraints.

Freeman, who authored this essay, urged libraries to adopt this program “for the development of the patriotic sense” in young boys and girls.[5]

As Freeman was a commissioner of the Extension Commission – a commission created to distribute information about how libraries could loan items between institutions – his recommendation carried some weight to it.[6] The commission worked tirelessly collecting books to be distributed to other libraries and ensuring the safe return of the loaned materials to the original institution.

Even during the Great War, Freeman continued his service on the Library Extension Commission despite his other obligations to Aurora. This type of program was able to blossom in no small part due to Freeman’s involvement but also that of Librarian Eugenia Allin, who was hired by the commission to ensure best practices were followed.[7]

Freeman’s guiding hand extended beyond that of just education and youth services into the 20h century.

As the United States entered the Great War, President Woodrow Wilson appointed Freeman to head the Local Draft Board for Aurora.[8] The selective service board would determine which of the young men of Aurora would be chosen to serve in the trenches in Europe and which ones held vital jobs or were inadequate recruits. With Freeman at the head of the board, Aurora sent more than 1,000 of its sons to war.[9]

While Freeman and his board was reviewing candidates for the draft, Aurora Post No. 20 performed its patriotic service by parading with Aurora’s newest recruits. On June 24, 1918, 297 men were escorted to the train station where they would head to Camp Grant, Rockford by the G.A.R. Post and the Daughters of Veterans. (They later changed their name to the Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War.[10])

In addition to the moral support provided by the G.A.R., Memorial Hall was also used as an induction site for the American Expeditionary Forces. The young men would march from 23 E. Downer to the Aurora Train Depot while the Civil War veterans played their fifes and drums, and the citizens of Aurora waved their flags.

Freeman’s influence in Aurora extended well past his death in 1931. In return for his steadfast commitment to improving the education system, the Joseph H. Freeman Elementary School was dedicated in 1929 and still stands as a reminder of his work.[11]

He was not the richest man in Aurora, nor has his name been as fondly remembered as some of the other giants of Aurora. Nonetheless, Freeman is recognized as one of the most important and influential persons to have ever graced the city of Aurora.


[1] Descriptive Book. Accession #

[2] Joseph Hewitt Freeman. Accession #2015.01.113. G.A.R. Memorial Museum Collection, Aurora, Illinois. 1.

[3] Ibid. 6.

[4] Illinois Blue Book (Springfield, IL: Secretary of State, 1980), http://www.idaillinois.org/digital/collection/bb/id/38031.574.

[5] Joseph H. Freeman, “Opportunity of Developing a Civil Consciousness Through the Traveling Libraries,” Public Libraries 15 (1910): pp. 396-397, https://books.google.com/books?id=eRmeyF5323UC&pg. 397.

[6] Mark W. Sorensen, “The Illinois State Library: 1870-1920,” The Illinois State Library, accessed July 28, 2021, https://www.lib.niu.edu/1999/il990294.html.

[7] Ibid.

[8] J. W. Greenaway, With the Colors from Aurora, Illinois, U.S.A., 1917, 1918, 1919 (Aurora, IL: Eugene Smith Co., 1920), https://archive.org/details/withcolorsfromau00gree/page/n4/mode/2up. 249.

[9] Ibid. 263.

[10] Ibid. 274.

[11] “West Aurora Schools – Joseph H. Freeman” A+ Foundation for West Aurora Schools, Community Foundation of the Fox River Valley. https://resources.finalsite.net/images/v1579813515/sd129org/jm5ru8dudf8h9ib0pmfm/ProfileofJHFreeman.pdf. 5.


Read The Kane County History Series!

Sign Up To KCC E-Newsletter