|Illinois Department of Natural Resources|
After All These Years
A brief history of the Union School
This admittedly incomplete history of the Union School was constructed from interviews and historical research conducted primarily during the period surrounding the 1988 move of the school building from Logan County to its current site at Weldon Springs State Recreation Area.
A rural school from 1865 to 1945: Union School was originally built in 1865, as the story goes, by a Union soldier or soldiers returning from the just-ended Civil War. At least one such soldier, Philander Simcoe, is known by his descendents to have been involved in hauling materials for the construction. The school was situated in a grove of oak and walnut trees, not far from the meandering Salt Creek, in eastern Logan County between Beason and Chestnut. Typically of the era, the building was of simple saltbox design with one room to fulfill all the school's needs. There were windows on one side only, two entry doors at one end and a porch across that gable-end. A small settlement once reportedly stood near the original school site. The main attractions of the town seemed to be a hotel with its bar and dance hall. Cowboys stopped there as they drove their cattle to market and the spot may have likely been a lively one.
In the mid-19th century, the citizens of Illinois realized the need for establishing state-supported schooling and the state began to appropriate funds to build several one-room schools. Prior to that time, schools throughout the region were "pay schools," where the parents of the students would be responsible for funding a school's operation. Somewhere in the late 1800's, the plan had developed that no student should have to travel more than two miles to get to a state-funded school. Records indicate that in 1865, when the Union School was built, there were eight schools in the 36 square miles of what is now Aetna Township (officially, on the plat maps as Township 19, Range 1 West). Other Aetna Township schools then in existence included Popcorn, Chestnut, Regan, Mt. Airy, Bowles, Independence, and Harmony Schools.
Early records are nearly nonexistent due to a fire at the Logan County Courthouse in 1913 that destroyed nearly all county records. Accordingly, little is known of the details of Union School life prior to that time. Generalities can be constructed, though. Nearly all the students would have been from farming families. Chores both before and after school would be expected of all. Students would normally walk to school, with a wagon or horseback ride being a rare treat. In winter, a sleigh might be put to use when the snow made walking troublesome. With the need for children to help at various times on the farm and with the sometime inclement weather, attendance at school was often irregular. Mandatory attendance laws weren't yet in place and many children simply didn't attend at all. Although 1865 had brought emancipation of the slaves, racial attitudes still had a long way to go. As a result of state legislation, in 1873 Logan County built a school specifically for "colored" children. No local records of this endeavor have been located, but there are official reports that two black children attended regular schools (not Union School, as far as we know) with "no objections being made in the district."
In 1889, the average wage for a male teacher in Logan County was $55.85 per month, while that of females was $42.21. Male teachers were actually a bit of a rarity. In fact, none have been discovered on the Union School rolls. Those wages included more than just teaching. Assignment as a 19th century schoolteacher included responsibility for obtaining fuel for the stove, maintaining the cleanliness of the school, even sometimes undertaking minor repairs. From school to school, the amount of support that the local community gave the teacher with these tasks varied considerably. A rural teacher's success was heavily dependent on his or her relationship with the community and much early teacher preparation literature stresses the need to make a good impression and develop strong ties with area families.
For the period shortly after the turn of the century, local memories can reconstruct much of what official records cannot. According to interviews with some former Union School students and teachers, the school building was also sometimes used for church services and there was a pump organ in one corner. Around this era, students ranged from grades 1 through 10, although by around 1921, attendence would be restricted to grades 1 through 8. Around 1917 or 1918, the state began to standardize its rural schools. The importance of a healthy, positive learning environment was beginning to be recognized as education began to be looked at in a scientifically insightful manner. Accordingly, more windows were added to increase the input of natural light and sanitation took on a new emphasis. Within the next few years, two cloak rooms were added and the entrance door and a lengthened porch were moved to one of the longer sides of the building. The side of the school was now the front.
The earliest teacher documented to have served at Union School was Miss Maud Mount, teaching at least in the 1901-02 and 1902-03 school years. No records of her students are known to exist. Most years' lists of students and the names of almost all teachers are available, though, for the period of 1918-19 through 1944-45. The last Union School teacher was Esther Rawlings, serving from 1941 through the school's closing in 1946. Throughout its life, Union School seldom, if ever, served more than two dozen students in a year. Usually, less than eighteen were on the rolls in any year, with less than a dozen not unusual. Dwindling enrollments in its last years and improvements to transportation resulted in a 1946 consolidation with the Chestnut Grade School and the closing of Union School, one of the last and longest-serving one-room schools in the area.
Changes for the old school: Upon its closing in 1946, the old schoolhouse was used for a time as a private dwelling and then sat unused for a spell. It was donated to the Weldon Springs Foundation in 1986 by the family of George W. Bunn, Jr. Preparation work and fund-raising to make the relocation of the building a reality took some time. A gallant effort was put forth to raise the monies needed to move the school the 28 miles to Weldon Springs, to restore or replace rotted parts, and to construct a new foundation. By May of 1988, though, the necessary funds to cover moving and initial restoration costs were raised and the school found a new home at Weldon Springs. Businesses donated materials, such as paint, lumber, and cement. Contractors donated or substantially discounted the price of their labors. Other volunteers spent many an hour scraping, sawing, and otherwise working to restore the old building. The newly relocated school, now just about as good as new, was ready for its new life as the Union School Interpretive Center.
Union School Interpretive Center, 1988 - present: Since being relocated to the Weldon Springs S.R.A in May of 1988, the Union School building has been renovated and fully furnished to appear much as it did in the early part of the 20th century. It contains desks, an old stove, a small bookcase and pictures on the wall representative of the period. Many dedicated volunteers spent long hours replacing rotted wood, replastering the interior, painting and otherwise bringing the old building back to life. It is now available free of charge for use by area classes or other groups. By arrangement, the park's Staff Interpreter can provide tailored science and nature presentations using the school building or its grounds as a backdrop or gathering place when appropriate. Students can experience first-hand a little of what education in a one-room school was like and, at the same time, gain contemporary knowledge that fits right in with their school curriculum needs. For details of using or reserving the school, please return to the Weldon Springs S.R.A. web site and click on "Interpretive Program Information."
The Union School may no longer ring its bell each morning, calling students to their recitations, but it is certainly still doing its part. The old school is "Still Educating: After all these years!"