Within the artifacts which are part of the Effingham County Museum’s collection are numerous things which give insight into the schools of yesteryear. The visitor can view diplomas, yearbooks, graduation announcements, and other physical reminders of both the similarities and differences between today’s educational systems and those of over a hundred years ago.
Each generation faces issues of building new schools and/or remodeling old ones, of deciding what courses should be part on the curriculum, and of providing learning environments that allow students to develop their full potential. The story of Effingham’s Central School is one great example.
High school courses became part of Effingham’s educational system toward the end of the 1880s, with the first high school class graduating from Effingham in 1881 after completing a three-year course. By 1889, the high school had become so crowded it was necessary to employ an assistant principal. It was also necessary to find a better building.
That story began in July 1893 when the people of Effingham voted to authorize the local Board of Education to issue bonds for $18,500 to build a new school building. Several months later toward the end of March 1894, the public learned that the contract for the new Effingham high school building was let with completion of the building scheduled. Shortly thereafter on Saturday, May 12, 1894, a day filled with “bright sunshine, balmy breezes, and temperate climate,” a huge crowd witnessed the laying of the cornerstone of the new high school building.
A local newspaper described the event: “The city was elaborately decorated for the occasion. The business houses vied with the residences in paying homage to the day. Jefferson Street was especially beautiful in its decorations. Business, too, was generally suspended and everybody was on the street nearby. The attendance from the country and from surrounding towns was noticeably small. The busy season for farm work, or some other cause, served to keep the country people at home or at work. The city, however, turned out well. The procession was a very credible one and it was witnessed by a concourse of people all along the line of march.”
Promptly at 2 p.m., the procession formed at the courthouse square. It was made up of the following groups: The Effingham Band, Company G of the Illinois National Guard, public schools, police department, Austin College, Women’s Relief Corps, Daughters of Rebecca, Pythian sisters, IOOF, Knights and Ladies of Honor, Grand Army of the Republic, B of RT, B of LF, Uniform Rank of the Knights of Pythias, Effingham Board of Education, Altamont Board of Education, city officials, Knights Templar and the Masonic Order.
When the parade arrived on the school grounds, some 2,000 people were there to witness the ceremony. W.B. Wright, on behalf of the board of education, invited the grand master of the Masonic order to lay the cornerstone. Grand Master Goddard and his subordinates complied with the request. Goddard prefaced the ceremony with a few remarks about the order and rites. The ceremony was brief and impressive. When the stone was lowered into place, it was tried by the level, plum and square, then the grand master pronounced the duty performed and the ceremony over.
A great number of items had been placed inside the cornerstone box: Constitutions from 11 different area organizations and businesses, lists of officers and members of six local lodges and fraternal groups, lists of school pupils by grade, the list of the corps of teachers in Effingham, the list of members of the Board of Education, copies of four Effingham newspapers, the list of numerous city and county officials, coins, a copy of the protest against Masons laying cornerstone, and at least a dozen other items which were part of the local culture.
Then came the addresses.
W.A. Northcott, a prominent Greenville attorney and politician, later Illinois Lieutenant Governor, was the first to speak. Next was a local lady, Mrs. Quinn, whose eloquent speech dealt with the history and importance of education. The final presenter was Dr. James Newton Matthews, a popular local personality from Mason, who demonstrated his nationally known literary skill by reading an original poem which challenged the listeners to think about the future of society and of the challenges faced by the world.
Thus began the history of one of the really memorable school buildings of the past, the one which housed Effingham High School from 1894-1939. That school’s name continues into the present, even though today’s facility houses pre-junior high young people. The following paragraphs present the story of the school which was named “Central.”
The “Report of the Commissioner of Education Made to the Secretary of the Interior for the Year 1899-1900” described the school this way: The Principal was S.W. Kincaid. There were two secondary instructors, both of whom were males. There were 69 secondary students, 20 males and 49 females. College prep students were described as pursuing a Classical curriculum — six males, 12 females; pursuing a scientific curriculum — three males, two females; Graduates in 1900, three males, nine females; College prep in class of 1900 consisted of two males, seven females; length of the course in years was three; number of volumes in library was 288; the value of grounds, building, furnishings was $30,000.
By 1903, the development of the school’s curriculum was described this way: “The English, Mathematics, History, and Science courses (have been) extended, the study of Latin introduced, (because) the high school laboratory (was) well equipped, the sciences were taught by the laboratory method. The high school course has been changed from time to time to suit the varying conditions. At the present, two courses are maintained, keeping in mind the welfare of the pupils. One course preparing those who desire to pursue work in college, the other for those whose entire school work is limited to the public schools.”
By 1903, when the city of Effingham celebrated the 50th year of its existence, 17 graduating classes had passed through the schools, numbering 114 girls and 73 boys. In that year the number of students consisted of 130 girls and 77 boys, the largest in the history of the schools. There were a couple of issues with the building located in downtown Effingham: First, there was no readily available football field, until, as an earlier article described, land near Southside School was used for that purpose. Second, there was no gymnasium for basketball games, so the armory and a large second-floor room in a downtown building, though not really adequate, were used. The lack of a gym also meant that graduations and school plays had to be held off site, typically at the Austin Opera House.
Until that time, however, Central High School continued to add to its curriculum as evidenced by the class schedule shown in the 1932 yearbook, and to have numerous extracurricular activities, among which were both boys and girls glee clubs, a marching band, and a professional-appearing newspaper,
The growth continued so that by 1927 architects had made plans for an addition to the 1893 building to add seven classrooms, a large assembly room for study hall, a modern gymnasium, and a science room large enough to meet the requirements of the University of Illinois. With a favorable vote on a public bond election, the builders were able to move toward completion of the new portion of the facility, which was dedicated on January 31, 1929. It was a state-of-the-art building. It was the focus of great community pride. Within 10 years, there was a need for a new building. The cornerstone for that building, the current Effingham Junior High School, shows the date as 1939.