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Early History of the La Grange / LaGrange Park Schools

Skunk Corners

Kids called it "the school at Skunk Corners." A small, white, frame building, it stood at a place which later became the intersection of East Avenue and Joliet Road.  Nothing special distinguished it from hundreds of other one-room country schoolhouses from Connecticut to Cook County. One day, however, the kids gave it a distinct flavor. They killed a skunk and nailed its hide to a fence at the crossroads. That's how the first schoolhouse in the La Grange area got its popular name.

Margaret McNaughton taught all grades at the school in the mid-1850's. Like all children, her pupils thought the 3r's meant running, recess, and roughhousing. But Miss McNaughton knew how to handle them. For ten years, she taught in this part of Illinois, starting at a log school at the intersection of two dirt roads that later became Joliet and Wolf Roads. A surviving photograph of Margaret McNaughton shows a pleasant-looking woman with an oval face, large eyes, and straight auburn hair. She married a local farmer, Cossitt Avenue Grammar School constructed with native limestone, circa 1883, on north side of Cossitt between Ashland and Madison.

Samuel Vial, one of the area's first settlers and a man who did much to advance education. The Vials lived in a house on East Avenue and Joliet Road. Margaret Vial taught her own children and those of neighbors in her home, at first. The school at Skunk Corners was built at this location about 1855.

The first school in what has become La Grange opened in the early 1860s, west of Brainard Avenue and north of Ogden Avenue in an area called Hazel Glen, not far from John Unold's first store.  The first teacher was Miss Sarah North, who, at the age of nine, had come from Elizabethtown, New York with her mother in 1855. Her mother, Gertrude, married Samuel Vial after the death of his first wife.

The community failed to develop, and the school moved east and south a few years later to Brainard Avenue, near Cossitt Avenue, across the tracks from Unold's new store and near the future site of Lyons Township High School.

In those days, the only requirements for establishing a school district were enough students to fill one room and enough revenue to hire a teacher for six months.  Evidently Sarah North disagreed with officials about what was enough.  Records reveal she received $90.00 for three months work in 1867.  According to one story, Miss North protested the amount, but officials told her "the work was not worth much more than that."

Poet's Corner

After Cossitt began organizing his new town, the center of village life moved east, and the school moved with it to a white frame building on Cossitt and Ashland Avenues, now the site of the First United Methodist Church. For a time, members of the church held Sunday services in the school.

To serve the growing population in La Grange Park, the Poet's Corner School was erected in 1885, on the comer of La Grange Road and 31st Street. It was later moved to a spot near LaGrange Road and Oak Avenue. Eight grades were taught at the school. Eight years later, the North School was built on Kensington Avenue between Bell and Ogden Avenues, midway between the Poet's Corner school and the schoolhouse on Cossitt Avenue.

This photograph from 1890 or 1891 is of the frame school building located at the southwest corner of Cossitt and Madison Avenues.  Around 1879 the Methodists began using the building on Sundays for services.  It was torn down in 1892 or 1893 to make way for the Methodist Church, and was rebuilt in limestone on the other side of Cossitt Avenue.

The "Old Cossitt School", on Cossitt Avenue between Madison and Ashland, was torn down in 1921 to make way for a larger school.

LaGrange Grammar School (Cossitt School)

On June 19, 1886, the first annual commencement of the LaGrange Grammar School (also known as Cossitt School) took place. According to a program preserved from that event, the principal -- Mr. A. F. Stults, his wife, and the teachers took an active part. A "quartette" composed of Mr. and Mrs. Stults and two teachers performed "The Unseen City." One of the teachers -- Miss Hill -- later did a piano solo titled "Blue Bells." Mrs. Stults gave a vocal solo called "The Valley of Chamouie," and Miss dark, another quartette member, played "Midsummer Night's Dream" on the piano. Of course, Mr. Stults also gave the Class Address.

Built in 1893, the Old North School on North Kensington near Odgen Avenue was located between the Cossitt School and the Poet's Corner School to the north.

After classes moved to the Odgen Avenue School in 1910, it served for many years as a school for Saint John's Lutheran Church.  Later it became an annex for the Saint Francis School, and later still was a workshop run by Helping Hand.

By 1880, the student body had outgrown the original La Grange Elementary School, and it was replaced by a new building across the street, an eight-room limestone structure. That, too, eventually proved inadequate, and it was replaced by an even larger building, the current Cossitt School, in 1921. When a bond issued to fund the new building proved insufficient, private donations made up the difference. The new school boasted a tiled swimming pool and an auditorium with opera chairs, a pipe organ, stage lighting, a projector and screen, and elaborate ceiling decorations. The kindergarten room had a fountain, a fireplace, and birds in cages.

Meanwhile, the Poet's Corner and North Schools had also run out of space, and the two were replaced in 1910 by the Ogden Avenue School. Poet's Corner School was subsequently moved, remodeled, and used as a house. Saint John's Lutheran Church bought the North School, and held its first classes there in 1911. Later, the building was used for overflow classrooms by Saint Francis Xavier and as a sheltered workshop for a group called Helping Hand. In the early 1990s the building, still substantially as it looked in the 19th century, became a daycare center. The East School was constructed in 1899 on the corner of Shields and Raymond in La Grange Park on land donated by Elizabeth Harper. The school was built of native limestone rock quarried nearby, and in 1900 two rooms accommodated 72 pupils, in four grades, taught by two teachers. Later known as the Congress Park School, by 1915 it housed two hundred students in kindergarten through grade eight. A wing was added in 1927, and the school was greatly expanded in 1950.

During the boom period of the late 1920's, another school went up at what later became Seventh Avenue and 49th Street. At the time, people referred to the location as "in the prairie," and some of them regarded the decision to construct a school there as unwise. The school board, which included Homer L. Furman, president; Cole G. Lenzi, and Fred Petgas, insisted that population growth would make the new facility necessary. They were right. General Motors built its Electro-Motive plant in the vicinity in 1935, and by 1945, the Seventh Avenue School had to be enlarged.

Oak Avenue School was completed in 1928, and was built to relieve overcrowding at Ogden School. Nettie McKinnon did double duty as principal of both schools. The building, on North Kensington Avenue in La Grange Park, is currently headquarters of the American Nuclear Society.

When the district's enrollment witnessed another growth spurt after World War II, the Goodman Avenue School was built in 1949 and expanded in 1952. The construction of Forest Road School in 1953 coincided with the growth of the northeast part of La Grange Park and the development of the Village Market shopping center and Homestead Apartments. The school attracted still more residents, so that by 1954 an addition that was larger than the original building was underway. Other schools serving the area include Spring and Seventh Avenue schools in La Grange, and Brook Park School in La Grange Park.

Lyons Township High School

When La Grange incorporated as a village, graduates of its elementary schools went to work or attended private high schools, such as the academy operated by Knox College in Galesburg. Many La Grangers who obtained a higher education returned to the same grammar school from which they graduated, or to other area primary schools, as teachers.

With an increasing population, people began to debate and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of publicly-supported high schools. Why increase taxes to educate other people's children when taxes already were too high, some argued. All youth should be given the opportunity to obtain a good education and to improve the quality of their lives, others insisted. Residents voted on the issue in April, 1888; 380 votes were cast for, and 328 against, establishment of a tax-supported secondary school. Following this narrow margin of approval, Lyons Township High School became the sixth in Illinois to organize under a new law permitting townships to form high school districts.

District 204's boundaries coincided with township lines set up by federal surveys when the State was still part of the Northwest Territory. In terms of thoroughfares existing in the 1970's, these consisted of Harlem Avenue on the east, the Cook-DuPage County line on the west, 87th Street on the south, and Brewster Avenue and 39th Street on the north. School trustees built the high school in La Grange, at Brainard and Cossitt, because the district obtained this land free.

On a September morning in 1889, the only teacher, H. W. Thurston, opened the high school to its total enrollment of 39 pupils. He taught them in a classroom rented from the Cossitt School for $100 a year. To finance a high school building, voters approved a $20,000 bond issue, but when construction bids came in, trustees discovered that another $15,000 had to be raised. School boosters seriously doubted that voters would approve a second bond issue so soon, but no other way existed to raise the funds. The election took place and the bond issue did pass by 30 votes. La Grangers strengthened the school part of their trilogy with a commitment to guarantee a better education for the youth of the area.

Thurston and others regarded music as an integral part of a well-rounded education, and they wanted to obtain a piano. Trustees proposed to pay for it with receipts from tickets sold to school performances. When the entertainment did not provide enough money, Thurston paid for the piano. The directors later reimbursed him from school funds.

Construction crews finished the new building in 1890. Inside it, Thurston and his successor in 1893, E. G. Cooley, quickly established that the three R’s meant "reading, 'riting, and regular attendance, not running, recess, and razzmatazz". Regulations were short and to the point. The 1899 report to the Board of Education listed these five requirements:

An innovative teacher and administrator, Cooley, principal from 1893 to 1900, championed the idea of business and manual training. In an 1899 report to the Board of Education, he wrote:

"By introduction of these new studies we hope to aid the numerous students who have no prospects of college before them, or even of graduation from high school. We aim for to them the greatest possible amount of good, considering the time they spend with us. . . . Manual training offers an outlet for waste physical energies, enables them to shorten the period of preparation for such professions as engineering, and aids many boys in their work in school. . . . At first we shall limit this work to woodworking and drawing, but I hope to see the courses include training in iron, cooking, etc."

Decreasing Dropouts

Cooley tried to increase the number of pupils who stayed in high school four years. When LTHS held its first graduation in 1891, only seven students received diplomas. By 1900, the graduating class numbered 12, although enrollment increased from the original 39 to 146. Enrollment reached 261 in 1910, 650 in 1920, and 800 in 1924. But the average annual graduating class increased only from 26 in the 1900-1910 decade, to 60 in the 1910-1920, to 119 in 1923.

Not only was the dropout rate high, but enrollment did not increase at the same rate as population. F. K. Vial, president of the high school Board of Trustees, blamed this on the public's belief that a high school education was not important or beneficial. However, he noted in 1924 that the percentage of students completing four years of study had begun to rise, indicating a change in this attitude. The LaGrange Citizen quotes him as stating: "The percent of increasing numbers in the graduating classes is much greater than that of increasing enrollment. In the past, scarcely 50 percent of the first enrollment graduated. A determined effort now is being made to increase this ratio. It is believed that in the near future more than 75 percent of freshmen will remain to receive their diplomas. It is becoming more and more necessary for young people to complete their secondary education to successfully fill any chosen vocation."

Records and photographs show five grades of students in the high school from 1900 to 1915. The trustees decided, in 1900, to educate eighth-graders at LTHS to alleviate continual overcrowding in the elementary schools. According to Eugene C. Bailey, a LaGranger who researched the history of LTHS, "graduates of the class of 1915 found nothing unusual about spending five years in high school. They claimed to be well-treated by upperclassmen, and felt as much a part of the student body during their first year as during the next four years. Student publications reveal, however, that eighth-graders, like freshmen and sophomores, received relatively little attention unless they happened to be outstanding athletes, musicians, or actors."

Enrollment began to increase sharply in the 1920's. Vial commented that this was "the more remarkable because in 1920 the boundary lines of the high school district were revised by detaching distant parts of the township." Parents of youth living in the southern areas objected to the long trip to the northwest corner of the township. Willow Springs, Justice, Argo, and Summit -- all south of the Des Plaines River -- formed the Argo-Summit District. Lyons joined the Cicero High School District. Communities remaining in district 204 included LaGrange, Western Springs, Hodgkins, Brookfield, and the areas later known as LaGrange Highlands, Indian Head Park, and Countryside in Lyons Township, as well as LaGrange Park and parts of Westchester in Proviso Township. Thus the name Lyons Township High School became a misnomer. However, as Vial noted, "this separation relieved the district of the care of distant centers of population, and made it possible to concentrate its efforts on educational facilities for the youth of one contiguous community, and on developing a community center for general information and culture."

Scholarship and Innovation

Fifty years after its founding, the high school student body had grown from 39 to 1,526. The 1938 graduating class totaled 306. The dropout rate had fallen to four percent, far exceeding the goal announced for the "near future" by Vial in 1924. Helping this situation was a 1935 law requiring attendance in school until age 16.

Explosive growth following World War II swelled the LTHS student ranks to 2,010 in 1954. By then, seven additions had been built to the original building. The La Grange (north) campus consisted of two school buildings, two athletic fields, and three apartment buildings, on 66 acres. A second, or south campus, in Western Springs, was established in 1956.

In April, 1966, the Chicago Daily News carried an article headlined: "Lyons High Tops in Top Scholars." It reported on both the academic and athletic accomplishments of the Lions. LTHS had 36 National Merit Scholarship finalists among its seniors, the article pointed out. This represented the largest concentration of bright seniors in Illinois. The average class size of 19 ranked as one of the lowest in the State. The writer praised the school staff, residents who wholeheartedly supported the school, and a "no-nonsense" school board who believed in maximum spending for teachers' salaries. The combination paid off for the 74 percent of students who entered college, because their college grades were as high as their high school grades. The article commented favorably on LTHS programs to provide skills and guidance for the 26 percent of the students who did not enter college. In sports, LTHS teams won the President's Cup for all-around athletic achievement in the West Suburban Conference in 20 out of the 22 years from 1944 to 1966.

The Daily News also mentioned that the school had welcomed a four-year, self-imposed series of examinations of its teachers by 14 outside experts in education. The tests were completed successfully in 1964. In addition, the faculty conducted extensive self-examinations, before and after this outside evaluation, and continually reported the results to the Board of Education. Two-thirds of the teachers in 1966 possessed a master's degree, and their average length of teaching experience was 11 years.

Students reading the article probably wondered why it never mentioned the wave upon wave of tests they took from the time they announced their intention to go to LTHS until graduation. These tests determined the ability-level of each student and the success of the system in educating him or her. Coupled with counseling and guidance, they kept students aware of their performance in relation to their capability and provided a yardstick for setting future goals. Often the testing seemed unnecessarily repetitious, but by the end of the senior year most students realized the ordeal was worth becoming a fully-certified product of one of the State's most quality-conscious schools.

By the late 1960's short skirts and walking shorts were replacing saddle shoes, bobby socks, and sweaters—the school "uniform" for girls since the 1940's. Boys were shedding their coats and ties for sport shirts, slacks, and moccasins. Enrollment on the dual campus reached 4,871 in September, 1968, the school's 80th anniversary. An adult and continuing education division, started in 1933 with 75 students, enrolled 3,370 in 1968. Another 1,500 went to summer school.

Regular day attendance in grades 9-12 peaked at 5,240 during the 1971-72 school year. Enrollment then began to decline with the birth rate. Regular day enrollment dropped to 4,715 by 1977-78. However, evening and summer school programs raised the total number of students to more than 17,000. The 7,318 people in evening classes in 1978 ranged in age from 18 to 90 years. One hundred thirty-four residents over age 65 took advantage of free tuition offered to senior citizens.

In a 1978 report, Dr. Donald D. Reber, Superintendent of district 204 since 1963, listed innovations in curriculum during the 1960's and 1970's. They included cooperative vocational programs where students spend part of the day doing supervised work, special education for the mentally and physically handicapped, ability grouping of students in subjects such as reading and mathematics, computer education, interdepartmental studies and team teaching, two fully-operative television studios, a student-operated radio station, aviation technology including in-flight experience, and overseas courses in language, humanities, and music. Pre-school children brought to the north campus for a course in child development provided pupils with the opportunity to teach, understand, and care for young people. In 1978, 17 departments offered a total of 357 courses, 71 required and 286 elective.

Class size during the 1970's remained relatively constant at 20 students per teacher, Reber reported. LTHS employed 315 staffers in 1978. The operating budget in 1977-78 exceeded $13 million, the highest in school history. About 90 percent of these funds came from local sources, primarily property taxes, a situation that had persisted throughout the school's history.

La Grangers have supported their schools with a minimum of outside financial assistance. Expenditure of the funds has been directed by boards of education composed of local people elected by their fellow citizens to perform this important function. These directors chose excellent principals and superintendents to operate the high school. Support of good education, together with the dedication of officials, produced a high school with one of the best scholastic and athletic records in the State. Admissions to college and academic awards won by LTHS students consistently have been above-average. When the class of 1977 graduated, for example, 80 percent went on to college, taking with them $750,000 in scholarships and awards.

Parochial Schools

Parochial schools have had a scholastic record as distinguished as that of the public institutions.

St. John's Lutheran Church established the first such school in 1886, the same year the church was founded. Classes began in the small frame church at the southeast corner of Brainard and 47th Street. Saint John's purchased the North School building from district 102 in 1911, and moved classes to that site in 1914. Forty-one years later (1955), a new education building was completed adjoining the church, then at the southwest corner of Brainard and 47th Street, across the street from the original location.

One hundred years after the founding of La Grange the school boasted a notable and continuous 93-year history of providing an elementary education that combined Christian training with traditional academic subjects. At the La Grange Centennial, Saint John's and Hope Lutheran of La Grange Highlands jointly owned and operated the school. Pupils attended classes in religion each day and worshipped together at chapel services on Wednesday mornings. Curriculum met Illinois guidelines, and graduates qualified for LTHS without reservation. Students included children age three through eighth grade. A faculty of nine, one-third with master's degrees, taught 140 pupils in 1978. Students in all grades attended music, art, and physical education classes. Co-curricular activities included choirs, a school band, basketball, and volleyball.

The Nazareth Academy

Mother Stanislaus Leary and six other Sisters of Saint Joseph came to La Grange in 1899 from Concordia, Kansas, at the request of Father James Hagan, first pastor of Saint Francis Xavier Roman Catholic Church. They moved into 131 North Spring Avenue and began the task of establishing the first Catholic school. Four months after their arrival, Mother Stanislaus died, and Sister Alexine Gosselin took charge of opening the Nazareth Academy in October, 1900. This girls' high school was located in a six-room house at 120 North Spring. Six resident pupils paid $10 a month and eight day-pupils contributed 50 cents a month.

The academy grew in popularity among families in the area and in Chicago. The Sisters obtained a loan and purchased land on Ogden and Brainard. Construction began on a four-story brick building in July, 1901. The nuns moved into part of this new school by Christmas of that year. A 1901 newspaper advertisement gave this description of the facility: "Nazareth Academy is a boarding school for young ladies with a (college) preparatory department and kindergarten for little girls. It is situated in one of Chicago's most delightful suburbs. . . . The course of studies is systematic and thorough, embracing every branch of a refined and useful education. Discipline is mild but firm. . . . Board, bed, bedding, washing, tuition in English and French, with music on the piano, and the use of instrument, $16 per month."

In 1909, the year the first Model T Fords rolled down LaGrange's dusty streets, the Sisters opened a resident school for boys opposite the Nazareth Academy. Enrollment in this elementary school rose to 46 boys by 1911, and the nuns began to look around for a larger site. They found it in the 80-acre Leitch farm, west of the Nazareth Academy in La Grange Park. A generous benefactor contributed the down payment for the land. An article in the December 31, 1910, Citizen noted: "The acquisition by the Sisters of Saint Joseph of the Leitch farm on Ogden -- a tract extending north to Salt Creek, and the beginning of building operations is another event that marks 1910. While the principal buildings have not been started, the dairy has been completed, the grounds have been laid out, and enough work already done to show the public what an important institution is being planned. . . ."

By 1912, this pleasant wooded tract became known as Nazareth Park and the site of Saint Joseph's Institute for boys.

In 1926, the Sisters added an elementary school for girls and a new residence for nuns. They named the new school Our Lady of Bethlehem Academy. Like other institutions of learning in La Grange, both boys' and girls' schools filled to the brim with students sooner than expected. In 1948, a new wing was added to the boys' school, called Saint Joseph Military Academy at this time. Two years later, a million dollar "new Nazareth" school for girls was constructed adjoining the 1901 buildings. In 1958, a larger building replaced the original 46-year-old Saint Joseph's school. This structure included a dining hall, eight dormitories, recreation rooms, chapel, and a residence wing for the Sisters.

The decreasing birth rate and changes in religious values in the 1960's reduced enrollments at Nazareth, Saint Joseph's, and Our Lady of Bethlehem Academies. In the late 1960's, the latter two schools were combined and renamed Alexine Learning Center to commemorate the founder of the Nazareth complex. The Sisters sold the Nazareth Academy on Ogden and Brainard in 1972, but did not discontinue the high school. Classes moved to other space at 1209 and 1515 West Ogden, while workmen converted Saint Joseph's Military Academy into a girls' school. Nazareth Academy opened its renovated doors in the fall of 1974 for the 75th consecutive year.

In 1977-78, 228 students attended the Alexine Learning Center and the Nazareth Academy. Boys joined girls in the freshman class at Nazareth for the first time in September, 1977. The change made it the first co-educational Catholic high school in the LaGrange area.

Pre-schoolers and day students have been accepted in the schools since the late 1960's. Educational facilities for adults were established in the 1970's. The Music Center offered courses to pupils from three to 83 years old starting in 1970. The Ikon School of Art opened in 1972. The Christian Life Center was founded in 1970 to accommodate retreats, meetings, and conferences for church groups.

Saint Francis Xavier School

This church, organized in 1890, built a parish school in 1917. The pastor, Father Joseph A. Bollman, recruited the Sisters of Saint Joseph to staff the $35,000 red-brick facility on Ogden and Waiola, adjoining the church. It contained four classrooms and an auditorium. One hundred forty pupils enrolled in the first class. Sister M. Virginia served as principal, and Sisters M. Angela, M. Wilfrid, M. Hildegarde, and M. Gertrude as teachers.

In 1918, the year World War I ended and Illinois celebrated the 100th anniversary of its statehood, the school held its first commencement. Seven girls and three boys comprised the graduating class.

Enrollment burgeoned with the population in the 1920's, and additional space was secured in the form of a nearby gray, weather-worn bungalow of so-called La Grange Swedish design on North Waiola Avenue. In 1930, this became school for Saint Francis Xavier's first-graders. The young pupils reverently avoided the precisely kept front walk and porch of the new addition, and always came and went through a side entrance. They deposited wet boots and woolens in a giant cloakroom that once served as a master bedroom.

The combined living and dining rooms, well-lighted by sun coming in the south windows, made a cheery classroom. Students' desks faced east and the watchful gaze of Sr. Mary Fidelis. In the small front parlor, boys and girls sat at the piano learning the misery of scales and the charm of melody under the tutelage of Sr. Mary Bertha. Everyday the first graders ate and swapped items in their lunch boxes in the basement lunchroom. In the kitchen-happiest room of all—pennies bought a favorite candy.

The bungalow was torn down in 1948 to make room for a new school, but it remained in people's memories for many years afterward. "It was a very ordinary bungalow," according to a book honoring the 75th anniversary of Saint Francis Xavier, "except to the 18 years of first-graders and their teachers who now wish they could go back and take one more look."

By 1936, students at the school literally "hung from the rafters," some of them attending class in a tiny balcony over the school hall. Two rooms added in 1938 helped reduce overcrowding and accommodate an enrollment of 310. This provided only a temporary solution, however. In 1944, parishioners contributed more than $40,000 in war bonds toward building a new school. Workers constructed the first section in 1949 without tearing down the old school. This structure housed 14 additional classrooms, a cafeteria, library, office, little theater, and the two classrooms added in 1938.

The old school on Ogden and Waiola fell to the wrecking ball in 1955, replaced by the second section of the new facility. This contained a gymnasium-auditorium, community room, and seven more classrooms. Only three years later, room became a problem again, and the church purchased another building on North Kensington from Saint John's Lutheran Church for $30,000. This structure, the old North School of district 102, a landmark since the turn of the century, became known as "The Annex." The school population grew to 1,116 in 1960. A declining birth rate and parishioners' moving away to start other churches reduced the enrollment to 534 in 1978.

Saint Cletus School

A second Catholic parish was established in La Grange in 1951. Named Saint Cletus, it opened a school, also staffed by the Sisters of Saint Joseph, in 1953. Original enrollment consisted of 412 kindergarten through seventh-grade pupils. An eighth grade was added the following year, and the first class graduated in 1955. Sr. Mary Wilfrid, one of the first teachers at Saint Francis Xavier School, served as principal.

Six nuns moved into an 11-bedroom convent above the school in 1953. Classrooms had to be added in 1954, 1956, and 1960. In 1964, 15 Sisters taught at the school, but their numbers declined with enrollment. In 1978, the student body of 440 was taught by a faculty of 30, including eight nuns and 22 lay teachers. The school maintained two libraries, and co-curricular activities included band, chorus, junior great books, a science club, and sports. Like all La Grange schools, Saint Cletus School maintained the highest academic standards, and graduates were accepted by all high schools.

Recommended background reading:

The primary source of this information includes but is not limited to:

Some of the above information was obtained through the LaGrange Park Public Library.

Last Modified:  11/24/2003