Early Hillsdale Schools
Many of the men who became the town fathers of Hillsdale had very little formal education. Their rise in prominence resulted from their intelligence, a willingness to take business risks and a solid work ethic rather than a high school or college diploma. But without the ability to read, write and "figure," it was almost impossible to attain wealth and position in the new communities on the frontier. Schools were an early priority.
In 1838, only four years after Jeremiah Arnold became the first white person to build a home in Hillsdale, Miss Caroline Ford was hired by parents to educate their children. Her school was a modest cabin on the north side of State Street near Wolcott Street, and she had only about half a dozen students. Three years later the township voters approved the construction of a one-story frame building on East Bacon Street, just east of the Michigan Central Railroad tracks, where Miss Ford continued as the teacher. This simple school became the nucleus of the Hillsdale Community Schools, and was also used for community events and church services. When lightning struck and burned it to the ground, arrangements were made for classes to continue in the railroad station.
By 1847 the population had grown so dramatically that "accommodations on a grander scale were demanded," according to the1879 History of Hillsdale County, Michigan. This resulted in a two-story school on Courthouse Square made with stone from quarries located near the village limits. It was called, appropriately, Stone School, and had enough room, with "cramming," for 250 pupils. So it was that on Courthouse Square, within yards of each other, children were educated, lawbreakers incarcerated and the business of the county transacted.
At Stone School, education looked very different from what it does today. No established curriculum or progression from one grade to the next existed. Pupils brought what books they happened to own and studied what happened to interest them. Miss Ford was one of three "assistants" to the principal.
Hillsdale continued to grow and by 1860 was compelled to build two Ward schools in opposite parts of the village, each large enough for 150 students. In 1862 two more Ward schools were built, and the business of education became more formal. Each school was divided into three departments: primary, intermediate and high school. A specific course of study was adopted, and the stakeholders were all reportedly pleased with the "very marked improvement made in every particular."
The First and Second Wards were eventually served by Mauck School on Fayette Street. The original First Ward school, Oak Street School, was located on Oak Street between Mead and Howder streets. It was replaced by Lincoln School in 1886, which survives to this day in a different form. When it was demolished after Mauck School was built in 1939, the bricks were rescued and used to build two small houses on almost the same spot. The Second Ward school was originally a log building on the corner of Fayette and Park streets. In 1886 it was replaced by the Paul Revere School on the corner of Fayette and West streets, which is now a storage facility for Hillsdale College.
Today Bailey School, built in 1937, serves the children of the Third Ward. Third Ward students first attended a single-story brick school on the east side of West Street between Bacon and Waldron. It was replaced by another brick school located at the corner of Bacon and Norwood. Both of the original schools are now private homes.
Dutch Hill School was built on Griswold Street to serve the children in the Fourth Ward. It was next to Trinity German Lutheran Church, which had been established by the German community in Hillsdale. German parents, anxious to preserve their own values and language, sent their children to their church school from Mondays through Thursdays. The children were sent to the public school next door on Fridays, where they would have practice in using English. Dutch Hill School was replaced in 1907 with Lake View School, which was later sold to Trinity Lutheran Church, where it serves as Luther Hall.
By 1867 the school population had risen so dramatically that the school district was once again faced with the need for a new school. This was Central School, located where Bailey School now stands. It could accommodate 500 pupils and had impressive improvements. It was heated by furnaces, and the classrooms were furnished with single seats and desks. It was divided into four departments: primary (three grades), intermediate (three grades), grammar school (two grades) and high school (three grades). These designations, however, didn't mean that students automatically progressed from one grade to the next. In order for scholars to move on, they needed to demonstrate a thorough understanding of the studies taught in their grade. The principal conducted an examination, and the teacher contributed information about the "general standing" of the pupil throughout the year. Promotions were ordinarily made at the end of the term, but students who showed they were capable of doing the work in the next grade could be promoted at any time.
A building just for high school students was erected in 1905 where McCollum Street runs into N. West Street. Soon runaway growth required that two houses near the school be used as annexes. Then, in 1929, a major reshuffling occurred. A second high school was built to the north of the 1905 high school, which became a junior high for seventh, eighth and ninth grades, while Central School became exclusively an elementary. A third elementary school on Spring Street, Gier, was opened in 1954.
The final building project for the Hillsdale Community Schools was a modern high school on S. Norwood Street, built in 1960. At that time the 1929 high school became a middle school for grades six through eight. The final demolition project was in 1968, when the 1905 high school was razed to make way for a modern addition to the middle school.
Education certainly looks different today from what it did when the parents of Hillsdale first hired Miss Caroline Ford to teach their children. What has not changed is the need for an educated populace prepared to be productive citizens of the world.
JoAnne P. Miller