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Education has been at the core of McLean County life since the first settlers arrived in the mid-19th century. These groups of families organized schools in groves, or areas where timber supplies were plentiful; thusly, the early schools were constructed of logs. Schools such as this were known as subscription schools, for each student was required to pay a certain amount of tuition in order to attend during a given period. In the time before public schools, not every student was able to afford the tuition, and so not everyone attended school.
The Illinois legislature believed that every child in the state should have an equal opportunity to pursue an education, so in 1837 a state-sponsored school fund was created that apportioned money to each school based upon its quantity of students. As the number of settlers (and students) increased prior to the Civil War, it was determined that schools required better organization and administrative oversight—leading to the adoption of the Free School Law in 1855. The law overlaid a series of school districts onto the county’s townships as surveyed in 1857; each district was appointed a board of directors tasked with hiring suitable teachers and levying taxes.
The state-sponsored school fund collected capital through real estate taxes; this fund, having gathered about one million dollars in 1872, increased to more than fifty million dollars by 1949. In the interim, structural and aesthetic improvements were made to the schoolhouses: in 1917, the state legislature passed the Sanitation Act, which prompted extensive repairs to schools. Indoor plumbing, ventilation systems, garages, and other state of the art features were added to modernize the schools.
Initially, teachers were not formally trained. However, in 1845, state-issued certifications began to be distributed to those teachers capable of instructing students in the studies of reading, writing, grammar, geography, and history. A certified teacher could earn a larger salary, and the schools that held teacher certifications could receive a greater apportionment of the state school fund. Normal School (now Illinois State University) was founded in 1857 as an institution to train future teachers; many of these teachers-in-training were sent to rural schoolhouses to serve as interim instructors for a few months, similar to the practice of student teachers today.
But schoolhouses were not merely places to contain and instruct children—they also served as gathering places for the community—as churches and meeting halls for literary societies and civic and social clubs. However, as time passed, the importance of schoolhouses diminished. After World War II, the state began to consolidate schools, absorbing the schoolhouses into larger districts.. Attendance at most schoolhouses were on a decline, as paved roads and motorized transportation meant that students could travel a greater distance to school than before; additionally, many schools had been damaged by fire or storms throughout the preceding years. Some schools closed due to a lack of students. As more schools needed repairs, it was often easier to send students to another district, rather than to attempt repairs on an aging building.
Although the years of 1948 and 1949 marked the end of life for most schoolhouses in the county, two particular schools, Covell and Dale School, located in Dale Township, persisted until their forced closure in 1960. Today, only a few of these structures remain. The majority were auctioned off, demolished, or remodeled into personal homes and garages. Other sites were plowed for farming purposes.
Source: Brigham, William B. The Story of McLean County and Its Schools. 1951.