First Rochester schools

The 1881 History of Sangamon County, Illinois, Together with Sketches of Its Cities, Villages and Townships includes two short accounts of the earliest schoolhouses and teachers near Rochester.

As described, the schools were rough and improvised, and one burned down in a suspicious fire the day after it opened. But they were important to the fledgling community.

Samuel Williams, teacher, farmer and minister (History of Sangamon County, Illinois, 1881)

One of the descriptions in the History was the first-person reminiscence of Samuel Williams (1800-87), one of the earliest teachers in Rochester Township. His memories begin on page 996. Here is what Williams said.

In the summer of 1823, I taught my first school, the first in the township, in a log cabin, located on the open prairie, on the land now owned by Robert Billings. In 1824, there was a school taught in the Sattley settlement, by Richard E. Barker. In 1824-25, there was a school taught on the south side of the river, near Mr. Clark’s mills, by Jabez Capps, a worthy man, and an excellent scholar, but, as reported, so easy and indulgent with children in regard to his discipline that his school was considered by some as very defective.

The first school house on Round Prairie* was built in the year 1827 or 1828. William Jones was the first employed as teacher, and taught one day, when the house was burned down at night, supposed to be maliciously, as there had been some contention before it was built, as to its location.

The following is a description of a school house on Sugar creek in which I taught school in the year 1824. It was built of logs; was about fourteen by sixteen feet in size, very low; had a clapboard roof, kept down by poles; the chimney was made of wood and clay, with stone back-wall, and jambs; the size of the fire-place was about three feet by six; the house was daubed, both inside and out, with clay mortar, up to the roof. If I remember correctly, it had a puncheon** floor below, but none above; the door shutter was made of clapboards fastened together with wooden pins, and hung on heavy wooden hinges.

When raising the house, the upper and lower half of two logs, in the south end and west side, were cut out for window spaces, in which strips of wood were placed up and down, on which paper was pasted and afterwards greased, in order to admit the light; in the lower logs two-inch augur holes were bored, in which strong pins were inserted as a basis for the puncheon writing desks or tables.

The seats or benches were made of split logs. There were two or three clapboard shelves, on which spare books and the childrens’ dinner-baskets were usually placed. There was a small puncheon table and a split-bottomed chair, for the use of the teacher. This completed the furniture of the room.

Now all was ready for the admission of teacher and pupils, who in those early times enjoyed much pleasure, and seemed proud when meeting together in this very modest and humble school house.

*John Mason Peck’s 1837 A Gazetteer of Illinois described Round Prairie in Sangamon County (at least four other counties had areas known as “Round Prairie) as “the forks of Sugar creek and the south fork of Sangamon river, in Sangamon county, a fine tract of country, seven miles southeast of Springfield.” (Hat tip to ILGenWeb.)

**A puncheon is “a split log with the face smoothed” (Merriam-Webster).

The next page in the History adds detail about early schoolhouses near Rochester. It largely confirms Williams’ memories.

The first school in the territory now comprising the village and vicinity of Rochester, was in the winter of 1823-24 and was taught by Richard E. Barker, in a log house built for another purpose, and transformed into a school house, in which religious services might be held. In 1826, this house was burnt down, and for a time the people had no place of meeting, and the children were without a school house.

The first public school building, proper, was also a log cabin, built late in the fall of 1831, eighteen by twenty feet in size, in the most improved style of those times, having greased paper for window lights and one whole end of the house for a fireplace. However, it could boast of a fair quality of seats and desks made of sawed walnut boards. The lumber of the house was donated by Edward Clark, then running a saw-mill. The condition of the gift was that the house should be used as a schoolhouse, and if used for any other purpose, he should have pay for the lumber, at customary prices. But, to whatever uses the house was put to, no pay was ever given to Mr. C. for his lumber.

This house was replaced by another and more improved one in 1837, and the first teacher who occupied it was Samuel Williams, who had a short time before taught school in a private house. Several succeeding school houses were erected on the same site, and for some years this was the only school for miles around, and the little house was crowded, at times, with sixty and seventy children.

“The second school house in the village of Rochester was of stone obtained at Samuel Williams’ quarry on the south fork of the Sangamon river. In the same year this was built, one of frame was also built, about two miles west of the village, near the present south fork bridge, and a few rods west of the residence of John Clark, son of Edward, and now constitutes a part of John’s residence. The stone house above mentioned was twenty by twenty-four feet, and was equal to that of any other village anywhere about.

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