by Ammie Bryant, Sheerar Museum of Stillwater History Director
Last month the kids returned to school and some of our Stillwater students experienced the first day of school in a brand new Highland Park Elementary while others will soon move into the all new Will Rogers Elementary. Two of my children were amongst the lucky students attending the beautiful new Highland Park. When they arrived home from school on that very first day, they assured me the new school had such magical properties that everyone got along with one another, and because everyone was happy, they were well behaved. Their excitement about the new school (and frankly my own excitement on behalf of my kids) got me to thinking about the history of Stillwater’s schools. In the 1950s, when Highland Park Elementary first opened on South Stallard Street were the kids as excited about their new building as mine were on their first day? They probably were—just as the students who attended the very first school after Stillwater was founded during the Land Run of April 22, 1889 were likely excited to be attending a new school in their new home in a new town in a territory with so much potential.
The history of public education in Stillwater is robust–there have been many schools through the years as the needs of the town grew so did the schools. The first Stillwater school was a subscription school in a one-room log cabin built by G. E. Fuss near Stillwater Creek. The school opened shortly after the April 22, 1889 land run and lasted for a few months. Parents paid a fee for their children to attend.
A second subscription school, run by the town, opened on September 30, 1889 in a rented second floor space at 9th and Main. The furnishings were primitive and the school had few books except those the students brought from home. Edward F. Clark was the first teacher. When Clark became ill and could not continue to teach, Harry Donart replaced him as the teacher. In his memoirs, James H. Donart remembered the drab conditions and homemade school lessons. Donart taught without supplies in buildings that were not intended for schools; like the upstairs of the Swope business building. It was not until 1893, that Donart would have the pleasure of teaching in a real schoolhouse.
“For equipment, we had none. Our directors had a carpenter nail two boards together, painted them black for our board. The seats were rude benches with straight backs set at right angles to the seats, too high from the floor so the little ones could not touch the floor with their feet, an instrument of torture instead of comfort…. I can assure it was no picnic at the first school….”
Stillwater town fathers wanted a free public school. An assessor was appointed, town property was appraised, and property assessments were made. Stillwater raised $185 to begin a public school.
On December 31, 1890 a Stillwater Board of Education was officially formed. William A Swiler was named President. Members included a representative from each of the town’s four wards. A.W. Swope represented the 1st Ward. G.B. Davis represented the 2nd Ward. O. M. Eyler represented the 3rd Ward, and Geo. W. Hall represented the 4th Ward. There were 144 school age children in the town. Stillwater became School District 16.
In 1891, Stillwater built its first school (which did not have an official name), a two-room frame building located on Lewis Street between 11th and 12th Streets near the present-day Lincoln School. Lincoln Elementary School was then built sometime between 1899 and 1900 on East 12th street. The original building was made of brick and had four classrooms. Today Lincoln Academy is an alternative High School.
In 1892, Stillwater built a second two-room framed school (which also did not have an official name), on Main Street between 3rd and 4th Streets in the block where the Board of Education Building is located. Before becoming the Board of Education, the building located on Main Street was Jefferson Elementary School. Originally constructed in 1901, Jefferson School did not look anything like it does now. It was a brick building with four classrooms. Later additions and renovations included an auditorium on the north side of the building and a one story addition fronting Main Street. The original 1901 structure was demolished in 1970, but the auditorium and modern addition remain as today’s Board of Education building.
In 1895, Alcott School, named for 19th century educational reformer A. Bronson Alcott, was the first high school. It opened in 1896 under considerable criticism from the citizens of Stillwater, it was thought that Alcott was too extravagant and that the students of the town would never fill the building’s rooms. It consisted of two floors and in the first years, when enrollment was still low, the Masonic Lodge rented out the second floor.
By 1909, Alcott was full, and the city of Stillwater had to build a new school right next door, Horace Mann which was named for another educational reformer. After this, elementary students went to Alcott and junior high and high school students went to Horace Mann. This arrangement lasted until 1921, when Horace Mann was demolished in order to build a new school, later known as North High.
South High School, located in the 1100 block of Duncan Street, was built in 1919 and served as the high school until 1936, when the North High School building at 8th and Duck was built. Today it is the Stillwater Public Library Annex.
North High School was Stillwater’s High School until 196l when a new high school building was built north of town. North High became the Junior High School, then a middle school. It closed in 1978. Today it has a new life as the Stillwater Community Center.
Eugene Field Elementary was located at 6th and Washington Streets. The one-story brick structure was named for the 19th century American author of children’s literature. Eugene Field opened in 1923 to serve elementary aged children living on the west side of town. With the opening of Westwood School in 1955, enrollment at Eugene Field declined and the school was closed. In 1957 the building was demolished. Today, Consumers IGA is located on the site of the school.
Norwood school was built in the mid-1930s to serve the growing population on the north side of town. Located at the northeast corner of Duck and Miller Streets, Norwood was closed in 1938 after the expansion of Jefferson School. Today, the building houses the Masonic Lodge.
Booker T. Washington School opened in 1901 and was Stillwater’s separate school. Beginning in 1889 with a town charter and ending in 1956, a year after the Better Schools Amendment passed; Stillwater had separate schools for white and African American children. From 1901 through 1936, the school only included 1st through 8th grades. To attend high school, African American students were required to enroll in a “Negro” high school in Oklahoma City, Norman, Guthrie, Tulsa, or the preparatory school at Langston. In 1936, the brick structure was built and Washington began offering a High School diploma. Over the years the school grew from 11 pupils to 113 and had 8 teachers; it became a source of pride for the African American community in Stillwater. In 1956, 55 years after it was built, the high school students of Washington School were integrated into the Stillwater public school system, becoming one of almost three hundred schools that integrated across the state during the 1950s and Washington began its life as a community service agency. It now sits vacant.
Today, Stillwater’s Elementary Schools include Westwood, Will Rogers, Highland Park, Skyline, Richmond, and Sangre Elementary. The first three of these were built when Stillwater began expanding rapidly with the postwar baby boom during the 1950s and 60s and now are experiencing a sort of rebirth and expansion with the construction of new Highland Park and Will Rogers Elementary Schools this year. These new schools have been constructed to replace their older predecessors but also expanded to accommodate 600 students as Stillwater continues to grow. In the near future, a new Westwood Elementary is also planned and those students will also get to experience the thrill of that very first day in a brand new school.
The space provided here does not allow for the inclusion of the many one room school houses of Payne County, like Pleasant Valley which has been restored and now sits at the corner of 19th and Sangre. Volunteers care for the school and provide a living history program where elementary school students can visit and step back in time to attend school at the turn of the 20th century and learn what it was like to be a child in 1899. To learn more about Stillwater’s schools as well as life in a one room school house in Payne County you can visit the Sheerar Museum of Stillwater History at 702 S. Duncan Street Tuesday-Friday 11am-5pm or Saturdays and Sundays 1-4pm. Admission is free, donations are gratefully accepted. The Museum is closed Mondays and Holidays.