150th Anniversary of Lincoln School Building


2009 marks the 150th anniversary of the Lincoln School building on the north side of State Street between N. Perkins Boulevard and N. Kane Street.  The large white stone building (shown in the 1868 photo at right), where thousands of Burlington area students started their formal educations, today houses the administrative offices of the Burlington Area School District.  2009 also marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, whose name has been associated with the school building since 1911.  A one-of-a-kind statue of Lincoln, dedicated in 1913 (photo below), stands nearby.

Incorporated by the Wisconsin Legislature in 1857, the Burlington Union School District, at a special meeting in July 1858, designated the lots on State Street, between West and Dyer Streets (now N. Perkins and Kane) as a school site, and authorized the district board to build a school house thereon.

At the district's annual meeting in September 1858, a ballot was taken on the question of borrowing money for building; 178 voted for the loan and 3 voted against.  The contract for building the school house was at once let to William Johnson, who sublet the mason work to Joseph Wackerman, Sr.  Both Johnson and Wackerman were Burlington residents.  On September 19, 1859, the contract was declared to be fulfilled and the building was accepted.

When the building opened as Burlington Union School in 1859, the year in which Lincoln was first nominated for President, only the first floor, comprising three school rooms and a library room, was fitted up for school use.  The upper floor was not finished until 1870.  During the years between 1859 and 1870, and for a couple of years after that, the Burlington school district went through a difficult period of growing pains.

Early dissension

Soon after the school opened in the new building, dissension arose.  It may have been that the discipline was too severe, or the taxes too burdensome; but whatever the cause, there developed a strong opposition to the school.  The district became involved in a serious quarrel and found itself with two school boards, each claiming to be the legal board.  The points of dispute between the two boards were referred to the State Attorney General, but apparently no settlement was reached, for at the annual meeting in September 1860, the quarrel was still on.

Resolutions were passed at that meeting calling on the old board to resign and turn over management of the school to the new board, promising in that case to make a liberal appropriation for the coming year.  When the old board did not comply, other resolutions were adopted, declaring the contracts between the old board and the teachers to be void, and forbidding the old board to incur any debt for any purpose whatsoever.  The meeting then adjourned without making any appropriation.  The school, which had already opened for the year, was closed the next day.

Thirteen principals in 13 years

After the new board finally obtained possession, the school reopened in April 1861 with a new principal.  But his tenure lasted only a short time, and in the next several years, principals came and went with some regularity so that In the school's first 13 years, a total of 13 people served as principal.  Brief as their tenures were, those of the lady teachers were briefer still.  At first the teachers were engaged from term to term, with a room sometimes having three different teachers in the same year.  The records show that in one of the years, the two lower rooms had seven teachers whose terms of service ranged from 3 to 32 weeks.  In only a few cases did a lady teacher remain more than 1 year.  Previous to 1868, 2 years was the longest period of continuous service.

In 1872, Edwin Ruthven Smith (right), a native of the district and the first student to walk into the school when it opened in 1859, was installed as principal.  Smith, a Civil War veteran who had once given President Lincoln a drink from his canteen, served 11 years as principal, reluctantly resigning in 1883 to accept a superintendent position in Manitowoc County.  During his tenure, Smith vastly improved and solidified the school.

A student's recollections

In an 1897 recollection, Harriet Dyer Norton, who was the school's first graduate and the youngest child of Dr. Edward G. Dyer, recalled those first days in the new building in 1859.  She said that there were three departments B High School, Intermediate and Primary B and the course of study used in the Racine High School, was substantially adopted.  The High School numbered four grades B A, B, C and D B with an average of 30 pupils each.  Class A, with its 32 pupils (including Harriet Dyer and Edwin R. Smith), was the pride of the first principal, Samuel Lockwood, with a close contestant in Class C, which included a future member of Congress, Henry Allen Cooper, better known at that time as "little Hal Cooper" (after whom Cooper School was named in 1940).  The Cooper family lived next door to the school in the house that still stands at 117 N. Perkins Boulevard.

Mrs. Norton said that prosperity marked the two succeeding years, military discipline prevailed, study, rhetorical exercises, from which no unhappy wight escaped, examinations and annual "exhibitions" filled the days.  On Friday afternoons, the long recitation benches were occupied by interested parents and guardians who listened to essays by timid maidens, on themes such as, "There' s a silvery lining to every cloud," "Importance of Education," or "Misery is wed to Guilt" as it most certainly was, on those occasions to innocence; while brave youths declaimed "Mark Anthony," "The Dying Gladiator," or like Silas Wegg, "dropped into poetry of plainer style."  Coupled with these exercises were "spelling down" or tests commencing "nine times seven, times eight, plus two hundred and thirty, minus sixty three, divided by five," while responsive hands went up before the teacher had closed his lips.  Remarks from some leading visitor followed, expressive of general approbation, after which, the school dismissed, tip-toed out of the room and grounds, to the street, which gave freedom to a satisfactory "Hurrah!"  This was the rosy side but unfortunately a dark blue discontent intensified by strict discipline arose and overshadowed it, and a change of teachers followed.

After Fort Sumter was captured in 1861 and President Lincoln issued his first call for troops, the boys in Class A enlisted with comrades from the lower grades.  Among the Class A enlistees were the future principal, Edwin R. Smith, and two classmates who were killed in the war, Glaucius H, Royce and Frank D. Cole.  From that eventful time, Class A dwindled until only one, Harriet Dyer, remained, the youngest, who, on July 3, 1863, received the parchment which testified that she had completed the prescribed course of study.

A small class was graduated two years later, after which, by popular vote, the High School system was abandoned and a township school was established in the building.  In 1875, during Smith's tenure as principal, the State Legislature passed the Free School Law, which provided that schools organized and conducted under that law would receive half the cost of instruction, up to $500 a year, from the State.  Burlington's citizens then voted to establish a High School Course, whose graduates were eligible for admission to the University of Wisconsin.

New school opened in 1897

As Burlington's population increased and the school on State Street became more crowded, a one-story wooden addition was built in 1873 extending from the main building toward West Street (now N. Perkins Boulevard).  The addition was further extended in 1884, making it about 60 feet long and 40 feet wide.  One of the local newspapers commented that the wing looked like "an extended tenpin alley."  Even with the added room, however, the school again became overcrowded, and, in 1895, the citizens voted, in the largest school meeting up to that time, to issue bonds to build a new school on Conkey Street.

As the Conkey Street school took shape, a committee was named to look into disposing of the existing school building on State Street.  In September 1896, the school board advertised the building, the four lots on which it stood, and the additions for sale, saying that the premises were suitable for manufacturing purposes and building lots.  The board reserved the right to reject bids.
During the Christmas vacation in December 1896, the desks and other furniture and equipment were moved to the new Conkey Street school, which opened in January 1897.  At the new school's formal dedication in February, Edwin R. Smith, former student and former principal, was one of the speakers.  Charles Kendall Adams, president of the University of Wisconsin, delivered the main address.

Old school building used for various purposes

The State Street school building, appraised at $5,500, continued to be advertised for sale, but no buyers stepped forward.  In the meantime, the building was used for various activities.  In June 1897 the high school alumni association held its meeting and banquet there.  In December Peter Angsten and C. H. Gesbeck rented part of the building to manufacture their Al-Vista panoramic cameras.  The camera firm moved its manufacturing operations out of the building in August 1899, but moved back in January 1900 after a fire destroyed its new quarters.  It continued manufacturing cameras in the old school building until moving to a new factory south of Jefferson Street near the railroad tracks in July 1900.

In  March 1902 seats and furniture were moved from the Plymouth Congregational church to part of the old school building where services were held while the congregation replaced its original wooden building with a new brick one.  Also in 1902, the newly organized Burlington tennis association leased the grounds and laid out two courts.

In June 1903 the Security Lightning Rod Co. rented part of the building for its operations.  In October 1903 the Methodist Episcopal congregation, which later built its church across State Street from the old school, started holding its services in the building.  In May 1904 Hugh Agner of Chicago rented a wing of the building for manufacturing small machines, such as coin-operated gum and peanut dispensing machines and money changing machines (right).  In August 1904 the Salvation Army pitched tents on the old school grounds and held meetings there until early September, when it moved on.  In June 1907 the Chautauqua Assembly set up its tent on the grounds.

At the annual school meeting in 1905, a motion was adopted to sell the old school property for not less than $4,000, since the earlier asking price of $5,500 had attracted no takers.  But still there were no takers.  In December 1907 Burlington's newly organized Crescent Athletic club, with 20 members, was given permission to use the building, fitting it up for basketball, indoor baseball, and other games.  In March 1910, when the Racine team of the Wisconsin-Illinois baseball league held its training in Burlington, the old school was fitted up with a shower bath and used as a gymnasium.

Building returned to school use

At the July 1910 annual school meeting, it was decided that more school room was needed, and the board was instructed to procure plans and estimates for remodeling the old building.  At that time, a new cement walk was put around the building.  In a follow-up meeting in August, the district residents in attendance voted unanimously for $10,000 in bonds to improve the old school, and Racine architects Guilbert & Funston drew up plans.  The frame addition to the building was sold, cut in two, and moved to a lot on the corner of Dodge and State Streets where the new owner planned to remodel it into a hall for roller skating, dances, and other activities.

In March 1911 proposals were solicited and bids received for remodeling the building, with the contract awarded to the Burlington firm of William Hoppe and Henry Rueter.  New entrances, 14 by 27 feet, were built on both the west and east sides of the building and the interior was remodeled.  The outside was stuccoed and the mason work completed in June 1911.  In August, the school was named for Abraham Lincoln, and kindergarten and first grade were moved there from the Conkey Street building.  At that time it was also suggested that a statue of Lincoln be erected on the triangle at Dyer (now Kane) and State Streets.  The school's grand re-opening was held on February 12, 1912, the anniversary of Lincoln=s birth, with a program and lecture in the assembly room, or auditorium, on the second floor which could "comfortably seat 300."  In May the high school's junior prom was held in the auditorium.

1915 Kindergarten class in Colonial garb                 

With more school room needed, part of the second floor was partitioned into school rooms in October 1912.  Also that month, Eda Meinhardt donated two swings and a "turning square" for the Lincoln School grounds.  In June 1915 the high school alumni association held its 25th annual reunion on the second floor with about 130 attending.  In August two more rooms were partitioned off on the second floor so another grade could be transferred from the Conkey Street school.

From then until spring 1981, kindergarten and early primary classes were held at Lincoln School.  With the close of the school year, Lincoln School closed, and in June 1981, the Burlington Area School District moved its offices into the building.

 Lincoln School playground in 1949 (left) and monkey bars on Lincoln School grounds, 1951 (right)




  "Turning pole" (or "turning square") at Lincoln School, 1955