The Main Street Schoolhouse

By Kit Lane

The first school houses in the area were west of Fennville, closer to the lake, first the log shack on Loomis property near the cemetery, and later on land owned by Walter billings west of the present Peachbelt school building.

But the first school built within the early Fennville district, although it was still outside of what would be the village limits, was a small building on the Hudson Veeder property.

Later Laura C. Hudson, the first teacher, who would later become the wife of pioneer settler Harrison Hutchins, described the structure:

“The school house where classes were to held was a low log structure, which had been used by Jim McCormick, for making shingles.

With pioneer ingenuity it had been converted into a school house. It had one room, with three windows. Each window held six panes of glass… The children’s’ desks were made by nailing  a board to the wall like a shelf,  and the long benches upon which the pupils sat were rude affairs made by driving rough pegs into augur holes bored into boards… The room was heated by a large unblacked box stove with a plentiful supply of wood for fuel. This humble structure was the result of the united efforts of all five of the residents of the school district.”

This building was replaced, probably about 1849, with a real one room school building about 10 rods east of the older building, or slightly west of 58th Street, on the northwest corner of the intersection, but still outside the village limits.

This school house served the growing community until 1892 although there is evidence that the building was increased in size and remodeled to offer a two room school, separating the elementary school children from the “upper school.”

In June of 1892 a special school meeting was called for all residents of the district and it was decided, 61 to 26, to build a new four room brick school house to cost $3,000. The following month it was also decided to have the new school a graded one.

The Fennville Herald commented: “The move of grading our school is a sensible one, and should have been done years ago. Douglas with her graded school has drawn many a dollar from this district, and the people of that village, have laughed in their sleeve at our unwise dealings in school house matters.”

It was first announced that the new building would be “a little north of the old site,” and the contract was let for that building in October, but construction was delayed over the winter.

By spring of 1893 the question of site had been reopened, largely because of poor drainage at the old site, “it is said to be impossible to get a dry basement, as the high land drains in that direction.”

The alternate site was on West Main, between Rose and Mary Streets, about where the first Methodist Church, which had burned in 1871, had been located. There were some problems because of the high hill at that point but local businessmen subscribed $200 to be used in grading the site and the proposed site selection came to a vote April 4, 1893. The following week the Herald reported: “The result of the vote was 92 ballots for the change and 40 against it. The proposition was therefore carried. The school board was also empowered to purchase the six lots in the vicinity of the old M.E. Church site at a cost not exceed $750.”

Ground was broken for the new building, April 14, 1893, but work was stopped by court injunction in May after Horace and Harrison Hutchins, and Nate McCormick, questioned the legality of the vote claiming that the voters had voted to change the site, but had not actually fixed the new one, and that, in any case, the vote was not by the necessary two-thirds majority.”

Map added by Vern Bouwman 1-15-2013

Another special school meeting was called June 7 and the question of changing the location re-voted, it passed 101 to 36. The authority to purchase  lots 14, 15, 16, 19, 20 and 21 of block 3 was voted on, it passed 88 to 16. The Herald explained the special meeting: “Some have an idea that the holding of another special school board meeting was a confession on the part of the board that the first meeting was illegal. The meeting was called at the request of several tax-payers who desired to see fairness done and who wished to avoid the expense and delay caused by the injunction suit. They thought that if the first meeting was legal, the ratification of that meeting could do it no harm, and if the first meeting was illegal, this meeting was necessary.”

A hearing was held and Judge Padgham upheld a motion to dissolve the injunction deciding that “the only basis for the injunction was on a few technical points of not great importance.” Work was begun again.

Without full understanding, but with considerable acid wit, The Plainwell Enterprise commented: “Work has begun on another new site for the schoolhouse at Fennville. From this distance it looks as if the only way to please all factions down there would be to have the school house on wheels and move it to a new location every Saturday.”

Although the slateboard had not yet arrived, the school building opened for classes Oct. 23, 1893:

“Everything in the building is bright and new and already a number of non-residents have engaged tuition. The primary room contains seats for 48 pupils, the intermediate has 56 and the grammar room will seat 88. The lighting, heating, and ventilation are very satisfactory, so far as can now be judged, and it is generally agreed that we have received full value for the money expended.”

A month after the opening the district had 180 pupils enrolled and had opened a fourth recitation room off the grammar room. “Already it is evident that a mistake was made by the school district in not voting sufficient money to build a larger school building that the one just finished.” The Herald observed.

In March 1899 the last of six $500 bonds were paid off and the school building was free of debt, citizens began urging the addition of two classrooms to the front to house expanding enrollments.

In 1901 the Herald described conditions at the school:  “The most serious condition exists in the first primary which, for want of a proper room, has been occupying the basement. The ceiling is low, the light is very poor and there seems to be no way to ventilate it. Into this ‘hole in the ground’ 52 of the smallest pupils have been crowded, with the result that many of them are now troubled with their eyes on account of poor light, while every one of these little ones is in danger of ruining its health on account of lack of sufficient pure air.”

Despite the rhetoric residents continued to be unable to muster the two-thirds majority necessary to institute a building program and various buildings around town were used to house the overflow of students. Some classes met in the Methodist Church for a while, the office building that is now part of the Fennville Lumber Company was used, and later the Sias building.

In 1908 a classroom addition was made to the southwest corner, and it was this prominent cornerstone that often misled passers-by into believing that the entire school was built at that time.

In 1923 a spirited campaign was mounted to pass a bond issue that would be used to build a $50,000 addition to the eastern end of the building which would include “an assembly room, four or five recitation rooms, four laboratories, four or five grade rooms, wardrobes, four toilet rooms, two shower baths, store rooms and a large general purpose room,”

Following a voter campaign that emphasized, among other things, the “immoral things that develop around outside school toilets,” the bond issue was passed 114 to 83, the 227 total vote included “nearly every eligible voter in the district.”

Later additions to the structure included ground floor home economics and agriculture rooms, and two additional classrooms built above these for science classes. In 1950 a separate building was constructed on the hill behind the high school for agriculture and vocational classes. This building was later used as a bus garage.

In 1951, running out of space on the Main Street site, the district built two classrooms on North Maple Street, beginning a “north campus.” Eventually the entire elementary program moved to the Maple street site, followed later by the high school, with the Main street building continuing to operate as a Middle School.

In September of 1972 the school board voted to close the old building because of problems with the boiler, and falling plaster. The school system went on split sessions for three and a half years until the new high school building opened in March of 1975. The Main Street school was razed in January of 1975 and the site later sold.

This Article was re-typed by Vern Bouwman, January 15, 2013

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