Founded on May 5, 1856, Peoria High School is the 17th oldest high school in the nation.
With the recent realignment of Peoria’s District 150 high schools, and all the controversy and emotions that accompany change, it is important to remember that throughout Peoria’s history, high schools were adapted to fit the needs of its students and maximize the potential for the best education possible. School superintendents and principals were respected and revered as some of the most important leaders in the community, and the city always supported their needs in the early years to create schools that were models for the nation.
Looking back at the history of Peoria High School helps us understand why it has been saved, and efforts are being made to prepare it for a long future. It is, after all, one of the Midwest’s oldest educational institutions. The story begins 155 years ago, in 1856.
By an act of the Illinois legislature, Charles E. Hovey was named superintendent of Peoria schools, and in 1856, he purchased the Peoria Female Academy building which was located at North Jefferson Street and Jackson Avenue (now Spalding Ave.). Eighty students were taught reading, spelling, arithmetic, grammar, geography and United States history. You needed to get a 75 percent to pass your grade levels.
In the 1860s, Peoria was experiencing a tremendous influx of new businesses and population. The high school students were then moved into the crowded basement of the First Methodist Episcopal Church at Madison and Fulton streets. The city bought Mr. Monson’s farm at Fourth and Fisher streets (where the old Lincoln Grade School once stood) and in 1861, built the new Peoria High School.
Distinguished PHS Alumni
Among the alumni of Peoria High School are governors, congressmen and mayors; nationally known actors, screenwriters and journalists; professional sports stars, military heroes and business people. Among them:
EDWARD DUNN 1870, governor
JULIA PROCTOR WHITE 1891, activist
LOUIS NEUMILLER ’14, businessman
WILLIAM RUTHERFORD ’32, conservationist/attorney
PHILIP JOSE FARMER ’36, author
BETTY FRIEDAN ’38, author/activist
ROBERT MCCORD ’38, businessman
ROBERT MICHEL ’40, congressman
LESLIE KENYON ’40, architect
DAVID E. CONNOR ’42, banker
WILLIAM EAGLETON ’43, diplomat
BRUCE SAURS ’44, businessman
GERALD STEPHENS ’51, businessman
JOHN SHALIKASHVILI ’54, military general
RICHARD CARVER ’55, businessman
MIKE MCCOY ’67, sheriff
CURLEY “BOO” JOHNSON ’82, basketball star
MATT SAVOIE ’98, Olympic skater
Though it was a plain brick building, it was topped with a tall bell tower cupola from which students could see above the city far and wide. R.W. Coy was the new principal and was paid well, with a salary of $1,500. Lacking a library, the students themselves raised more than $200 for a well-stocked reference and resource library.
By the 1880s, a $10,000 addition was about to be built onto the old Fourth Street school, when the school board realized that Peoria would outgrow even that in the near-future. So, a lot was bought at Monroe and Fayette streets from Mr. Dodge for $9,000. The new school was dedicated on July 1, 1885, at a cost of $29,000. Its Gothic features and grand embellishments reflected the pride and prosperity of a booming Peoria.
The new school had over 300 students. Subjects had evolved from the basics to include classical, Latin Scientific, German Scientific, English Scientific, commercial and orchestra music studies.
Around 1910, Peoria was in the midst of the great distillery boom, with more than 900 different industries employing families arriving from all over the United States and the world for jobs and the American dream. The movement began to build a new high school. In 1912, a vast tract of land was bought at North and Richmond streets. It was located on the new streetcar line that would take you to the new sections of the growing city.
The new Peoria High School, which still stands, was dedicated on August 7, 1916. Alfred Beasley, the Peoria school superintendent, and W.T. Van Buskirk, the new principal, proudly displayed to the public one of the finest schools built in the nation at that time. The spacious classrooms and huge windows held finely crafted woodwork with plaster and cast iron metal embellishments. Workshops for industrial and craftsmanship teaching were well-furnished. The large auditorium, two gymnasiums, and the large bleachered athletic field were marveled at, along with a monster of a power plant.
As we approach the 100th anniversary of the current Peoria High School building, it is reassuring that the community has stepped up to keep the history and tradition of one of Peoria’s assets a vital part of our future. iBi