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It's truly 'old school'

Allen School in LaMoille, the oldest active school in Illinois, celebrates its history with tours and a bell-ringing ceremony

LAMOILLE — While many school districts in Illinois pursue new educational facilities at great expense, the people of LaMoille have instead conserved and embraced their historical building and its contents.

To honor this history which began in 1887, a bell-ringing ceremony was held in August at LaMoille’s Allen School, which is said to be the oldest active school building in the state.

The antique bell once again rang loud and clear throughout the village, as the day signaled the end of summer vacation for local children.

Tours and a history presentation accompanied the festivities, and numerous visitors were heard sharing memories of their own school days in the notable and remarkably well preserved building.

“What I love most about coming to the Allen Building every day is why it was built to begin with,” Principal Chawn Huffaker said.

Allen Junior High School was named after a 19th-century LaMoille farmer, Joseph Allen (1813-1887), who bequeathed the funds for construction. The building was dedicated in August 1888 and is located at 301 N. Main St. in LaMoille.

According to the district’s website, Allen was born in Massachusetts and moved to Bureau County in 1836. He lived west of Princeton, but soon relocated to a farm less than a mile north of LaMoille.

He began to work in his fields and, with help from his oxen, slowly became a prosperous farmer. Never married and with no children, he stipulated in his will that $35,000 be bequeathed to the village. He requested $25,000 be used to construct a school and the remaining $10,000 be set aside for the new building’s maintenance.

After his death in 1887, ground was acquired to form a town square, and several homes were moved to make room for the new school. It was built under the direction of T.H. Calwell of Ottawa, and it was dedicated to Joseph Allen on Aug. 30, 1888.

Classes began that fall, and for several years the school hosted eight grades, plus a three-year high school. In 1916, it became the LaMoille Community High School with a standard four-year curriculum. In 1941, a new, much-needed gymnasium was built on the south end of the main building.

The brick building’s extensive interior wood work is beautifully preserved beneath a deep shine and gives each classroom a special warmth. Several old photos and many other items of memorabilia from the school’s storied past were on display during the event.

However, the most striking examples of how well preserved this school is were revealed by the opening of a locked door that led to the building’s attic and bell tower.

Huffaker provided this behind-the-scenes peek at a wonderful collection representing the entire history of the school. Gathered beneath the expansive rafters constructed from thick wooden beams are the children’s desks from every previous era.

Photos of every graduating class have been neatly stacked, protected and preserved beneath sheets. Huffaker then revealed each logbook and ledger school officials have filled over the many decades had also been safeguarded.

Nearby, there’s an antique brass telescope. While the body is still in good condition, its glass was unfortunately removed at some point. However, next to the telescope is an antique phonograph that, surprisingly, still works. Resting on a low shelf in the phonograph is an antique orrery, an orbital model of the Earth, moon and sun.

Huffaker then pointed to a beam above this area to show graffiti students had left behind in 1950. While a school would never encourage this type of behavior, Huffaker admitted that at some point, it became another of the school’s historical attractions.

From that area, a narrow and steep staircase leads to an access hatch into the bell tower. The bell, made by the Buckeye Foundry of Cincinnati, is sounded by pulling a rope that can be seen extending straight down through the interior of the stairwell to the first floor. Surprisingly, a student in 1923 had managed to gain entrance into the tower to leave their personal mark “HVT 1923.”

“I think this was obviously made by a farm kid because it was done with galvanized paint,” Huffaker said.

Descending back down to the lower floors, and outside to the ceremony, a large crowd could be seen gathered in celebration beneath the shady trees. Superintendent Jay McCracken told the community in attendance they should be proud of the school’s extensive history and that he hoped to make the bell-ringing ceremony an annual tradition.

A student was chosen to lead the crowd in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and the band performed the national anthem. Local pastors shared their thoughts on the day, and a local historian provided an extensive history of the site.

Soon after the weekend ceremony, LaMoille’s Allen School saw the beginning of its 132nd school year. The original focus of Mr. Allen hasn’t diminished over the years, and as the current staff moves through the 21st century, the commitment to educating LaMoille’s children remains unchanged.

“Mr. Allen believed in kids and what an education could do for them. He knew a school would galvanize the community and give them not only an identity, but a greater future. His foresight and the history behind it is what I truly love about being in LaMoille, as Mr. Allen and I share the same vision,” Huffaker said.

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