A century ago, at least 125 one-room schools were scattered across Kankakee County to serve the educational needs of rural families. In each school, pupils in grades 1 through 8 were instructed in “readin’, ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmetic” by a single teacher.
Today, few of those school buildings remain — as educational practices changed, many schools were demolished, while others were converted to storage buildings or remodeled into homes.
One of the best surviving examples of a one-room school, complete with desks in varied sizes, chalkboards, a pot-bellied stove and vintage textbooks, is the Taylor School. Since 1976, the building has been located on the Kankakee County Museum Campus in Gov. Small Memorial Park at Eighth Avenue and Water Street. The building serves as a “living museum” where visitors can learn what life was like in the “old school days.”
The simple, white-painted clapboard structure actually dates to 1904, when it was erected on the Edwin Taylor farm in Rockville Township, a mile south of the tiny town of DeSelm. At that time, it was the “new school,” replacing one that had served since the late 1870s or early 1880s.
How (and why) did the Taylor School migrate some 23 miles to the southeast from a Rockville Township farm field to a site among the trees in a Kankakee park?
The story of that migration begins in mid-1975, when a Kankakee County group sought a project that would celebrate the United States’ bicentennial in 1976. The Kankakee County Bicentennial Commission decided that preserving and restoring a local one-room schoolhouse would be appropriate.
The search for a building produced several possibilities, but one stood out. Mrs. Thomas Hemstreet, who chaired the “Horizon ‘76” search committee, recalled that, “When we realized that finding a one-room schoolhouse in our county that was not only in good enough condition to move, but that Miss Thelma Taylor would give it to us free of charge, the Horizon ‘76 group knew we had [an] achievable project.”
Miss Taylor, one of five daughters of Edwin Taylor, owned the farm where the building was located. She purchased the old school (which she had attended as a child) in the mid-1950s, after the Manteno school district decided to close it. Until about 1972, it was used periodically for township meetings and as a polling place.
Once the bicentennial group acquired the building, the next decision was how to relocate it to the Museum Campus in Gov. Small Memorial Park. While the traditional method for moving such a building was to place it on wheels and slowly tow it along rural roads to its new site, an innovative idea was actually considered: renting a giant helicopter to lift the building out of the Rockville field and deposit it in the Kankakee park.
Unfortunately, cost considerations shot down the aerial option. While the helicopter lift could be done, it would cost $30,000; the traditional method would be only about one-fourth as expensive.
The J.D. Nesbitt Co., a Kankakee firm with considerable experience in moving buildings and large machines, was hired to make the move. The school was jacked up and placed on a wheeled undercarriage to prepare for the 23-mile journey. On Wednesday, April 21, the moving process began as the building was towed sedately westward along a rural road in Rockville Township. A left turn onto Warner Bridge Road allowed the building to cross the Kankakee River and proceed southward. After an overnight stop near the Lehigh Quarry, the towed building proceeded eastward into Kankakee and eventually to the Museum Campus. Along the way, fifty power, telephone and cable TV lines had to be cut or relocated to allow passage of the building.
Once it arrived on the Museum Campus, the school was parked temporarily in what later became the Column Garden, until a new foundation could be excavated and built by volunteer workers using donated materials.
The next step was to make the many repairs and changes needed to restore the building to its 1904 “like new” condition. Again, volunteers — many of them members of Kankakee County’s building trades unions — donated their skills to the project. Local building supply companies provided needed materials as donations or at reduced cost. Fundraising activities by the bicentennial group covered the total amount spent on moving and refurbishing the building: $8,556.
Six months after its journey from Rockville to Kankakee, the Taylor Schoolhouse was ready to receive visitors. On Sunday, Oct. 24, 1976, dedication ceremonies were held at the Museum Campus, as ownership of the building was formally turned over to the Kankakee Valley Park District. The Kankakee County Historical Society assumed responsibility for maintaining and operating the historic structure.
In the more than 40 years since that dedication, the building has hosted literally thousands of visitors, from former pupils and teachers to entire school classes from communities across Kankakee County. In 2011 a former storage room at the back of the building was remodeled to depict typical living quarters for a male teacher (female teachers typically boarded with one of the nearby farm families), and the building was given a fresh coat of white paint. In 2012, the Taylor Schoolhouse was honored by being placed on the National Schoolhouse Register.