Imagine a school district that only paid its teachers $40 per month. These teachers worked inside a sturdy brick schoolhouse that cost $5,000 to construct. The district superintendent was paid the princely sum of $100 per month. This district was the Harlem Board of Education, the forerunner of Forest Park’s District 91.

D91 presented a valuable gift to the Historical Society of Forest Park, at its Aug. 13 board meeting: two volumes containing Harlem’s school board minutes from 1890 to 1905. These precious pieces of Forest Park history were found in the Field-Stevenson storage room. Custodian Beto Arechiga was cleaning out the vault, when he discovered them. He notified his boss, Bob Laudadio, who had the books brought to district headquarters for safekeeping.

The school board then voted to place the records on permanent loan to the historical society. They even offered to pay the society’s expenses in preserving the books, which are in very delicate condition. The board minutes provide a fascinating peek into how public education began in Forest Park.

Originally, the Harlem school board met inside Harlem School, which was built by River Forest founder, Ashbel Steele in 1859. This building still stands at 7776 Lake Street and serves as the administrative headquarters of District 90. 

Forest Park’s first school, Public School No. 1, was built on the northwest corner of Circle and Randolph in 1877. It had four classrooms and held 200 students. When the board minutes begin in 1890, discussion is underway to build a major addition to this school. The board president at the time was Peter Farley. He was a judge and one of the most prominent men in the community. Farley disappeared in the late 1890s and his present-day descendants still don’t know what happened to him.

The minutes were recorded in flowing script by Secretary Jacob Schein. His writing looks like calligraphy compared to modern scrawl. (Today, board minutes are recorded on a laptop and D91 no longer teaches cursive writing). The minutes are sprinkled with the names of Forest Park’s leading families.  Albert Roos succeeded Farley but not before Farley’s wife, Margaret, was paid $15 rent per month for a school room on Madison — showing that insider deals go back more than a century in Forest Park.

A sizable addition to Public School 1 was completed in 1893 and the school was renamed Grant School. In 1895, Elizabeth White started her 45-year career teaching there. A second addition, built in 1928, was named in her honor, which is why it’s known today as Grant-White School. Local merchants profited from all this school construction.

Forest Park’s founder, Ferdinand Haase, was paid $30 for a length of pipe. His relative, E.R. Haase, billed $331.50, for an insurance policy on the school building. Leo Haase served as a temporary board secretary. Near the end of the minutes, plans are being made to construct a South Side School. This later became Farley School and is the present location of Garfield Elementary. 

All of this history could not have been uncovered, without the Historical Society archives. Executive Director Diane Grah accepted the latest addition to the collection at the Aug. 13 meeting.  Diane urges all Historical Society members to vote on-line or in person, by Sept. 9, on the issue of acquiring 1st United Church of Christ to house the collection. The church would give the Harlem minutes a safe home. 

By the way, Beto the D91 custodian should be grateful for his salary. In 1890, school janitors only made 30 bucks a month.  

John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries.

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.

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