Century-old school celebrated

A century isn’t an average, everyday milestone.

We celebrate those fortunate enough to become centenarians for good reason. Generally speaking, time wins the war of attrition more times than not. But there are exceptions.

The McHenry County Historical Society calls the 1870 Union School home, but despite our educational bent, it is no longer a school. And, of course, there is the 1894 Landmark School in McHenry. But it certainly was built on a much larger scale compared with the two-room Ridgefield building.

No, when it comes to historic schools still serving as schools, the list is mighty short.

When the original wooden Ridgefield School – built with a distinctive bell tower, perhaps as early as 1859 – burned down in December 1913, the community wasted no time in erecting another school. Support for a more modern brick replacement was swift – despite the $5,998 price tag. According to DollarTimes.com, that is the equivalent to about $140,000 today.

The building got an addition in 1958, adding the back part of the building with two, large classrooms upstairs, a large multipurpose room downstairs, a library, teachers’ lounge and office. The only drawback was a low ceiling in the basement exercise area where children played games.

It also underwent renovations in the late 1970s, after consolidating with Crystal Lake District 47 on July 9, 1973. The last class as District 48 ended on June 8 that year. After two failed referendums in 1979, the school closed on June 6, 1980.

It reopened a year later as the home of the McHenry County Jewish Congregation. MCJC was the high bidder in 1981, paying $115,000.

Al Levitt, who has been researching the school’s history in preparation for the open house, described the process as an “interesting odyssey.” He finds himself wondering what life would have been like back then, without video games and other modern conveniences.

“Back then schools were community centers,” Levitt said. “We want to continue that. It’s the center of Jewish life in McHenry County.”

When shifting demographics and financial pressure prompted District 48’s demise, students learned in cozy quarters. First-, second- and third-graders learned in a large open room in center of the building. Grades frequently were grouped for certain subjects – a cutting-edge concept at the time and a homage to the one-room school days of yore.

Kindergartners, whom Velma Dysart taught when she arrived in 1961, were housed in a separate classroom toward the front. But the Crystal Lake educator, who became the district’s superintendent in 1964, said there was a “real community feeling” at Ridgefield.

“The kids were from the village, mostly. They all walked to school,” she said. In fact, she recalled periodically walking her entire class – nine students that first year – over to the nearby homes of Ridgefield residents for visits.

“It was an airy, very pleasant building, well-built with wide halls and big windows,” Dysart said. “My attitude is a small school can be a very good school.”

• Kurt Begalka is the McHenry County Historical Society administrator.

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