Oliver: Schoolhouse offers lessons about county’s past

Diane McGowan and Ron Mahon hope that their efforts to restore the last standing one-room schoolhouse in Grafton Township will preserve important lessons from the past.

The couple have been working to bring Haligus School, which opened in 1861 and was used until 1946, back to its original glory.

That hasn’t been easy.

McGowan bought the schoolhouse, which sits amid an old walnut grove about four miles northeast of Huntley, at the end of 2006.

“It sat vacant until 1951 and was turned into a two-story house,” she said of the site at 7511 Haligus Road.

Work with the Lake in the Hills Historical Society to move Ford School fueled the couple’s desire to work on their own piece of history.

“We have one of those [one-room schoolhouses],” Mahon said, “one that doesn’t have to be moved.”

So the work began in earnest in 2012, after Mahon retired.

The changes to Haligus School by previous owners were extensive, including shifting the entry from the front of the building to the side and adding a second floor and fireplace.
All of that had to go.

The couple, fans of “This Old House,” had done remodeling work in the past – or “remuddling” as Mahon puts it – but this was a more intensive labor of love.

The balsam wool insulation was filled with abandoned animal nests. Ductwork and piping had to be removed upstairs to restore the schoolhouse’s nearly 11-foot-high ceiling.

“We learned to be really green about it,” McGowan said of efforts to reuse as much as possible.

When the brick fireplace and chimney were removed, the couple “hit the jackpot,” McGowan said.

They found two extremely old signs. One, which reads “Haligus School Dist. 81,” has been duplicated and hangs on the outside of the building.

Mahon spent last winter restoring the original floorboards, which the couple found when they pulled up vinyl flooring and ceramic tile.

“Each tongue and groove was loaded with cow manure [from the farm kids’ shoes],” McGowan said.

Also impressive is the research McGowan did before going to work, including attending conferences such as one in June in St. Joseph, Missouri, of the Country School Association of America. 

“I’m impressed with her because she really did it right,” said Kurt Begalka, administrator of the McHenry County Historical Society. “She made herself do the legwork ahead of time.”

Haligus School was one of about 140 one-room schoolhouses used in the county. That number has dwindled to fewer than 90 sites, Begalka said.

That’s one of the reasons McGowan and Mahon have applied for landmark status. The McHenry County Historic Preservation Commission has recommended that the site become the county’s 24th local historic landmark.

The recommendation, which cleared the county’s Planning and Development Committee earlier this month, now goes for a 30-day review by the McHenry County Board. So the couple could know in September whether they will get the designation.

Ultimately, McGowan and Mahon want to share the schoolhouse with the community.

“It could be a living, working museum,” McGowan said.

Even now, visitors are encouraged to drop by to see the transformation. 

A portrait of George Washington, a map of Illinois and a pull-down map of the United States hang from the walls. Antique desks and a flag stand, as well as slates and primers, hearken back to a simpler time.

And the views from the property, which overlooks a pair of ponds and extensive farmland, are breathtaking.

If you’d like to see it for yourself, stop by or make arrangements by calling McGowan at 847-404-2843.

• • •

Speaking of schoolhouses: The McHenry County Historical Society will open its 1867 Pringle School for a free open house from 1 to 4 p.m. Aug. 10 at 21596 River Road in Marengo.

A selection of artifacts will be on display.

Visitors should park on the lawn in front of the school or on the side street.

The Wilson/Weyland Family also will open the pre-Civil War “Stewart’s Scottish Cemetery” to visitors that day. It is on the Ted Wilson farm at 20916 River Road, just east of Route 23.

A short hike from the parking area up a wooded path is required.

For information, call 815-923-2267 or visit

• Joan Oliver is the former Northwest Herald assistant news editor. She has been associated with the Northwest Herald since 1990. She can be reached at

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