IAGenWeb Project

Johnson County Schools

Iowa City’s Early Public Schools



Erected in 1857-8, this Second Ward School sat along the west side of Gilbert Street a half-block north of 
Iowa Avenue, now a university parking lot. Later as Bernard School, it became the first City High.
(Post card #235)

By Bob Hibbs

Iowa City pioneers envisioned good local public schools, but faced long odds getting them underway, with trial and effort forging the way toward what today is arguably one of the best public education systems on Earth.

The first local schools weren’t public, but private, and failed. Without access to tax dollars, and without facilities, odds were stacked against their success. Most met in church basements or other meeting halls. Some were church affiliated; others private ventures by a self-proclaimed teachers. There were no standards.

The first local public schools were set up by a newly-established City Council in 1853, the first year city government existed. Those mutated in 1858 into a system headed by an independent school board with limited taxing authority as exists to this day.

The original Iowa City public school was opened in 1853 in rented quarters, the 2˝-story Mechanics Academy building where the local Masonic Lodge met on the top floor. The lodge was founded in 1842 by among others, William Reynolds, who taught in his own early local private school and later served as state superintendent of public instruction.

The academy, it’s lower floors rented for $250 a year, was located on the east side of Linn Street a half-block north of Iowa Avenue, a section of street now closed and part of the University of Iowa campus.

UI was founded in the same structure two years later, but was closed in 1858 for lack of funds. Both Mercy and University hospitals also were founded in the same building, as were other important institutions, including the first Iowa teachers’ college which evolved into today’s University of Northern Iowa.

Iowa City’s first school bond issue for $20,000 to build facilities was approved 115 to 46, a 71% approval, in September 1855. Only men could vote in this period long before American women received the right to vote in 1920 with ratification of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The council created three wards of about equal size in 1856, and authorized $8,000 to erect a building in each ward. When completed in spring 1858, the final cost was $8,125 each.

A newly-elected school board took over May 6, 1858 at the height of a national financial panic which affected America much as the Great Depression did during the 1930s. Despite hard times, several thousand dollars more were spent on finishing work in the wooden-framed brick-veneer structures which would serve during the subsequent half century.

Thus, in 1858 the community finally had its public school system complete with facilities, then nearly 20 years after its founding in 1839 on the dream of pioneer homesteaders.

The three first-generation schools were First Ward located on the site now serving the Sabin building on South Dubuque Street, Second Ward on what is now a UI parking lot along the west side of Gilbert Street north of Iowa Avenue, and Third Ward on what is now Market Park adjacent to Mann Elementary.

A Fourth Ward building later was erected on the southwest quadrant of the Dodge-Court intersection which later was enlarged with Kirkwood School at Dodge and Kirkwood for part of its pupils. The Fifth Ward sent students to Fourth Ward School until Longfellow was built in 1917-18 simultaneously with Sabin and Mann.

The first teachers were Henry Lathrop, paid $450 a year as principal and succeeded a year later by Samuel Spurrier at $400 annually with 46 students, Miss Christy at $200 with 34 pupils, Miss Cornelia Wilson at $155 with 32 and Miss Lydia Lanning at $150 and 43. Average class size was 39.

Men were paid more money then, as now, but the disparity has decreased, as has class size.

Bob Hibbs collects local postcards and researches history related to them.

Copyright 2003 By Bob Hibbs 

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