A History of the Little Red School House

In 1886, a new school was built in Palos. Over the years it was variously called District 116, Molony or Maple Hill School but most locals just knew it as the schoolhouse. Today that building is called by yet another name, the Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center, and this is the Story of the School House.


Walking up a dirt road called 99th Street one-hundred years ago, one would see a patchwork of scenery. There were oak forests and farm fields filled with stumps, marshes and houses, grazing cows in the prairies and a schoolhouse. This schoolhouse had its beginnings in 1869 when James and Ellen Molony deeded 1.6 acres to Palos Township for the establishment of a school. A frame schoolhouse was built on the site soon afterwards and served until it burned down in 1886. An old log cabin was then used as a school until a new one room schoolhouse was built later that year.


Looking at that new school as it stood in 1886, you would find it set in a grove of large oak trees in front of a ravine. There was a shed in front to store coal and wood with an overhang that occasionally sheltered students’ horses. A pump stood next to the shed and a dirt path led to the wooden stairs of the schoolhouse. It was painted white with green trim and had long windows on two sides of the buildings. There were two outhouses in back of the school. Stepping inside, one passed through a closet into the classroom. The room was 34′ x 22′ with a stove in the back and the teacher’s desk in front. Double desks were arranged in rows according to grade. The white walls were bare except for a chalkboard.


Visiting this school in 1886, you would have been met by Joseph Barnebee, who taught for $60 a month. Nothing is known about his background but 38% of the teachers in Cook Co. had only a grade school education. School ran from September till June and, from 9:00 to 3:30. Mr. Barnebee, who lived nearby, would arrive early to light the stove. He was able to teach 1st through 8th grades by working with one grade while the other grades worked on assignments. Often students in the upper grades helped the lower grade children.


That year 68 children from nearby farms registered at the school but on an average day, only 25 children were there. Older pupils often were kept home to help on the farm, especially in the spring and fall. Younger children often stayed home in the winter when it was too difficult to make the long walk (up to 2 miles) to school. With such problems in attending school, few pupils progressed as far as the 5th grade.


Discipline was never much of a problem but some records do show that a lady teacher was employed in the spring and fall, while a man was needed during the winter “who would be able to whip larger boys into subjection if necessary.” It’s of interest to note that women teachers’ salaries were 2/3rds of that of men. Books and paper were scarce, so most work was done on individual slates with chalk. The subjects taught were much the same as today: reading, arithmetic history, geography and music. Classroom work was serious business with spelling bees and Christmas program preparations serving as welcome relief. As today, lunch time and recess were the highlights of the school day. Lunch was usually a sandwich of homemade bread wrapped in newspaper and carried in a pail. Alumni Marie Munch remembered recess: “We all had a good time together … we played run-sheep-run, king of the hill and other games in front of the schoolhouse. That’s where I learned to play ball!”


Over the years, little changed at the school and, these “country schools” were often criticized by the Cook County Superintendent of Schools. The following report was filed by them in 1910, “This is the usual frame buildings… it is an isolated location in a forest of fine trees …. five windows without curtains …. no flag, no wall maps, no bookcase. Double seats. A miserable closet …. floor scrubbed once a year. One chair. The outhouses are wretched …. well is not usable …. a generally neglected condition of affairs. Twenty-nine pupils. Salary of teacher: $67.50 a month… 40 cents a day (street) car fare.”

This dismal report contrasts sharply with the many, fond memories of alumni from that period. Jim Tuma recalls: “It was a nice school… we worked hard but got a good education.” Over the years, many improvements were made. Individual desks, curtains and a new pump were added. A janitor was hired whose duties included hauling water and caring for the stove.


What the school was lacking in material features it made up in other ways. Loretta Hennebry, who taught in the mid-20s, recalls the closeness felt in the classroom. She says: “I knew their families and where they lived… I just loved the place and the children… brothers and sisters would be in class together and learn from each other.”


Miss Hennebry, like most of the teachers who taught at the school in later years, rode the street car that ran on Archer Ave. She left the street car about a 1/2 mile west of 104th St. and then walked about a mile to the school. Children would join her on the way to school and learned from her about the plants and animals they passed.


In 1915, the Forest Preserve District of Cook Co. was formed and set out “to establish a great natural park in the hills, ravines and forests of Palos.” The area was then described as a “natural, self perpetuating forest and rolling farmlands… well-wooded, fairly watered and lakes may be made in portions by damming.” The Forest Preserve acquired many farms near the schoolhouse and, as a result, the number of pupils dwindled.


As one resident, Herbert Carlson, recalls “the people living on farms in this area resisted the Forest Preserve desperately; they loved their land.” But now thinking, of how this land would have been developed, he says “I have nothing but praise for the men responsible for the development of this area for the people to enjoy nature.”


In 1922, Maple Lake was created as a swimming area and, by the 30s it was heavily used. This caused problems for the nearby school. The notes of the Palos Township Trustees Meeting of April 1934 reported, “The teacher had to have the textbooks and school supplies either hidden or taken from the school property every night to prevent being stolen… picnickers and strollers interfered with the children’s studies.” Also 99th St. flooded in the spring and the site was inconvenient for most students. For these reasons it was decided to move the school building.


In the summer of 1938, the school was moved about 2/3rds of a mile down 99th St. to a new site on 104th Ave. Lee Taylor, a local resident, was hired to move the building for $75. Alumnus Elmer Hass and his father were hired to prepare the new site and recalled watching the move. “First,” he said, “the building was jacked up and large timbers were attached to the bottom of the building. Then iron wheels were attached to the timbers, and a cable was extended down the road. This cable was connected to a winch assembly that was staked to the ground. A horse walked in a circle, winding the cable and pulling the building along. Once the cable was wound, the winch was moved down the trail and the procedure repeated.”


As the landscape continued to change from farm to Forest Preserve, attendance at the school declined. When Donna Treadway and Rose Reichert graduated in 1948, only one student, Jack Treadway remained! The decision, was made to close the school. The building was then used as a storage shed by the nearby Boy Scout Camp.


Unlike the many one room schoolhouses that have vanished from this area, our schoolhouse would become a nature center. In 1952, the Forest Preserve District bought the building as well as its original site (1.6 acres) for $600. It was moved across 104th Ave., and this time the contractor used a truck instead of horses!


To give it more of the appearance of a “cereal” schoolhouse, some changes were made. Repairs were made and windows were added to the front and back. For the first time it was painted red with white trim and a belfry and bell were added. On the inside, the closet was converted into a new entryway, kitchen and office. Desks were replaced by fish tanks and nature displays. On May 15, 1955 the Little-Red Schoolhouse Nature Center was opened to the public. Ever since then its popularity has grown, and now over 450,000 people come each year to learn more about nature.


The history of this schoolhouse belongs not only to the past but to us today. Those early settlers have left their mark and names on the land – McMahon Woods, Tuma Lake, McGinnis Slough. The orchard planted long ago still blooms in the Spring. The beauty they saw and the love they felt for this land can be ours. And this small schoolhouse still rings with the sound of children – learning still.

Visit two of the treasures of the Forest Preserves of Cook County