The Little White School

Illinois law states that when a community reaches the population threshold of 1,000 people, it must elect a school board. Lake Bluff’s first school board was elected 100 years ago in 1923, but public education began decades before that.

In 1857 Shields Township was divided into two school districts, with a log cabin school on Green Bay Road in the middle of each district. This was when the area we now call home was known as Rockland. Of course, there were no Range Rovers, Jeeps, Teslas, or electric-powered scooters, bikes or vehicles of any sort back then, and getting to school truly was a hardship for Rockland children.

In 1869 locals persuaded school trustees to create a third district right in the heart of Rockland. Local leaders purchased a 99-foot by 148.5-foot lot for $35 from early settler Edward Mawman on the east side of Green Bay Road, 200 feet north of Rockland Road/Rt. 176. Here they built a large white frame building on a brick foundation that became known as the Little White School. At its peak the school housed 90 children.

A few facts about the Little White School:

  • The building had a single front entrance with a cloak room for girls on one side and another for boys on the other
  • There were two outhouses in the back of the building
  • There was one classroom
  • Students sat on old-fashioned double seats, and they had to furnish their own books and writing materials – except for chalk; the school provided chalk
  • The building was heated by a large wood stove; wood was cut by a local man for fifty cents a cord
  • Pupils helped pile the wood in the large wood box, which was stored in the boys cloak room.
  • Average monthly salary paid to teachers in Illinois in 1870 was $35 for male teachers and $25 for female teachers.
  • Teachers were paid from taxes collected for that purpose in Rockland.

The Little White School was booming in the 1890s, when enrollment peaked at 90 pupils. (Did they have to take turns sitting?) Relief came in 1895, a notable year for Lake Bluff. For one, Lake Bluff transitioned from a summer resort run by the Lake Bluff Camp Meeting Association to an incorporated village. Also that year, a decision was reached to build a new school.

Of course – OF COURSE! – this decision reached such dramatic heights that it split the village along geographic lines, with west-siders wanting the new school built west of the tracks because that’s where most of the population was living at the time, and east-siders wanting it walkable to them. (Does nothing change?)

Somehow the east side prevailed, and Lake Bluff School was built on E. Sheridan Place at the corner of Vincent Court, which was then the center of Lake Bluff. Lake Bluff School was a two-story brick structure with two rooms on each floor and two grades in each room. In 1922-23 Lake Bluff School built an addition that included a gym and seven classrooms. The gym was a community center and was used as the first movie theater in Lake Forest and Lake Bluff! It showed silent films every Friday night. Renowned architect Howard Van Dorn Shaw designed an outdoor theater and gardens immediately west of the school. The property was part of a farm in the mid-1800s, so the soil was probably pretty good.

During the Great Depression of 1929 and into the 1930s, the school district provided a free dental clinic for all students. It was housed on the second floor of the school.

The next big wave of change (certainly not the last!) to Lake Bluff schools came in the middle of the 20th century, when the post-World War II Baby Boom generation flocked to the suburbs. In the 1950s and ‘60s Lake Bluff built three new schools — a junior high and two new elementary school buildings. Enrollment peaked at 1,350 in 1971.

Change being the real constant here, two of those schools were demolished decades later, two underwent name changes, and one was repurposed.

As for the Little White School? The building was used as a preschool until 1904. After that it became a “pest house” where people with contagious diseases such as small pox were isolated and treated. (Would we have been sent there for COVID-19 these past three years if the building still existed?)

In 1910, the Little White Pest House building was sold at auction and moved to Rondout on Rockland Road three doors west of the railroad tracks, and it became the Baptist Mission Chapel. Eventually its churchly era came to an end and the building was repurposed again, this time as a private residence. The renovation included the addition of a porch and dormer windows.

Sadly, the structure was demolished in 2020, the year that we could have really used a Pest House.