The schools and colleges of Prairie du Chien are the pride of its people; and the high type of culture and refinement found among her citizens is but the outgrowth of these educational institutions. While this is a strong Roman Catholic city, both Catholics and Protestants work in harmony in supporting the public schools.
The first school was taught in a private building by Miss Rice, afterward Mrs. Jerrad Warner. A schoolhouse was at once erected. This district took in what is now the “Lower Town.”
Among the earliest teachers here were Ellen Overton and A. Denio.
In 1857 a project was started by which a new school building for the “Lower Town” was to be built to take the place of the first one erected in the city. At that date there could only be raised about $300 on the “grand list” of taxable property; but the citizens not wishing to build with so small a fund, petitioned the Assembly, through the State superintendent, to allow them to levy a larger tax. The reasons set forth by the petitioners being sufficient this was duly granted them, and soon after the erection of a two-story stone building was commenced, which finally cost $4,000. This building is still (1884) in use. However, before the completion of this building this district run short of funds, but through the public spirit of Samuel A. Clark, who loaned them $2,200, the work of finishing went on.
Mr. Samuel A. Clark was elected as the first school treasurer, whose office it was, then, to collect all school taxes. He held this position for twenty-two years, from 1840 to 1862.
In 1872, when the city of Prairie du Chien became an independent corporation, it also became an independent school district, which was soon provided with its own school board and also school superintendent.
At a regular meeting of the city council of the city of Prairie du Chien held May 3, 1875, under the provisions of the amended city charter, the first board of education was elected. The following persons constituted the First School Board.
For the City at Large — John Lawler.
1st Ward — A. H. Reitemeyer.
2d Ward — William Dutcher.
3d Ward — Prof. J. Sutter.
4th Ward — John E. Sutton.
The election of the above gentlemen gave general satisfaction and their fitness for the duties imposed can be appreciated from the following endorsement published at the time:
“The city school board of education, elected at the first meeting of the new city council (May 3, 1875) are all men of unimpeachable character, and amply qualified to perform the duties devolving upon them. They are men of responsibility, well educated, and persons of excellent judgment, fully aware of the responsibilities of the positions they occupy, and sincerely desiring to promote the educational interests of this city. Let all good citizens extend to them the co-operation and assistance necessary to ensure the right results.
“The choice of Mr. John Lawler as the representative of the citizens at large upon the board of education is a fitting evidence of the public confidence in his integrity. His broad, liberal views, and his well-known zeal in promoting the cause of education, need no better index.
“Mr. A. H. Reitemeyer, of the 1st ward is one of our most respected German-American citizens, and he is an educated gentleman of fine address.
“Mr. William Dutcher, of the 2d ward is also distinguished for the interest he manifests in educational matters. He brings years of experience, and a fund of useful knowledge to the aid of the board.
“Prof. J. Sutter, of the German-English Academy, is a talented practical teacher. He understands all the requirements of his profession. He will prove one of the best members of the board.
“John E. Sutton, of the 4th ward, was the choice of every tax-payer in that part of the city. He was formerly a teacher, has a thorough education that will insure effective work.
“Taken as a whole, the first board of education is well constituted, better than had been hoped, and the citizens have a right to congratulate themselves upon this first step in the right direction.
“The board of education will at once organize, elects its president, clerk, and city superintendent, and inform themselves fully upon all points necessary to enter rightly upon the work of organizing the city public schools under the new system.
“We have endeavored to ascertain the views of the school board in relation to the subject of a high school; and without an exception, they are all in favor of a graded high school being established.”
The first regular meeting of the board of education in Prairie du Chien was held at the office of Hon. Wm. Dutcher, Monday, July 5, 1875. John Lawler was elected president of the board. Prof. Thomas H. Nyhan, (since deceased) was tendered the position of school superintendent, but declined to accept. At a subsequent meeting of the board, held July 10, 1875, Prof. J. Sutter was elected city school superintendent and clerk of the board, and immediately entered upon the discharge of his duties. He was a most efficient and faithful officer. Mr. Theodore Schuman was elected to take Prof. Sutter’s place on the board.
The board of education promptly visited the schools in every ward, and made a careful investigation of all the school property, schoolhouses and modes of management then existing. They were convinced that extensive improvements were absolutely necessary. They determined to have a first-class school with competent teachers in every ward. They made known to the city council the result of their deliberations from time to time.
At a meeting of the city council held July 19, 1875. John Lawler, president of the board of education, read the following communication relative to the school question:
“Gentlemen: The writer upon further examination into the school affairs of this city, desires to add to what he has already stated in a former communication recommending certain improvements in school district No. 2, that the school building of that district is not, in his opinion, at all adequate or suitable for the large number of children in attendance there. The building itself, besides being too small, its ceilings being too low, and its ventilation bad, is in every other respect, far behind the essential requirements of education. The building, with its appurtenances of grounds, fences, water closets, furniture, etc., are such as tend to deprave and corrupt the tastes and morals of the young who attend there instead of tending, as the surroundings of youth always should tend, to refinement in taste and purity in morals. To remedy this evil the only true way is to erect, as soon as practicable, a suitable new building, and to supply such other reasonable and necessary wants as the welfare of the children require.
“A good beginning might be made in this direction the present year, and that, too, without increase of taxation. For we already have, as the property of the city, ample and desirable grounds for the site of a school building and sufficient funds those known as the college funds on hand to put the necessary new school building well under way. This much, once done, the city could probably obtain from the State, according to the provisions of chapter 42 of the general laws of 1870 such additional sum as would complete the undertaking. In this way we may almost without perceptible increase of our taxes, provide, as far as it is possible, for the wants of those children who are to depend upon the public schools of the city for instruction. These are the views, which the writer entertains relative to this public school question. He expresses them for himself only, for the reason that the board of education has not, for want of proper organization, expressed any conclusion upon the subject. Should these views be in accord with yours, the writer would if a harmonious board can be organized, do whatever he can to carry them into practical effect. Otherwise he begs to step down and out by placing his resignation at your disposal. “I am, gentlemen, respectfully, yours,
The common council, immediately after reading of this communication, passed by unanimous vote, the following resolution:
“Resolved, that in the opinion of this council the views expressed by Mr. Lawler, in his communication just read, are in full accord with the views of the council,” which was confirmed by the unanimous vote of the council.
As an evidence of the actual condition in which the city schools were, at that time, the following extract from the journal of the council, will be sufficient:
“To the Honorable Mayor and Council of Prairie du Chien:
“Gentlemen: The board of education find the water closets of the school house of district No. 2, in a shamefully unsuitable condition, and recommend their destruction at once, and the building of new ones. Your immediate action will be necessary. The cost of the renewals recommended will be from $300 to $350.
“Respectfully, J. Lawler,
Pres’t Board of Education.”
This was also agreed to by unanimous vote of the council.
This was the first official action to improve the condition of the city public schools, and construct a high school in Prairie du Chien. Much preparatory work had to be accomplished. All the ward schools were put in first-class order. The preliminary matters arranged, the first appropriation asked by the board, $4,000 was levied Oct. 4, 1875, and on Monday, Oct. 11, 1875, the plans for the new high school were approved. This determined that the new central high school building should be erected, and the board called for another appropriation of $5,000 to commence the work. The board found upon subsequent consideration that they would require about $10,000, more than the city could appropriate for the purpose, and there was a lengthy correspondence between the secretary of State, Hon. P. Doyle, and the attorney general and the president of the school board. It was agreed that a special act of the Legislature was necessary to secure a $10,000 loan from the State.
The following communication to the city council explains the whole matter:
Prairie Du Chien,
Aug. 9, 1875.
“To the Honorable, the Mayor and Common Council of Prairie du Chien.
“Gentlemen. The board of education begs leave to submit the accompanying correspondence between the Hon. Peter Doyle, secretary of state, and the Hon. A. Scott Sloan, attorney general, relative to the school loan desired to be made by this city.
“Since it appears that the law, in the opinion of the attorney general, cannot be construed so as to authorize the commissioners of education to make the loan, however willing they might be so to do, it is the sense of this board that it would be advisable to begin work upon the proposed new building as soon as the fund, now held in trust by the board of college trustees, shall have been placed at the disposal of the city, for there can be but little doubt that the authority to make the loan will be readily granted by the next Legislature, in the same manner that former Legislatures have authorized loans to be made to other cities for purposes similar to that of ours. And if the Legislature should refuse even, we must have the new school building, for the interests of the city demand it, and we believe the people of the city will not hesitate to vote the tax necessary for the purpose.
President Board of Education.”
A special city election was held, and the taxpayers carried it in favor of a tax to build the high school building. The money was borrowed from the State. The contract was let to Messrs. Menges & Lefeldt. And thus the first high school in Crawford county originated, and was completed under the direction of the first board of education, and to the credit of the citizens of Prairie du Chien. At this time (1884) the schools of the city are in a very flourishing condition.
There are now (1884) five school houses within the independent district of Prairie du Chien, situated as follows: First ward, a two story stone structure, built in 1857; second ward, one brick building two stories high, built in 1876, at a cost of $12,000, and a frame house, two stories high; third ward, a brick building not in use, but in good condition; fourth ward, this contained a small one story frame building, which stands west of the slough near the river.
The people of Prairie du Chien have ever taken a deep interest in educational matters and from the earliest date have provided the best methods of teaching. Especially are the Roman Catholic people entitled to much credit for their zeal in this direction, as they have always labored to make Prairie du Chien a city of schools and colleges, the benefit of which they are finally enjoying; as but few places in the State can boast of better denominational schools than those at this point. They have two flourishing institutions of learning at this place.
The College of the Sacred Heart, conducted by the Fathers of the Society of Jesus, for the training and education of boys, and St. Mary’s Institute, conducted by the sisters of the Society of Notre Dame, for the education and practical training of girls. Each of these institutions aims to give the youth of both sexes such a practical education as will enable their pupils to meet the exigencies of life, and to be useful and respected members of society. While these institutions are Roman Catholic, their doors are open alike to Catholic and non-Catholic, and as a matter of fact, the patronage is about equally divided between these two classes, which is a striking evidence of the esteem in which they are held by the public. The patronage of both institutions has outgrown their foundations; consequently the Jesuit Fathers are preparing to increase their accommodations to twice their present capacity, by the erection of a new building, the estimated cost of which is $50,000. When this improvement is completed the college property will be worth $100,000. The college at present is under the immediate control of the Rev. Father William Becker, president, who has conducted its management successfully since its establishment. The number of students in attendance from September 1882 to July, 1883, was ninety-one.
This institution was opened in September 1880, and chartered as The College and University of the Sacred Heart, Aug. 20, 1881. The college comprises two courses of study, classical and commercial. The full course consists of six classes, to be absolved in six years. Though the college is only entering upon its fourth year, the number of classes will be complete the next session. The College of the Sacred Heart is complete in its appointments, and conducted under a wise, firm, yet mild and paternal system of government. The situation is picturesque and healthful. The building stands on rising ground commanding extensive views of the Mississippi and Wisconsin valleys and the beautiful bluffs that bound them. Taken all in all, it is one of the most attractive and beautiful collegiate properties in the entire northwest. Its president, the Rev. Father William Becker, is a thorough scholar, and a man of fine executive ability. He was born in Germany, educated in Europe, and came to the United States in 1869.
He acquired an enviable reputation, in the east, as the founder of the St. Ignatius College at Buffalo, which he conducted several years, with such marked success, that it was acknowledged by the highest authority in educational matters in New York, as one of the leading institutions of that State. He is supported by an able faculty, four of whom are of American birth, one of English and the others of German.
The college building was originally built as a large hotel in 1857-8, by a joint stock company, at a cost of $56,000. It was used as a hotel only a few years, or until the removal of the railway depot to Upper Town. During the war, it was used by the government as a hospital; next, an unsuccessful effort was made to have the State accept it as a site for a Normal school. Failing in this, its managers organized an independent college, known as the Prairie du Chien College, this institution proved a failure, financially, and was closed after a brief existence of three years. About 1873 the property passed into the hands of the Brothers of the Christian schools, a Catholic order, which opened it under the title of St. John’s College. This Institution failed to meet the expectations of its founders, and was closed about 1876.
The property was then purchased of the Catholic Brothers, by Mr. John Lawler, who added largely to its value by substantial and important improvements, and then in his free handed public spirited way, presented it to the “Fathers of the Society of Jesus,” thus making that order a present of a property, valued at nearly $50,000, while his beneficence insured to Prairie du Chien a permanent and creditable institution of learning.
St. Mary’s Institute was established in 1872. The buildings being erected for that special purpose, under the management of the chief donor, Mr. John Lawler. The Institute is conducted under the management of the sisters of the order of Notre Dame, and is presided over by a sister superior, of that order. During the vacation period of 1883, the sisters completed a dormitory, capable of accommodating 100 students. For the year ending July 1883, the number of students in attendance, averaged seventy-five. It may be proper here to remark that in the Institute as well as the College the students comprise representatives from nearly all of the northwestern states. The system of education, under the able management of the sisters, is one that commends itself to every unprejudiced mind. This is no fashionable boarding-school, where only a superficial education is obtained; here the solid acquirements are gained that fit the students for the earnest duties of life, which in the course of events are liable to devolve upon them; at the same time, the range of studies embraces the higher branches, languages, music and art. The buildings of the Institute occupy the historic ground of Fort Crawford, the ruins of which form a picturesque feature of the landscape. The situation is elevated, and commands a magnificent view of the Mississippi river and valley, and the towering bluffs on either side.
The buildings are tasty and commodious, and fitted with the most improved modern conveniences. No pains have been spared to make this institution a model of its kind.
It would be an injustice to its most liberal patron to omit to mention the fact that the institution owes its origin, and present prosperous condition to the unbounded liberality and careful supervision of Mr. John Lawler, one of Prairie du Chien’s most respected and enterprising citizens.
On the first day of December 1866, a number of the prominent German citizens of Prairie du Chien, met for the purpose of organizing an independent German school, where the German language might be taught, without regard to any religious creed. After preliminaries, the following officers were elected: F. Unger, R. Rosenbaum, Jacob Raffauf, M. Menges, Otto Georgii and H. Boehlke trustees; F. Unger, president; F. Rosenbaum, treasurer; Jacob Raffauf, secretary.
A constitution was adopted and the following March 1867, the society was made a legal corporation, by an act of the State Legislature. For two years this school society held their school in a private school building of John Lawler’s and in the German Methodist church. In 1868, however, they erected a neat, one story brick school building which stands just east of the courthouse square. This school was in successful operation until 1878, when it was discontinued. At one time the school contained seventy-five pupils, a part of who were from American families. A tuition fee of $1.00 was required of those whose parents belonged to the society, and $1.50 from those outside. The association was made up of about thirty members, but finally has been reduced to thirteen, on account of deaths and removals.
At the present time (1884), the society exists and owns their property, which is not used as a schoolhouse, but leased for various purposes.
The last officers elected were as follows: M. Frederick, M. Menges, H. Otto, S. Rosenbaum, C. Leefeldt and Theodore Shuman, trustees; Henry Otto, president; M. Menges, vice-president; R. Rosenbaum, treasurer, and M. Frederick, secretary.
History of Crawford and Richland Counties, Wisconsin: Together with Sketches of Their Towns and Villages, Educational, Civil, Military, and Political History, Portraits of Prominent Persons, and Biographies of Representative Citizens ; History of Wisconsin : Embracing Accounts of the Pre-historic Races, and a Brief Account of Its Territorial and State Governments, Part 1. Crawford County (WI): Union Publishing Company, 1884.