West Harmony Teacher's Packet
A Brief Excursion into the History of McHenry County’s Schools
The 1895 one room West Harmony School has been part of the McHenry County Historical Society Museum since March of 1988. It is a representation of the type of building and local education system that prevailed in this county until just after World War II. In 1945 this county had 127 separate school districts, each with the authority to levy a tax for school purposes. We actually had more school districts than any one of ten entire states.
Education as it developed in these county schools (a term used for the one room schools until the 1870’s) got its start in the late 1830’s. At that time "schools" were generally subscription schools. Parents voluntarily "chipped in together" to hire a teacher who often used a room in someone’s cabin for his/her school. There were no standardized books or courses of study. One such school operated near Griswold Lake. Webster’s Spelling Book was the major book used in such schools. Spelling was disproportionately prized.
Other early schools were private seminaries, often part of a religious order. There were four early seminaries in this county: the Woodstock Seminary which evolved into the Todd School for Boys, 1848-1954; the Lawrence Academy in Lawrence, west of Harvard; the Crystal Lake Academy of 1850 on the grounds of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church; and the ill-fated five-story Marengo Institute of 1855, run by the Presbyterians. This building burned to the ground not long after it opened. Schools like these generally declined when the Illinois Free School Education Act of 1855 went into effect.