|The History of Kewanee – Wethersfield Union High School
Kewanee (population 12,944) is located in northwestern Illinois about 25 miles northeast of Galesburg on US Route 34 and Illinois 78. Kewanee is about 35 miles from the Quad Cities Area, as the crow flies. The Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad runs through this town with AMTRAK service. Kewanee was founded in 1854 as the railroad came into the town and annexed a town south of it, Wethersfield, in 1924.
Were it not for a newspaper article printed below we would never have known about Union High School in Kewanee. The following is that newpaper article which was written by Dave Clarke of the Kewanee Star Courier on October 10, 2006.
One town, two schools; what happened?
By DAVE CLARKE Of The Star Courir
“For Kewanee it meant more population — for Wethersfield, it meant indoor plumbing.
When Wethersfield was annexed to Kewanee, there was something in it for everyone.
That the annexation stopped with municipal governments also sheds light on the answer to the often-asked question, “Why are there two schools in a city the size of Kewanee?”
Like a crooked picture on the wall that your visiting mother-in-law just can’t resist straightening, the fact that there are two school districts in a town of 12,700 just plain aggravates many people. They’ll listen to arguments about curriculum, cost saving and big versus small schools, but the real reason many think there should be one school in one town is because that’s just the way it ought to be. How is it that we have two public school systems in one town?
You have to go back 85 years to June 30, 1921, to begin to understand something that perplexes some and pleases others.
Kewanee and Wethersfield actually began as two towns separated by about a mile-and-a-half of open country. Wethersfield was settled in 1836 by a group of pioneers from Connecticut, while Kewanee sprang up along the railroad when it came through in 1854.
Eventually, the two towns grew closer together, Kewanee developing into a commercial and industrial center fueled by the railroad, while Wethersfield remained a basically rural village with a few stores, but mostly scattered homes, many with barns and orchards.
According to one article from a 1921 Star Courier, the issue of annexation had been bounced around for about 50 years, which would take it back to 1871, with Wethersfield villagers usually balking at the idea. But in the spring of 1921, with the village to the south facing financial difficulties, the residents finally thought annexation sounded like a pretty good idea. After several failed attempts over the years, the issue finally passed in Wethersfield by a vote of 468 to 101 on June 2, 1921.
Being part of Kewanee now meant police and fire protection and something they couldn’t afford before — water and sewer service. Wethersfield had maintained its own police and fire departments over the years and had its own village board, all of which were dissolved after June 30, 1921, when Kewanee residents approved the proposal 831 to 200.
The addition of Wethersfield’s 1,960 residents to Kewanee’s 16,026, gave the new city a combined population of nearly 18,000, which many felt would finally put us “on the map.” Growth was important in attracting business and industry and the higher the number on the population sign, the more the rest of the world paid attention.
The annexation, however, affected only the municipal governments and services. Left intact were the school districts, library districts and townships, each still bearing the names Wethersfield and Kewanee. Each was a separate entity with its own elected boards and taxing authority. Municipal leaders in 1921 were apparently only concerned with making a bigger city and developing Wethersfield for future residential and commercial use.
One important reason the school districts, library districts and townships were left out of the 1921 annexation proposal is that each contained substantial territory outside the city limits. There is no indication that there was any thought of merging anything but city governments.
The two township library districts, each with its own board but sharing one library in Kewanee, remained until 1987 when the voters in the Kewanee and Wethersfield approved the formation of the current single library district encompassing the two former districts.
Although there have been sporadic statewide efforts for years to consolidate or abolish township government entirely, Kewanee and Wethersfield continue to exist with separate slates of township officials and facilities and there has never been talk of merging the two to save money, consolidate facilities and equipment, or just because we shouldn’t have two townships in a city this size.
There actually was, at one time, a combined Kewanee and Wethersfield school system which may shed light on the origin of Division Street, another “hot button” for local residents who think the very name creates a, well, division in our city.
In 1856 — when Wethersfield had only been around for 20 years and Kewanee a mere two — the citizens of both communities formed an association and built the Union Seminary Institute, a two-story, brick building on the west side of South Chestnut Street about four doors north of Division Street, which was first named North Street in the original town of Wethersfield.
Union was essentially a private school with shares of stock sold to provide capital and governed by an elected board of directors. Students paid tuition to attend classes from first through 12th grades.
Only lasting two years, the seminary concept was abandoned in 1858 and the property and an accumulated debt were turned over to the joint school districts of Wethersfield and Kewanee. The building then became the academy, or high school, for what was called the Union School District.
According to the rules and regulations of the new district, “The Board of Education of Kewanee and Wethersfield are fully convinced that the Union School System, if perfectly established and judiciously managed, affords facilities for the education of the rising generation far superior to the system heretofore adopted.” It was stated that the Union district was established “for the purpose of giving greater efficiency to the schools, and in order to awaken more thoroughly the interest of the community on the subject of education.”
For some reason, the Union school district was dissolved in 1870 by common consent of both districts. The Kewanee School District paid the Wethersfield district $1,800 for its interest in the old seminary building which was torn down in 1877, just 21 years after it was built.
According to Frank Craig’s book, “Wethersfield Sketches,” published in 1925, “At the same time Division Street became the boundary line between the two districts.” The street also lies on the boundary line between Kewanee and Wethersfield townships.
“Division” seems like an odd name for a street, although many cities have one, including Galva, where Division Street divides the north and south halves of the town.
It seems that “Union,” the name carried by the seminary and the combined school district, would have been a better choice, but before you get any ideas, Kewanee already has a Union Street.
It is also interesting to note that the reference in one of the 1921 annexation stories to the fact that the joining the two towns had been an “agitation that runs back almost 50 years,” would date back to 1871, the year after the Union academy was closed and Division Street set as the boundary between the two school districts. Was there some sort of effort back then to annex Wethersfield to Kewanee that backfired and resulted in the two school districts dissolving their joint school venture? In calling it Division Street, were people trying to make a statement or just calling it what it was — a street that divides two entities? Remember, in 1870, there was still some distance between the village of Wethersfield and the city of Kewanee. Essentially, it was the school districts they were dividing.
Several attempts have been made over the years to rename Division Street, but all have failed, usually after being met with opposition from the people who live there who would have to change every use of their address. Still, it would only take an ordinance passed by the city council requested in a petition signed by nearly everyone whose current address is East or West Division to get the job done. Unfortunately, Union is already taken by a street on Kewanee’s far west side.”
Kewanee – Wethersfield Union High School Quick Facts
Year opened: 1858
Year closed: 1870
Reason for closure: both towns (they were separate at the time) resumed
control of their own high schools
Union HS team nickname: athletics not offered, HS sports not even offered.