I regretfully missed an anniversary last year that should not have gone unnoticed.
St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Princeton operated a Christian day school on a triangular slice of land at the intersection of First and Harris streets and River Road for nearly 70 years beginning in 1882.
The “Dutch College,” as it was fondly nicknamed, was a two-story building veneered with brick and erected amid a grove of trees overlooking the Fox River. The property today is home to Riverview Apartments, 249 River Road, and a residence next door built about 1914 for the Lutheran schoolteacher.
The school was most often referred to in the local newspaper as the German school. It was originally operated by the Schulverein, translated as School Society or Association.
Classes were originally held in upper floors of store buildings at 515-519 and 535 West Water Street before the Teske brothers, Edward and Gustave, erected a two-story frame building on the north side of Main Street, 500 block (today west end of Pulvermacher Enterprises lot), in 1874.
Princeton Republic, April 25, 1874 – “Teske Bros. are building a two-story building on Main Street just east of the depot, which we understand will be used as a German school for a time.”
Princeton Republic, May 23, 1874 – “The German school opened last Monday in the new building just completed by our enterprising merchants, the Teske Bros.”
Princeton Republic, Jan. 16, 1879 – “The Princeton German school is assuming proportions that commands attention. Already there are enrolled some 85 pupils. The school occupies two rooms, one teacher in each, the higher department under charge of Mr. Carl Fricke, and the primary department under the care of Gustave Hoyer.”
Meanwhile, religious classes preparing youngsters for Confirmation in the Lutheran church were first held in the pastor’s residence until a small, one-story building, a “confirming school” – a term I learned researching this post – was built facing Wisconsin Street (200 block, north side) in 1888 expressly for catechism classes and small meetings. It was sold and removed after 1914; classes then were held in the school.
As the influx of German Lutheran immigrants to the area continued throughout the 1870s, St. John’s built the brick school on the west side in 1882. The Teskes turned the Main Street building into a paint shop and then a barn for their prized stallions.
Princeton Republic, June 22, 1882 – “The frame of the new German school building over on the west side is up and being enclosed.”
Princeton Republic, July 20, 1882 – “A more beautiful location could not have been selected than has been secured as grounds for the new German school house on the west side of the river. The building is being erected in the old Flint Park, the grounds being filled with shade trees, which are refreshingly cool in summer, and serve to break the force of the bleak winds of winter. The building being erected is 26×40 feet in size, two stories in height. The building will soon have passed from the hands of the carpenter to the mason, who will veneer the edifice with brick, which will make it comfortable indeed. The building, when completed, will present a slightly and beautiful appearance. It will be finished ready for a term of school in a few weeks.”
The newspaper said “a tasty residence” for the teacher was included in the school (second floor).
The Evangelical Lutheran St. John’s School Society, of Princeton, received its certificate of incorporation from the Wisconsin Secretary of State in April 1883. The society purchased the fire department’s first bell for the schoolhouse in 1885.
A two-story wood frame house was built on the property for the teacher about 1914. After fire damaged the first floor in 1927, older boys were granted time off from school to carry buckets of burned trash from the basement.
According to the congregation’s history on its website, the Schulverein asked the congregation to take over its property and the school operation in 1920.
In my opinion, the best description we have of the German school comes from Elmer V. Krueger’s memoir, “Endless Echoes,” published in 1990. Krueger was born in 1913, enrolled in first grade in the local public school in 1920 and transferred to the German Lutheran school after fourth grade.
“When starting the fifth grade at our church’s parochial school, I found that I had to be bilingual in speech, reading, and memory work,” Krueger recalled in his book. “The forenoon classes were taught in the German language, including Bible history, reading, writing, and memorization of numerous hymns and catechism quotations. … At this school all eight grades were in one room, and for class periods we gathered at the front of the schoolroom. The toilets were an outdoor facility. Students also participated in stoking the furnace in the basement when it needed attention. The school day began every morning with a hymn as our teacher Mr. (M.F.) Militzer played the small pump organ. Then after a prayer in unison, the classes began. Discipline was strict and occasionally corporal punishment was administered to a recalcitrant mischief maker with a razor-strap that always hung in full view near the teacher’s desk, which was on a raised platform.”
Krueger grew up in a house near the creek on the south end of Farmer Street. He wrote about the trek he made each day to St. John’s school:
“Since our house was way on the south edge of town and the school was on the west side of town, I had to go north to Main Street and then cross the drawbridge over the Fox River heading for the then empty overall factory building. There I took the short cut road leading to the mill, passing by a dilapidated tub-factory building, where they used to make large butter tubs and barrels, I was told. The old electric generator building with its tall brick chimney was next to it. …
“… The school, on the west side, was about a mile from our house, on the east side of town. I recall pushing through the crowded Main Street on Cattle Fair days and in the winter often catching rides on the horse-drawn sleighs that were leaving the grist mill located near the parochial school. Some farmers did not like the grist mill located near the parochial school, as they did not want us to ride on the sleighs, but most of them did not mind and we rode several blocks perched on bags of ground feed. During the winter we sometimes took a short cut to school by walking on the river ice. The river came within about a block from school. This was always rather scary, often large cracks were visible in the river ice.”
Instructors at the German school over the years included Fricke, Hoyer, M. Hodtwalter, Jules Voss Sr., John Mohr, L. Hansen, Theodore Voss, Clarence Kambe, M.F. Militzer, who served from 1907-1942, Walter Gerth and H.G. Schnitker.
With the population growing and the school aging, St. John’s began raising funds for a new school in 1944. The campaign reached $20,000 in 1949.
Princeton Republic, June 1, 1950 – “Preliminary ceremonies were performed today by Lutheran leaders in Princeton with the shoveling of the first ground for the new Lutheran school. The school will rise on land just south of the church in Princeton. Participating in the ceremony were members of the new school committee, Carl Kuehneman, Arthur Schwark and Henry Grams, and the Rev. Walter Strohschein and members of the congregation. The school has been designed by W.W. Ducett, former Chicago construction engineer, and is estimated to cost under $60,000. No information was given as to the probably start for actual construction.”
The west side school was officially replaced in 1951 with a two-story brick and concrete building, with Lannon stone facing, on the southeast corner of Harvard and Clinton streets, formerly the site of a church.
Princeton Times-Republic, April 5, 1951 – “Students of the Lutheran grade school who have been eagerly looking forward to the day when they can start in at their new school will get their wish on Monday, school authorities announced today. According to reports, the youngsters will open school at the imposing new $65,000 lannon stone school building on Monday. The building, which needs only a few finishing touches, is one of the show places of Princeton.”
St. John’s sold the old German school on the west side for $75. It was razed. The neighboring house remains a residence in 2023.
While this post is focused on the German school history, here’s a brief recap of what has happened since the 1882 building closed:
The new school at Harvard and Clinton streets included three classrooms, principal’s office, first aid room, library, manual training room, kitchen, and gymnasium. The school’s large windows were replaced with smaller 5-by-3-foot windows in 1981 to conserve energy.
St. John’s renovated the building again when it built a two-story addition in 1999. It included a new gym, large kitchen and pantry, commons/cafeteria, two classrooms, office and reception area, meeting room, storage areas, bathrooms, and an elevator.
St. John’s closed the school in 2010 after a parent survey indicated enrollment would drop from about 20 to about 10 for the 2010-2011 school year. Some grades included only one student each.
The Lutheran congregations in Princeton and Montello in 2022 opened Christ Alone Lutheran Academy, a K-8 school with two campuses: kindergarten through second grade at St. John’s in Montello and grades 3-8 at St. John’s in Princeton.
Please let me know if you have any corrections or suggestions.
Thank you, John Dolan, for your help with research and photos for this post, and thank you, all, for caring and reading about local history.