School on a Hill: The little city with good schools
Editor’s Note: This story is the second piece in an ongoing series about the history of Morris’ school building. The first story is available by following this link.
MORRIS, Minn. -- Ninety nine years ago the recently demolished Morris school opened its doors. The founding signified a new departure for Morris and its people. A group of stalwart community members struggled to create a state-of-the-art facility to lead the community into the future. When it opened its doors in September 1915, the school changed the course of history in Morris forever.
Discussion about building a new school in Morris began in 1908, when it became clear the current school facilities were not adequate to meet the students' needs. For several years the citizens of Morris discussed the future of education in the city and what kind of school should be built.
Five years later, in 1913, the situation at the current Morris schools became dire. The schools existing at the time—Longfellow School on the west side and the Lincoln School on the east side—had reached capacity. Both schools were already some 30 years old and the city's population had doubled from about 700 people in 1880 to nearly 1,700 in 1910.
By 1913, the schools housed three times the number of pupils they'd been designed to serve.
The April 18, 1913, issue of the Morris Tribune reported a meeting between community members and State High School Inspector Geoffrey B. Aiton. The paper described an intense discussion about the necessary but extremely expensive undertaking of building a new school. At the time, the new school was projected to cost some $60,000. In today's money, that's close to $1.5 million.
"Fifteen years ago [Aiton] was want to hold Morris up as an example of a city with a well-equipped and modern high school," the April 18, 1913 issue of the Morris Tribune reported. "Now Morris has the most backward school [Lincoln School] so far as building and equipment is concerned of any high school on this line of railway."
Other towns nearby had similarly reached capacity and built new school facilities. In short order, Morris fell far behind the rest of the state in its ability to meet modern educational standards and goals. Because the schools in Morris could no longer comply with state standards, the district faced loosing $3,200 in annual state aid if facilities were not updated immediately—that's almost $76,000 adjusted for inflation.
The May 14, 1914, issue of the Morris Sun carried a long editorial from the Morris Board of Education outlining the situation in an effort to convince voters to approve funds for the project.
"There is an added loss which cannot be calculated in dollars and cents," the editorial read, "to the pupils in not receiving the special instruction in sewing, cooking and manual training. ... When examinations are given in the science subjects, writing boards are furnished and the students use their knees for desks. In this great age noted for scientific progress, is it not inconsistent for the people of Morris to withhold from their young people adequate science laboratories and facilities for construction? ...
"We trust, that laying aside all selfish interests, the voters of Morris will cast their ballots for the issuance of the bonds, and thus enable the boys and girls of this community to better equip themselves to meet the duties and responsibilities of life."
In the days before women's suffrage, on Friday, May 22, 1914, the men of Morris voted to approve the bond measure with 445 votes in favor and 196 against. The May 28 issue of the Morris Sun reported the outcome as "a pleasant surprise" because it was expected to be evenly divided.
Technical problems with the measure necessitated a second vote on June 26, but heavy rain flooded the streets that day and limited the number of voters. Nevertheless, the measure finally passed.
Once approved, the 500 pupil school was designed by Alban and Lockhart of St. Paul—one of the top school architects in the country—and touted facilities that were state-of-the-art for the time.
The building's design reflected many progressive-era reforms designed to keep the students safe and comfortable. For example, the well-lit classrooms were connected by a phone system and ventilated with new industrial machinery. The architects designed the building with fire safety in mind, as well, creating wide stairways and utilizing in-wall water hoses.
In November 1914 the cornerstone was laid in a simple ceremony on an iron-cold day. The students of Longfellow and Lincoln Schools had placed their names into the cornerstone for posterity with the hope that their contributions as the founders of the school would reverberate well into the future.
Over the next year, the citizens of Morris marveled as the stately red-roofed building of sandstone and brick took shape.
A few days before the school was set to open, the Sept. 3, 1915, issue of the Morris Tribune reported the superintendent Robert W. Davies' sense of pride at the completion of the undertaking: "Never before, so far as he knows, have the city schools been so well equipped," the Tribune reported, "and he thinks Morris is entitled to wide publicity as the little city with good schools."
After more than seven years of debate, planning and setbacks, the school had become a real place. The Sept. 10, 1915, issue of the Morris Tribune reported: "Many of the new teachers who arrived in Morris prior to the opening of the school Monday morning... declare it to be the finest high school building they know of. They are more than pleased with the excellent equipment and convenient arrangement of the building."
In the end, the project cost some $85,000—that's just over two million in today's dollars. In the ensuing years, the school didn't only instruct the students, it provided basic medical care, a gathering space for civic engagement, and hot showers. It became a uniquely safe and modern place for children to learn and grow.
In 1932, amid the Great Depression and 17 years after the opening of the new school, Minnesota Governor Floyd B. Olson delivered a commencement address in Morris titled "Education in a Changing World." He spoke at the armory before a packed audience of some 1,000 people.
"Governor Olson, pointing out the marvelous industrial development throughout the world during the past generation, declared that no man could foresee what further advances are in store for civilization," The June 10, 1932, issue of the Morris Tribune reported. "The speaker also drew attention to the fact that the social development during recent years has failed to keep pace with the industrial and economic development of the world and said that it lay within the province of education, rightly directed, to bring about a correct balance of the two."
To hammer home this point, Governor Olson asked the graduates to show appreciation to their parents and others who had made it possible for them to complete High School and "reap the fullest possible benefit from that education."
Social transformation and contributing to a new future: these are the hallmarks of education in Morris.
The construction of the school was the most expensive and difficult undertaking the town had ever tackled up to that point, and an almost spiritual aura surrounded the arduous project. The result was a school in our little town that rivaled the best in the nation. We went from a town far behind the times to one galloping into the 20th century. Education paved the way for the creation of a new future, a new Morris.
Sources and photo courtesy of the Stevens County Historical Society. Tina Didreckson contributed to this article.