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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

First Chester Graduation Held at Rock Springs

As if to illustrate the long connection between Rock Springs Park and the local school system, this image shows the parking lot of the old Chester High School transformed into an amusement fair next to the former site of the area’s “Premier Panhandle Playground” – Rock Springs Park.

A recent blog post about the changes to Chester High School over the years made me wonder about the time line of these changes and what was used for secondary education prior to the red brick building constructed by the Finley Brothers in 1928. So, I went to straight to my favorite source, Roy C. Cashdollar's History of Chester: The Gateway to the West for answers. Roy did not disappoint.

In 1906, the first full four-year high school building in Chester was erected at Third Street and Indiana Avenue. Prior to this structure, named Central School (pictured above), children met in homes or in one room buildings. These early schools were not graded, but in 1903, in anticipation of the new brick Central School, the first Chester freshman and sophomore classes were formed in a makeshift school building in town along the north side of Indiana Avenue between Third and Fourth Streets. Called the Mechanics Lodge, it also housed a general store and the post office.

Cashdollar notes, "the first high school graduation ceremony was held in Rock Springs Park on the stage of the old Summer Theater." The graduation class size that year was one, Olive Hamilton, who was the first and only Chester high school graduate in 1906. It was also the only time the theater was used for this purpose. The Summer Theater constructed in 1903 by C.A. Smith burned down in 1917 and was not replaced.

"When a special act of the legislature was made, Chester was organized as an independent school system in 1904. Thomas L. Young, who was the water works superintendent for C.A. Smith was one of the original board members." Roy C. Cashdollar.The Chester High School was constructed "on rather swampy lands" at the corner of Sixth and Indiana Avenue in 1925. It was officially dedicated on January 4, 1926. The original structure consisted of twelve rooms and two additions were added over the years with the largest one being done by through a W.P.A. project during the Depression.

With the construction of the Chester Primary Building (pictured with Rock Springs Park in the background in 1969) and Oak Glen High school in the early 1960s, the Central Building was abandoned in 1963 and razed in 1967, replaced with a playground which still displays the original school bell.

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