Abilene High School

Abilene High School as it appeared in 1919 is pictured

Part One of a five-part series on Abilene’s high school

The year 1917 proved an eventful and controversial time for Abilene and those who lived there. With the entrance of the United States into World War I, the Abilene citizens had to adapt to living in a nation at war.

For the citizens of Abilene, though, the war proved far less controversial than the possible location of the new high school. While Abilene newspapers naturally devoted much of their news to war news, the newspapers also devoted a good deal of time and space to the controversy of the high school’s new location.

The high school’s new location became heavily debated through the pages of the newspapers and remained heated for several months. This debate even led to the matter reaching the Kansas Supreme Court before it came to a resolution. With the high school’s location affecting much of the town, the citizens of Abilene made their views and opinions known.

Before diving into the controversy, though, a brief outline of the history of the high school and Garfield School will provide some insight into the background of the issue. Garfield School, originally known as Central School, was built in 1874 on Seventh Street. Central School continued to grow and had an addition put on in 1882.

While Central School was originally built for grade school students, in 1877 it also housed Abilene’s first high school. Abilene High School, which had its first graduating class in spring 1880, continued to meet in Central School through the spring of 1894. Then in the fall of 1894, the high school was moved to the second floor of Abilene’s city hall building, which stood at the corner of Broadway and Fifth Street (the current location of the city building).

With the movement of the high school to city hall, Central School taught first through eighth grade. On August 26, 1895, the school board met and voted to change the name of Central School to Garfield School to honor the former president.  

By the early 1900s, the high school was quickly running out of space in the old city hall and finally received its own building in 1906. The 1906 high school building was built on Seventh Street, just to the east of Garfield School. Within a decade, though, this high school building was becoming obsolete and too small to house the number of high school students attending.

So, in January 1917, the school board, local newspapers, and Abilene citizens began the long debate about when and where to build the new high school. The school needed to be accessible to every part of town, large enough to allow for future growth, economical in price, and pleasing to the eye. Unfortunately, there were just about as many opinions on how best to meet these standards as there were people in Abilene and the ensuing debate led to a revealing look into the importance many placed on the school’s location.

On Jan. 18, 1917, the Abilene Weekly Reflector reprinted an article from the Abilene Daily Reflector printed earlier in the week on the board of education’s preliminary decision of where to place the high school. According to the Reflector, the school board had decided to build the $90,000 high school on Seventh Street, between the Garfield School and the current high school, which would leave only a few feet between the buildings.

Garfield would then only house grades 1 through 5 while grades 6 through 8 would move into the 1906 high school building.

“The building will be the most expensive and finest erected in Abilene in its 60 years of existence and probably the finest building to be erected here in 25 years more. Its location has been discussed earnestly by the entire city and it will be interesting to see how the selection will appeal to the people.”

As time would show, this selection did not appeal and that the debate was just getting started.

The article went on to say that many local citizens felt that the idea of putting the high school in between Garfield and the current high school would be “unsightly” and a poor decision. Upon reflection, the Reflector agreed and argued that the new high school should be placed where the current Garfield School sat. Garfield was centrally located and was the perfect site for a $90,000 high school. As for Garfield, it would not be difficult to build a new grade school elsewhere.

While technically competitors, the Abilene Weekly Chronicle wrote on Jan. 17, 1917 that “for once we agree with our neighbor. The Reflector says that the new high school building should be erected where the Garfield school now stands, and it is dead right. That ground is the only proper site in the city and no town in Kansas has a better site.”

According to the Chronicle, the 1906 high school was built for $28,000 and that the $90,000 bond approved for the new high school should allow the school board to build the new high school four times as large as the current building. 

With that increase in size, the new high school would surely have enough room for both the high school and grade school in the same building. Both newspapers agreed that this proposition made sense but the coming weeks would go to show that many disagreed.

Contact Tim Horan at editor@abilene-rc.com.

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