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Worthington's schools: A thorough history report

The Worthington High School/Junior High building was once connected to Memorial Auditorium Performing Arts Center. This photo is dated 1934. (Photo courtesy Buffalo Billfold Co.1 / 2
The “Castle School” was utilized for 41 years until its space was outgrown. (Photo courtesy Buffalo Billfold Co.2 / 2

WORTHINGTON — In 1953, a month after they returned home after serving as president and first lady of the United States, Harry and Bess Truman were guests at a banquet sponsored by the people of Independence, Mo., for their most famous residents. In a short message thanking his townspeople, President Truman talked about his morning hikes along the sidewalks of Independence. In part he said:

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“…just south of this building I pass the old Columbian School (now gone), which was brand-new when I was ready for the third and fourth grades…”

This is a familiar experience for people all across America. They leave their home towns, or home cities. They return years later, often many years later, to find the old school is gone.

School buildings have been well-built historically, but they are used hard. After 20 years, or a quarter-century, school buildings begin to show age. It becomes important in most communities to replace schools or to upgrade them importantly after a half-century. It has been so at Worthington.

Although District 518 voters rejected a school board proposal for an expansion of the Clary Street high school and for a new building last November, generally the local electorate has given proposals for Worthington school buildings solid support.


The first passenger train arrived at Worthington on April 29, 1872. That summer — fewer than four months later — Mrs. M.B. Soule announced she would open a private school for children in the emerging village where prairie grass still was growing atop the ruts and along the edges of the crude streets which had not been graded. History guesses there were about 400 white settlers on the site. Mrs. Soule enrolled 20 students. Classes might have been convened in Mrs, Soule’s all-new house — there were no old houses. Classes might have been in a room of a new frame 10th Street building. That detail is lost.

At that same time, several public meetings were called to discuss, “How do we get things organized?” There still was no Worthington government. Nobles County’s esteemed historian, A.P. Rose, said that at these public meetings, “…it seemed to be the general desire that the new town should make liberal provisions for its schools…” A school district was organized. District No. 5.

In December, fewer than seven months after the arrival of the first train, Worthington’s first public school was opened. The location of the school is lost, but the attendance books recorded “about 40 students.” Major T.C. Bell, a respected settler who was called upon to make the first Memorial Day address at Worthington, was named Worthington’s school principal. Kate Chaney, one of the great women of pioneer Worthington, agreed to be a teacher. Major Bell taught the “higher grade.” Kate Chaney taught the “lower grade.” Classes were continued through the summer months for those who would attend. Clara Horton was teacher for the summer days.

Along the way there was a recess. In November 1873, school opened once more. C.C. Luckey took the higher grade and Mrs. Jenkins — no other name preserved — taught the lower grade. Attendance was doubled to “between 75 and 80 students.” Worthington was not slow to begin education of its children. And, from the beginning, there were students who did not know English or who had not mastered English. Ich bin ein Berliner.

1874. In August, Worthington adopted the new “independent district plan.” Some of the first district school board members are hard to identify but included Ransom Humiston, “founding father,” of course. The husband of first teacher Mrs. Soule. Peter (Hotel) Thompson, you might guess. C.Z. (Abe) Sutton, whose Worthington Mill was attracting wagon loads of wheat everywhere from northwest Iowa to Dakota Territory.

There still was no school building, in part because (it is believed) classes were being convened in rooms in A.P. Miller’s two-story brick Miller Hall. And then:

April 27, 1875, just 48 hours short of the third anniversary of the arrival of the first train, it was voted to erect a school building at a cost of no more $5,000, the equivalent of about $110,000 today. The vote count on a bond issue was 20-5. It was a notable bite for the three-year-old village where prairie schooners were parked in street-side ruts.

Well, now — nobody knows. I believe this is true:

That first school, sited on the Fourth Avenue block between the Nobles County Library and the Dayton House — was two-story, wood frame with six sides. A hexagon. Why a hexagon? As I said, no one knows. It is guessed that, from above, the school might have been compared with a pie cut in six slices — six rooms — with windows along the outside of each slice and an inside stairway winding up the center. Why the Fourth Avenue site? Because the St. Paul & Sioux City Railroad gave that block between Fourth Avenue and Fifth Avenue to the village of Worthington. Free land.

In the beginning, Worthington had only what Minnesota labeled “graded schools.” Graded schools were schools that conducted first- to eighth-grade classes. To encourage the creation of high schools, the Minnesota legislature voted to pay school districts $400 in annual state aid for maintaining classes from ninth grade to 12th grade. On Nov. 12, 1881, Worthington applied for designation as a high school. Worthington’s application was approved. Historian Rose judged, “An excellent high school has been maintained…”

Worthington’s first graduates — 1887 — were Jane Husselton and Alice Durfee. They are long forgotten. One of the six graduates in the Class of ’89 was Julia Hyland — there’s more to come about her. Another member of the Class of 1889 was Earl P. Free, the first boy to be graduated from Worthington High School.

This first of Worthington’s schools was turned over to the Worthington school board by the contractor in January 1876. Worthington has had a “school house” for 138 years.

1876. In June of that year, Col. George Custer and his Seventh Cavalry perished in the great battle above the north shore of the Little Big Horn river in Montana Territory. In September, it is quite certain Frank and Jesse James rode stolen horses across empty north Nobles County in their escape from the failed bank robbery at Northfield. By October, the Worthington and Dakota Railroad completed its tracks to the east bank of the Rock River, just opposite Luverne, en route to Sioux Falls, population 600, Dakota Territory.


If one stood in the windows of the pie slice on the second floor of Worthington’s new school, west side, it could not be seen — but straight across the flat prairie only 40 miles distant was the end of the United States, in one manner of speaking. Forty miles and then Dakota Territory, Wyoming Territory, Montana Territory, Idaho Territory, Washington Territory. Worthington was truly frontier. To look out a north window was to look toward Elk Township, so named for a settler who had seen an elk there, along a creek. To look out an east window, toward the rail stop at Hersey (Brewster), was to look at the place where, four years earlier, Gen. Judson Bishop, riding in a covered wagon and platting the rail route, saw not one but a large herd of snorting, grazing elk.


Not all school stories are equal. The creation of classes, the building of a school by an unorganized village of (they guessed) about 400 people, a village with ungraded streets and no sidewalks, with no structure more than three years old, is dramatic. No more than four months after settlers began arriving at the frontier place named Worthington were they sending students to organized classes.

Also dramatic is the creation of Worthington Junior College. That year was 1935. The town was 63 years old; it was 60 years past building its first school. Worthington’s population was 3,878, about four times fewer than the population of 2014. Most significantly, it was the height of the Great Depression. The WPA was enacted in April 1935 as a replacement for direct federal relief, known as the dole. A WPA camp emerged on Worthington’s north edge. In Minneapolis, with unemployment in some neighborhoods above the national rate of 25 percent, City Hall had been the scene of demonstrations by desperate local residents prodding officials to provide $8-a-week relief grants to unemployed workers.

Worthington residents were troubled by a special problem. On every side were boys and girls — young men and young women, some of them already graduates of WHS — who clearly could become gifted teachers, lawyers, nurses, doctors, business people, accountants, scientists. Some of them were sons and daughters of teachers, lawyers, etc. But families along every street were unable to send their “kids” to college. College required travel expenses, tuition payments, daily food expenses, rent payments. There was no money for this.

The District 518 school board, in response to wide-spread urging, scheduled an election for July 17, 1935, to approve a bond issue that would create a Worthington Junior College. The vote was 564 in favor, 67 opposed.

Work on the junior college project began almost immediately. It was to be a wing of the 1909 Worthington High School building facing on 14th Street. A two-story yellow brick building with terrazzo floors along the hallways. One room would be designated a library. Someone suggested a name be carved in the limestone above the entrance, but this was not done. A faculty had to be found and hired. The high school science labs — the chemistry lab — would be used by the college in hours when they were available. The college would use high school locker rooms, and the gymnasium and the football field in hours when they were available.

WJC’s first classes were convened in September 1936, only 14 months after the bond issue was authorized. High school coaches agreed to be JC coaches — for salary increases. WJC teams were designated Bluejays. School colors would be blue and white. The new dean and social studies professor, Thad Parr of Wisconsin, was also a musician/composer. Dean Parr wrote the Bluejays a fight song: “Come on you Bluejays, get out and fight. Get out and fight for dear old Worthington. We’ve got the spirit, we’ve got the team, we’ve got the team that’s on the beam!”

Space was found in the high school for a college bookstore that sold new and used textbooks, pencils and notebooks, along with Mars and Hershey candy bars and Wrigley’s Spearmint gum.

Almost from the opening hour, Worthington Junior College exceeded expectations. There was never a student recruitment effort. Classrooms were filled, some chairs with full-time students and some chairs with part-time students — many of them housewives and men who were working at other jobs. After World War II, the college became crowded beyond capacity with enrollees using the GI Bill. Classes began in early morning and continued into the evenings. Night classes, in particular, attracted local residents who wanted to advance their educations in one or another special area.

Ten years after WJC began classes, after the end of World War II, the U.S. Government was caught up in a giant surplus sale. Worthington Junior College obtained a single-story frame officer barracks building that was moved to a site bordering Eighth Avenue and fitted out with book shelves along the walls, with a card catalog and standard tables and chairs. Worthington Junior College Library.

Worthington was proud of its college, in part because WJC graduates were becoming achievers in careers all across the land. When local residents took visitors on tours of the city they invariably pointed out, “This is our junior college — and this is the college library.” A long succession of winning Bluejay football teams and basketball teams also swelled community pride.


After the first Worthington classes of 1872 and the first school building of 1876 — and the junior college dating to 1935-1936 — the next-best school story is probably the “castle school” of 1888. The hexagonal school of 1876 was then a dozen years old and filled beyond its capacity. Worthington had grown to be the largest community in Minnesota’s southwest corner and a major rail center, located at the midpoint between Minnesota’s Twin Cities and Omaha.

In an unusual expenditure statement, Worthington residents at a public meeting regarding a new school to come said “the cost thereof should not be less than $20,000…” Not $10,000 or $15,000. Something quality, “not less than $20,000.”

The hexagonal school was moved during the summer of 1888 and placed on blocks on the south side of Fourth Avenue near the intersection where, later, the Carnegie Library would be built. This provided a place for classes while work was undertaken on the new school.

The red stone new school was a three-story building in the Victorian style that was the mode of the time — turrets, steeples, gables. Nearly medieval. The building was not wholly practical. It required a great deal of stair climbing. Classrooms were in irregular shapes, some with gabled windows. The final cost was $25,990, plus $3,100 for the heating plant — $29,090, more than $20,000.

Two areas of the building were kept in Worthington memory long after the building was gone. One was the Dummy Room, where students who were not achieving or had learning difficulties — students who were challenged — were assigned. “In here, you dummy.” The second memorable area was the third floor, which became a Normal School. Minnesota country schools numbered in the hundreds — one school for every four square miles. There was a constant need for country school teachers, who were given two years of specialized training. Teachers-to-be enrolled in Normal Schools, which carried this designation even in official documents. Worthington made provision to have the third floor of its new Castle School — that is what people were calling it — become a Normal School.

The new school was completed in the early autumn of 1889 and officially turned over to the school board on Oct. 5, 1889. As was noted earlier, Julia Hyland was graduated from Worthington High School in 1889, a member of the high school’s third graduation class. In the fall of that year, she enrolled in the all-new Normal School. Julia Hyland became a country school teacher, but she enrolled as she had opportunity in college courses. In the passing of time, this grad of ’89 came home to be director of the Worthington Normal school.

Newspaper accounts through the years, and other accounts, suggest Worthington had great pride in its Fourth Avenue castle. Castle School postcards are still found often. The school was well-built, needless to say. Stone blocks. It lasted through 41 years, to 1930. It never truly wore out; it was outgrown by the burgeoning town around it. For the last 21 years, it was a grade school only.

Worthington has a familiar roadway — The Grade — that cuts across the southwest portion of Lake Okabena to create Sunset Bay. Although it is not apparent, much of The Grade is stone from the Castle School.


Worthington built its first high school in 1909, facing on Seventh Avenue and, before it was judged complete, occupying nearly the entire block. Brick. Two stories. This was where students went after they completed eight grades in the castle school.

Now Worthington had a separate high school: “Worthington High! Worthington High! Praise her, raise her up to the sky…” Another point of pride. But —

No one foresaw the population growth that was then beginning. Worthington gained 1,095 residents between 1900 and 1920, an increase of about 68 percent; the high school was completed amid these swelling numbers. It soon became necessary to add two wings, one on the east and one on the west. The west wing was all classrooms. A part of the second floor of “old main” became the school library. The east wing, through a period, had the school gymnasium on its second floor. That was where Trojan cagers played their basketball games. The east wing also became home of the new junior high school — seventh grade, eighth grade and ninth grade, designated/created by the board of education.

Jay Thurber told an interesting life story. Because of space pressures, Worthington opened its first kindergarten class in a room in the Seventh Avenue high school building. Then, as pressures continued, first grade, then second grade, then third grade were moved to the high school. There was scarcely room, but there was no room any longer for the crowd of elementary children pressing into the Castle School. It was obvious the entire elementary school would not find space in the high school; WHS was near its limits. Worthington would have to build a new elementary school.

In the meantime, Jay Thurber was moving on to fourth grade, fifth grade, sixth grade in the high school while Castle School came down and Worthington’s new grade school was under construction. By the time the grade school was completed, Jay was a junior high school student. By the time he was graduated from high school, the new Worthington Junior College was completed. Jay enrolled in the first WJC class. He received his entire education — kindergarten to Associate in Arts degree — in the school complex between Seventh Avenue and Eighth Avenue.

Worthington schools since 1875

* The Hexagon School

* The Castle School

* The Seventh Avenue High School

* The Grade School (Central Elementary)

* Worthington Junior College

* The Clary Street High School

* West Elementary

* Worthington Middle School

* Worthington Christian School

* St. Mary’s School

* Worthington Community College

* Prairie Elementary School

Ray Crippen’s stories of Worthington schools will be continued on the March 26 Reminiscing page.