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Naper Academy, one of Naperville’s oldest schools, shows how far education has come

Each week, we publish a historic photo from the Naper Settlement historical archives highlighting a story from Naperville’s past.

Plans for Naper Academy, where students have been educated for decades, were launched on March 15, 1850, when the Napervile Academy Association began its official fundraising campaign to build a school.

Members started with the $2,000 they had already raised and quickly secured an additional $4,000 needed for design and construction costs. They started with one floor, added a second floor in 1851, and completed the exterior, including the bell tower, in 1852.

Among those contributing to this cause was the local Masonic organization, which paid $700 for a room on the second floor that served as the Masonic Lodge.

The first day of school was December 8, 1853. The Rev. Nelson Atkins served as principal and supervised 50 tuition-paying students, primarily from Naperville and Lisle and a few from Wisconsin.

Originally the school was for children in advanced grades but later primary grades were added.

A year later Charles Richmond was appointed manager, replacing Atkins. It was a job he would hold for 13 years.

The rooms at Naper Academy were used for various purposes in the early years. In addition to the Masons, Odd Fellows also had a lodge here. And when Sturger’s Brewery was destroyed by fire in 1854, it became a place to store malt.

A newspaper advertisement from 1857 describes the school as open to boarding and day scholars.

“Rooms in the building are now especially equipped for the accommodation of Young Female Boarders, who will be under the supervision of skilled Female Teachers,” the advertisement said.

The Lutheran Community held church services in the building until the Evangelical Church purchased the building in 1859.

The school had two semesters in the 1858-59 academic year; the fall semester ran from September 15 to Christmas Eve, and the 11-week winter semester started from January 4. By 1860 there were approximately 300 students enrolled.

On June 13, 1863, it became a free grade school by special charter of the state.

There have been several conflicts over the years. In 1904, 51 citizens signed a petition demanding the election of a school board and the expenditure of $4,000 on school improvements, including plumbing and electricity.

Although voters publicly rejected both, change soon came. A board of education was established in 1905; Water pipes and toilets installed in 1906; and electricity was available in 1909.

In 1911, Naper Academy and Ellsworth School combined to form a school district. According to a description of the event in a school catalog: “Over the past year, the citizens of Naperville have made history by merging two school districts in this city. “As a result of this union, there will now be only one public school system in Naperville.”

In the new structure, the high school occupied the entire second floor of Naper Academy.

By 1927, the increasing population revealed the need for a new school. Support. Ralph Beebe sought a $50,000 bond issue to build the new school, which voters approved.

To make way for the larger, more modern Naper School, Naper Academy was destroyed by the wrecking ball in 1928.

Hannah Ditzler, a student and teacher at Naper Academy, wrote a six-volume diary that gives insight into how things were done at the school.

His earliest memories are found in the first volume of the diary.

“The exams were held at the end of the winter semester. This is my earliest memory of academia. Our whole family is gone. Andrew Cable took my sister Libbie. … I remember sitting on his lap and looking curiously at the stage, which was erected and decorated with evergreen branches and roses made of colored tissue paper,” he wrote, noting that he could see through the slatted walls.

In 1865, Ditzler enrolled in high school, but because there were too many students, he was asked to teach elementary school. He was paid $3.50 a week, which later increased to $6.

He received his teaching certificate in 1867, but it is unlikely that he would have been fully prepared for the first official day of school, when 72 students filled his room.

“Some had to stand in the aisle, and when they got tired, others stayed standing,” he wrote.

The following year it had 87 students. He placed benches in the hallways, leaving little room for other classroom activities.

Ditzler worked as a full-time teacher until 1873, but continued to serve as a substitute. He would go on to serve as librarian at the Nichols Library from 1898 to 1905.

He wrote that it was difficult to watch the destruction of Naper Academy.

“The collapse of the Academy was a bitter test for me. I’ve seen this before my eyes all my life. I went to school there as a 5-year-old child. I taught there for 10 years or more, it was connected to all its social functions. There are names of many of his early students and teachers. “The devastation also destroyed my life,” he wrote.

Despite this, Ditzler agreed to write a history of Naper Academy for the Naper School’s commencement ceremony in March 1928.

Andrea Field is curator of history at Naper Settlement. For more information, visit www.NaperSettlement.org. Steve Metsch is a freelance reporter for the Naperville Sun.

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