Charter Oak School is located one mile east of the rural community of Schuline in Randolph County. The structure is one of the few remaining octagonal-shaped, one-room, school buildings in America.
Classes were held in this building from 1873 until 1953 when it was closed due to consolidation. Charter Oak School was the third school to be built in the area. The first was a one-room log school and later a one-room frame building was constructed.
In the early 1870s a young teacher named Daniel Ling came to the Schuline community. Records show he was “educated in the East, was scholarly, could read Greek, and was a skilled architect.” Ling felt “an eight cornered building with windows on each side would offer improved lighting since light comes from all sides as nature intended, and would also offer better wind resistance to storms.”
Blackboards painted on walls could be seen from any part of the room when lesson outlines were given. Ling convinced the local school board of directors and area residents that his architectural plan of an octagonal building was sound, and was chosen to supervise construction of the building. Construction by carpenters William Holcomb and Franklin Adams cost $1000 which was raised in a bond issue.
Up to this time, the names of Old Oak, Boyd School and District 7 were used locally to refer to the school. Residents and students were very proud of their new brick building and wanted a special name for it. A large, beautiful oak tree stood on the grounds. According to early residents, a student, Agnes Houston, suggested the name Charter Oak in honor of the famous Charter Oak of the Connecticut Colony.
School started in the new building in the fall of 1873 with Miss Avis Allen as teacher. Attendance varied throughout the years with a maximum of 46 pupils reported one year. The school also became a community center and was used for public and farm meetings, church and Sunday school, spelling bees, speaking contests, political rallies and other civic affairs.
Throughout the years, structural changes were made. Some of the changes were made for convenience and some to conform to State regulations. These included a bell, tuck-pointing, adding a vestibule, two additional windows and a door. Charter Oak was closed in 1953 when the need for the little one-room schools declined and the children were sent to larger consolidated schools.
The vacant school building deteriorated and became a target for vandalism. Later it was sold at public auction and a former teacher, Miss Nellie Ohms, purchased it for sentimental reasons. Because of its unique design and historical significance, the Randolph County Historical Society became interested in the building. Miss Ohms was contacted and was very receptive to its restoration. In 1960, it was sold to the Society for $600. Numerous fund raising events were held to pay for the building and for its restoration. The most famous of these was the Corn Fest, which has become an annual event, held on the first Saturday in August.
Major restoration was completed in 1968. Then in 1970, the site became an official Illinois State Historical Site and a historic plaque donated by that office was erected on the grounds. In 1978, the school was placed on the National Register of Historical Places.
A board of directors supervises maintenance and upkeep of the grounds and building. The school is still being used on field trips where elementary school children spend a day experiencing what school was like in the past.
Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.