In Cambridge, on the eastern edge of Dane County, the Cambridge Historic School Museum stands as evidence to the importance of public education in Wisconsin. Free public schools for all children between the ages of 4 and 20 were provided for in Wisconsin’s Constitution, adopted in 1848.
However, the first school in Wisconsin was opened in Southport (now Kenosha) in 1845, prior to Wisconsin becoming a state. Michael Frank, a member of the territorial legislature, was instrumental in that endeavor. The Southport School became the model for public school education in the state. Because many of the early settlers in Cambridge were from New York and New England and firmly believed in public education, they built their first school in 1848. It was a one-story frame structure most likely moved to the site where the current Cambridge Historic School Museum now stands.
The 1848 school was replaced by a two-story frame structure in 1869. That building was enlarged several times over the years. In May of 1905, the school burned to the ground. The school board wasted no time putting plans into place for a replacement. The architectural firm of W. R. Parsons of Des Moines, Iowa, was selected to design a new school. Construction began in August of 1905 and was completed the following January. The Georgian Revival school with Romanesque Revival accents, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998, was typical for the architect, who was very active in school and courthouse design in the Midwest at the turn of the 20th century.
“Yet our school is unique,” says Nancy Amacher, president of the Cambridge Historic School Foundation. “The builders didn’t just erect a brick building in a short period of time. They put some real thought into it. There’s detail work on the outside, a cupula on top with a bell that still works, eyebrow windows on the front, and big windows throughout that let in lots of light.”
According to the local newspaper, the new two-story school was lauded as “a modern building with all the very latest equipment,” including a forced-air furnace and ventilation system. Classrooms were bright and airy. The arrangement and intended use of the rooms represented state-of-the-art design for the times and reflected the evolution of educational theory and practice in Wisconsin in the early 20th century. The first floor of the Cambridge School was occupied by elementary school students, while the second floor was for the high school students. Combining separate high school and elementary school classrooms in a single building was a new approach to education in the state’s smaller cities.
Enrollment in the high school rose from 37 students at the time of opening to more than 100 in the 1920s. No doubt this prompted the addition of a gymnasium and auditorium to the existing school building. The original gymnasium in the school occupied half of the basement. Even though it was used for basketball practice for a brief time by teams from all over the area, the ceiling height was somewhat low. Because public programs needed more space than what was available in the second floor assembly hall, school plays, graduation ceremonies, along with basketball practice and games were held at the Park Opera House.
Residents of the district voted to build a combination gymnasium and auditorium as an addition to the existing school in 1938. Alfred H. Siewert, a Milwaukee architect, was engaged to design the new structure. His plans featured glued, laminated timber arches, a technique that was viewed as experimental in the United States at that time. The arches were produced by Unit Structures in Peshtigo and had to be proven safe by the Forest Products Laboratory in Madison. The arches passed a variety of load tests with flying colors.
Again, new theories about modern schools were reflected in the addition of the gymnasium and auditorium. The Wisconsin State Legislature had enacted a law in the 1920s requiring public schools to provide at least two and a half hours of physical education instruction weekly, exclusive of recess. Schools were encouraged to play a larger role in the community by providing lectures for the public at its school. This would promote the Americanization of immigrants and the development of better-educated citizens. The Department of Public Instruction encouraged specialized classrooms with built-in equipment and facilities for the sciences, home economics, and industrial arts. Remodeled classrooms in the original school, as part of the 1938 project, reflected these ideas.
Some classrooms were operational in the Cambridge Historic School until the 1970s. Twenty years later, in 1996, the school was on the chopping block, but a referendum to raze the school failed. It was through the efforts of 10 Cambridge residents who formed SOS, Save Our School, that the community had the opportunity to rethink what should happen to the historic school. The Cambridge Historic School Foundation was formed a year later.
The Foundation currently operates the historic school as a museum and signed a 99-year lease with the Cambridge School District in 2016. According to Nancy, “This lease shows the long-term commitment the district has to our foundation, so we can go ahead with major capital projects and develop a business plan for fundraising. Accessibility is important, so an elevator is definitely a goal.”
The lease does not include the historic gymnasium and auditorium, which is now used by the Community Activity Program and the Cambridge School District for some physical education classes, indoor recess, and extra-curricular activities. The Cambridge-Deerfield Players, a local theatre group, leases space in the historic school basement and performs on a stage in the gymnasium.
What can a visitor find at the Cambridge Historic School? A permanent exhibit is the Old School Room, highlighting an early to mid-20th century classroom with old wooden desks, an antique globe, and yearbooks and pictures of graduating classes from the past. “Fourth graders love the school room. They come in and immediately sit in the desks,” says Nancy.
Veterans have their own room in the historic school. Agricultural equipment and implements used by local farmers are showcased in another room. Visitors can also stroll down the streets of Cambridge and nearby Rockdale, London, and Lake Ripley from days gone by.
A new exhibit, Wrenches, Wheels & a Propeller , will highlight wagon and carriage maker David Scobie from the past and Matt Kenseth, NASCAR driver, from the present; Ole Evinrude, Cambridge native and inventor of the outboard motor (14 motors will be on display); and Arthur Davidson, friend of Evinrude and one of the founders of Harley-Davidson Motorcycles. “When Matt closed his local museum, we obtained many of his artifacts,” says Nancy.
“The Foundation is an all-volunteer organization with a small community to draw on. We invite folks in our own community as well as in the area to come visit us,” says Nancy. The museum is open from mid-May through mid-October on Wednesdays and Saturdays, 12:30 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. Special group tours can also be arranged.
Jeanne Engle is a freelance writer.
Cambridge Historic School Museum
211 South Street
Cambridge, WI 53523