If you asked the question of school children all over the United States, “Do you think your school is gross?” you might hear the answer, “yes,” or something like it, more often than not. But there is one school that can lay accurate and honest claim to being the grossest of them all. That school is the S.E. Gross School in Brookfield, located on the corner of Maple and Lincoln avenues.
It has been the S.E. Gross School for 111 long years, since 1894. At first, that name hadn’t been planned for it. It was going to be called the Grossdale School, even though, curiously enough, it was being built on land just west of the village’s border, along an invisible extension of Lincoln Avenue over Maple.
But in 1894, and for a few years previously, there already existed a Grossdale School. Classes took place under two teachers, Miss Mary Schrock and Miss Lydia Wright, in a single classroom at the Grossdale Pavilion Hall, at the corner of Brookfield and Prairie avenues. As the population of the village grew, the room was getting crowded with even more children. As time passed, the villagers decided they needed a new separate, larger school building.
Before the April 1894 village election, Village President William Buhs appointed two village trustees, Joseph L. Brouse and James Addison Tomlinson, to act as the School Committee.
The architect H.H. Richards (not to be confused with H.H. Richardson, the famous architect of Romanesque style) was engaged to draw up plans for the new school building. Once these were completed and cost estimates were furnished, the money had to be raised. Brookfield, or Grossdale, as it was then known, was not a community of rich people, but of common, but noble workingmen and women.
Early settler Judge Willis Melville drew up a subscription list, stating at the top of the temporarily blank pages, “We, the undersigned subscribers, agree to pay the amount set opposite our names, to the School Committee of the Village of Grossdale, said amount to apply to the school fund for the purchase of a school site and the erection of a school building thereon … to be paid on or before, July 1, 1894.”
This list was taken around to both the village founder, Samuel Eberly Gross, and the local residents. They signed their names and pledged their money. The first to sign was none other than S.E. Gross, himself, promising to give $1,000, which at the time was a considerable sum. A small family could live fairly comfortably for a year on around $700-$800.
Soon, other names appeared on the subscription list, names that played important parts in the beginning years of the village. Directly after Gross’ name came Willis Melville’s. Also appearing on the list were the names of Walter Simpson, who built the first five houses in Grossdale; William Buhs, Grossdale’s first president; Henry A. Cranwell, Grossdale’s second president; Emil T. Behrens, the local photographer; Joseph N. Vasey, reputed to be the first buyer of Grossdale land; S.W. Burson, the first doctor in the village; and many others who made their marks in early local history.
Four pages of names eventually appeared on the list. One name appeared twice”that of S. E. Gross, the first signer, who contributed an additional $300, “subject to conditions in [the accompanying] letter.”
One of the conditions in that letter was that the school would be named for him in perpetuity, in other words, as long as a school rested on that property.
Sixty-four residents signed their names to a total of $402.50. With Gross’s pledged $1,300, a total of $1,702.50 was raised. To save money on purchasing land, Gross went to land owners Frank Ogden and Belle Ogden Armour of Chicago and asked them to donate the site. They granted his request.
A $3,800 bond issue was also planned to help finance the building of the school. In addition, on May 19, the Grossdale Village Board ordered that every lot owner was to be contacted for a $2 donation to the school fund. It is not known how many lot owners sent in their $2. Figures vary as to the amount of money needed for the entire project, but it is estimated that, including the bond issue, at least $5,600 was raised, not including the $2 donations. Local residents gave freely of their time, and sometimes also of their building materials, to complete the red brick schoolhouse.
Digging out the basement and setting the foundation took place quickly. Bricks, mortar, wood and limestone window sills went up in record time. Winter weather was on the way.
At a grand dedication ceremony held on Dec. 29, 1894, School Committee member Joseph L. Brouse placed documents in the cornerstone, “and sent them down the ages.” The cornerstone was set about five feet up, in the limestone door arch, on the southeastern edge of the school building. What was in the cornerstone is a subject for speculation: a newspaper, maybe. A photograph of the school, probably.
On Aug. 31, 1895, W.J. Moore, Gross’ business manager, donated the school bell for dedication, and it was placed inside the flagpole-topped bell tower. For decades afterwards it rang, calling the children to school and dismissing them at the end of the day.
The teachers at the Grossdale School at the Pavilion were Miss Mary Shrock (receiving $65 a month) for attending to Grades 1-3, and Miss Lydia Wright (receiving $95 a month) for attending to Grades 4-6.
At the new Gross School, they resumed these duties, with Miss Wright also as principal until Amos Perrin took over in 1898. Principals come and principals go, but one of the most beloved principals of Gross School was Edgar N. Cassady, who held that office from 1903 to 1940.
Early on, the new school had used only two of its four classrooms, and by 1905 was beginning to be crowded again. A four-room addition to the western part of the building was constructed, again by the architect Richards.
The new section looked exactly like the original 1894 building, but there were differences inside. Now boys’ and girls’ toilets were located in the new building’s basement, and no longer did the children have to go outdoors in all kinds of weather to use the outhouse. Also in the basement were separate boys’ and girls’ lunchrooms and play rooms.
The next addition went up in 1922, and was located to the east of the 1894 building. It included another four rooms. On April 1, 1925, a fire caused the demise of the old bell tower, and a new, smaller belfry was placed on the roof of the 1922 building. To the unknowing onlooker, the original building and its two additions must’ve appeared to be one solid, original structure.
In November 1928, children now had classes in yet another addition, to the rear and north of the 1894-1922 classrooms. Many improvements (including a swimming pool that was never completed and filled) were in this new 18 room building, which was dedicated in January, 1929.
The Great Depression caused a depletion of tax funds for running the school, and shortly before Christmas 1931, the school was actually locked up and closed, and not just for the holiday recess. People went out and gathered up enough funds to keep the school open, with teachers receiving tax warrants. Also, the school year was temporarily cut to eight-and-a-half months in length.
Somehow Gross School outlasted the Depression, and apparently didn’t need any new space until March 1950, when the Brookfield Magnet newspaper reported on the future Gross School remodeling project. Architect J.P. Llewelyn’s drawings showed that the original 1894-built section, the 1905 first addition, and the 1922 second addition were all going to be torn down and replaced. However, in the end, perhaps due to financial reasons, the original 1894 limestone arched doorway was left intact and useful, with the 1922 addition still untouched.
Due to a shortage of materials, little work had actually been done as of that summer. Finally, a year later, on July 5, 1951, the Magnet reported that demolition had at last begun, with about 60 days before the two south buildings were completely razed and removed.
No further changes were made to the building until the summer of 1958, when the 1922 addition and original 1894 doorway were removed for all time. The wooden bell tower was moved back on the building roof until it was nearly out of sight, and remained unused for decades.
Principal Joseph Majchrowicz took over in 1992, and said at the time that one of the first things he’d do would be to get the name of the school changed. After all, the word “gross” had a certain negative connotation. But he received a lot of negative feedback on this subject. The kids, the teachers, the village residents, the former students, all of them thought the name Gross School was fine, and, after 98 years, as much a part of Brookfield as the zoo. Maybe even more so. Principal Majchrowicz backed down, bowing to time-honored tradition.
Come 1995, the S.E. Gross School celebrated its 100th year of existence, with a display case full of artifacts and information, a historical dissertation and hallways filled with old Grossdale maps and pictures.
Principal Majchrowicz even had an idea to use the old 1895 bell, still up, unseen, in the wooden tower. For the June graduation evening, he arranged for the bell to be rung 100 times, and attached microphone pickups around it, with cables leading to speakers set up and attached to the edges of the school roof.
Four days before the ceremony, however, lightning struck one of the cables to the speakers and the whole system went down, including the school’s phone service. So there were no 100 rings.
That centennial year, the Brookfield History Book Committee gathered together the century-long history of the school, together with many old photos, and published the book, “100 Years of Educational Excellence: S. E. Gross School, Brookfield, Illinois,” of which there are still some copies available.
The S. E. Gross School is now 111 long years old, and the oldest and only part of it still remaining on site is the 1895 school bell. It was a Gross School in 1894, and in the year 2005, it is still a Gross School. The “Grossest” there is, and probably ever will be.