The ABCs of Lowell History: U is for Union Graded School

The Lowell Area Historical Museum is offering a weekly feature to explore local history. This week, museum staff is telling us about the much loved Union Graded School which was built in 1862 and torn down in 1915. To learn more about Lowell history, visit the museum website to explore its collection of local artifacts and records.


In 1862 Lowell built a school that became so well loved that the students and Alumni had a memorial service when it was to be torn down. It represented the remarkable growth of Lowell, and was on the cutting edge of educational methods of the day.

In 1838, Lowell boasted that it had the first school house between Grand Rapids and Ionia. Following the initial log schoolhouse, a couple other shanties were used until the Red Schoolhouse was built where today’s Methodist Church stands. This school was 36 X 26 feet, and in 1856, 150 students were educated here. When special meetings and plans led to the vote to build a new school, it was long overdue. The leading ideas in education at the time were towards developing Union Graded Schools. As explained in 1855, a Union School was a larger school, consolidated for the purpose of establishing a system of schools better adapted to the educational wants of a larger community, rather than the individual district school.

A Graded school was a way to organize the levels that the scholar had attained. For example, the lowest level of scholars was the Second Primary, the next level up was the First Primary, then First and Second Intermediate Departments with the Grammar Department just below High School. High School then was the highest department. A Graded School had to have more than one grade department in the school. These schools had just recently been established along the east coast, and were the way of the future. Today we see these grades as simply numbered tiers, beginning with 1 – 12.

This school building was to be a central school, and was called Central School, Union School, and lovingly referred to as the Old White Schoolhouse. It was decided that it would be built near the East Bank of the Flat River. It was built on the block bounded by Monroe, East Water (today’s Lafayette), High and King Streets. The ground was purchased from Abel Avery. A building committee, consisting of Dr. A. Peck, I.N. White and Hiram West, was appointed with power to act. The contract to build was given to M.N. Hine and B.G. Wilson. The lumber was purchased at Greenville and rafted down the Flat River.

The Union Graded School building was completed in December, 1862, for a cost of $1,889.42. The bell was not hung until the spring of 1863. It was purchased in New York City and cost $68.88. It was first rung for the funeral knell of a former teacher, Miss Elizabeth Campbell. The second tolling was for the death of Abraham Lincoln. It rang out at the fall of Richmond and again when the soldiers came home from the Civil War.

Newspaper reports over the years show between 380 and 500 students attending the school. After the Civil War, in the 1870s, three Ward schools were also built. The East Ward, West Ward and South Ward schools were used for the younger students. The Union Central School became the high school.

In a fun, jesting newspaper article in 1906, the Union Central High School was called “The Lowell Brains Factory.” Below a picture of the School it said, “this represents the main building occupied by the Lowell Brains factory, employing the most people and turning out a product of young men and women of intelligence and culture. The greatest industry possible in any community. The factory has three branch buildings, all feeders to the main one, these are more modern buildings, but none have so important or interesting a history. From the factory represented above, the Lowell High School, students have gone forth in all the walks of life, reflecting credit and honor upon their alma mater and old home town.”

Though it took three separate votes, Lowell voters approved of the building of a new school on the site of the old one that was to open in 1916. In May of 1915 a Memorial service was held for the Old White Schoolhouse. It was estimated that around one hundred Alumni and former pupils of the Lowell High School gathered at the Central building for a farewell visit. A short program was given, including musical numbers from the High School Chorus, and address by Mrs. M.M. Perry, and short talks by F.T. King, Mrs. M. C. Green and Mrs. H. J. Coons. The atmosphere was said to be “tinged with a feeling of sadness, many of those present having tears in their eyes as they took their departure.” They concluded with a bonfire where they gave class yells, sang class songs and rang the old bell.

The Dedication page of the 1915 Yearbook says, “DEDICATION. To the old school-house which has stood for earnest, true-hearted effort, seeking for the advancement and welfare of every incoming student for the last half-century, and living as an emblem of immortal education, we, the Seniors of nineteen hundred fifteen, very sincerely and whole-heartedly dedicate this book.”

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