Picture courtesy of Landmarks Illinois
Hamilton Primary School in Otterville was named to Landmarks Illinois' Ten Most Endangered Historic Places for 2014.
Preservation group Landmarks Illinois has designated the Hamilton Primary School in Otterville as one of this year’s Ten Most Endangered Historic Places.
The list’s purpose is to focus attention on sites threatened by deterioration, lack of maintenance, insufficient funds or inappropriate development. By publicizing them, the group hopes to bolster local advocacy efforts and build support toward each property’s eventual preservation.
Since the program’s inception in 1995, 58 sites have been saved, 45 have been demolished or substantially altered, 77 are still threatened, and 15 have a rehab pending/underway.
The school opened in 1835 as the first free and integrated school in the nation. Dr. Silas Hamilton was a New England physician who moved to Mississippi in 1820 to create a plantation that he believed could be “humane” despite still promoting the inhumane and abhorrent practice of slavery. The plan failed and Dr. Hamilton moved north, freeing 28 slaves in the process. In 1830 he settled in Otterville. Living with him were three former slaves: an elderly couple and a young man named George Washington.
Hamilton died Nov. 19, 1834, and in his will bequeathed $4,000 for the establishment of a free and integrated primary school to educate George Washington, as well as other freemen. By an act of the Illinois General Assembly in 1839 the school was incorporated as the Hamilton Primary School with a district of four square miles.
After the death of Dr. Hamilton, George Washington lived with the family of Gilbert Douglas (Hamilton’s brother-in-law) and became a successful farmer. When Washington died he left funds in his estate to erect a monument to Dr. Hamilton on the school’s front lawn. In a cemetery, one block west of the school, Dr. Hamilton, George Washington, and Gilbert Douglas are buried side by side in a crypt. In George Washington’s will, he also left a trust fund for the education of "Americans of African descent.”
In 1872 the original school was razed to build a larger two-story school. The present building, erected in 1873 and listed in the National Register of Historic Places, was built using most of the original building’s limestone. The school building has two classrooms and a large assembly hall. The Hamilton Primary School provided education for all Otterville area students until 1971 when the school closed.
In 1982 ownership of the school was transferred from the Otter Creek Township to the court-appointed Hamilton Memorial Association with an agreement that the Otter Creek Historical Society, a local non-profit, would operate and maintain the building.
While the Otter Creek Historical Society continues to open the school for tours, festivals, and local events, the fund-raising efforts have lagged behind the maintenance and repair needs of the building. In 2014, the Historical Society solicited bids for repairs and repainting of their metal roof, but do not have the funds necessary to complete these repairs.
While interior rehabilitation is also a priority, the roof has become a critical concern as continued deferment will increase both costs and the threat of water damage to the interior. The Otter Creek Historical Society continues to develop new fund-raising strategies and explore additional uses for the building in order to generate the funds needed for the repair and maintenance of the historic Hamilton Primary School.
Information about Otter Creek Historical Society’s preservation efforts can be found at www.hamiltonprimaryschool.com.