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Memories of the old, old South School, Hannibal, circa 1875-1890

Dale Hayes shared this early Hannibal photo of South Hannibal, Mo. Follow the arrow to view the old, old South School, which was located on what is now Missouri 79. After the new South School was constructed on what is now Fulton Avenue, the old, old school was converted into a four-plex of apartments. Archie Hayden remembers that Gene Wescott used bricks from this building in constructing a house along Old 79 back in the late 1970s.


During the 1880s, two Hannibal men were heavyweights as far as South Hannibal property ownership was concerned: Henry C. Buchanan, executor of his father, Robert Buchanan’s estate, and Joseph C. Peyton, a local contractor.

They both invested in South Hannibal property, developing and selling building lots. South Hannibal subdivisions and streets still carry the surname of each family, but those names, standing alone, don’t trigger many memories these days.

But 131 years ago, a property feud between the two men effectively brought the Hannibal school district’s plans for expansion to a halt.

At question was the site on which a new Hannibal school building would be constructed.

In 1885, Hannibal voters recognized the necessity of building three new school buildings in Hannibal, and passed a bond issue allowing for the funding. One of those buildings was to be in South Hannibal, to replace the overcrowded two-story brick building located on Birch Street (also referred to as Fifth Street, and now Missouri Highway 79).

The bond issue didn’t specify where the school would be constructed, and therein was the difficulty. Mr. Buchanan believed that the school should be expanded onto property he owned, adjacent to the existing school. But the school board voted to acquire property on Clay Street (now Fulton Avenue) owned by Mr. Peyton instead.

When Buchanan learned of the plans to move the school, he challenged the decision in court. Judge Theodore Brace of the Hannibal Court of Common Pleas sided with Buchanan, allowing that the district couldn’t move the school without subjecting the move itself to a popular vote.

Mr. Buchanan argued that the existing site was central to the district’s population, while the new site was considerably removed from the many students who lived east of the existing school site.

Two years passed while the issue made its way through the courts. Attorney Thomas H. Bacon, representing the school board and Mr. Peyton, appealed the case, and in March 1887, the St. Louis Court of Appeals sided with Buchanan Et. Al. The issue was to be placed on the ballot for voters to decide. Attorneys Rufus E. Anderson and William C. Foreman represented Buchanan.

During the time of turmoil, an incident took place that was quite troubling to the South Side residents: A decomposing dog was fished from a well in the yard of the old South Hannibal School. The Quincy Daily Journal noted on Sept. 28, 1886 that the school children had been drinking water from the well.

Perhaps this sparked voters to approve the move in the ballot issue in 1887, and work soon commenced on the new building, which fronted Clay Street (Fulton Avenue), south of Riverside Street, where Clay Street intersected with School Street.

Old school

The old South School was a two-story brick structure with an east-facing porch running the length of the building. There were eight rooms on each floor (four on each side) and an east/west hallway down the middle.

After the school moved, this building was converted into four apartments. Carole Ruth Davis Pettitt of Michigan has very fond memories of this building, which she said was still standing when she got married in 1967.

She grew up in a tiny house behind the brick building, in which four generations of her family inhabited in their turn.

“The (old school) building was at 709 Birch,” she said. “It was very tall, with 16-foot ceilings and pretty crown molding. It had a wide front porch, maybe 20 feet deep and 75 feet wide, with wide steps. You’d go up the center steps to get to the apartments upstairs. There were four rooms in each apartment, one room leading to the next, with the farthest (western most) room becoming a kitchen with sink and running water.”

The shared bathrooms were in the hallway, one upstairs and one downstairs, each with a toilet and a bathtub.

Carole vividly remembers some of the families who lived in these apartments when she was a child, in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Dorothy Brown lived there with her two sons, Larry and Randy Brown. On the top floor lived Dorothy Murphy and her daughter Dotty, who worked at Owens Drug Store, and son Johnny Murphy, who was in Carole’s class at Stowell School.

Mrs. Jacobs, another occupant, always wore a loose-flowy dress with an apron, and she lived there with her grandson, R.L. Jacobs, who was Carole’s age. “Mrs. Jacobs had an old player piano that was pretty intriguing,” Carole said. On the top floor above Mrs. Jacobs lived Mrs. Monroe and her son Donald.

Carole said the building was owned by a man named Roth. When he died, his niece inherited the property and didn’t want to take care of it anymore. “It got to be old and in disrepair,” she said, and eventually the city tore it down, Carole said.

“It was a heap of rubble for awhile,” she said, “now it is just yard.”

Carole went to Stowell School through seventh grade, and then moved with her class to the new Hannibal Junior High School on McMaster’s Avenue. She remembers Stowell teachers who made the move to the new school with her: Bill Tucker, Dorothy Davidson and Bud Walker. “I’m sure there were more than that,” she said.

“I used to babysit for Dorothy Davidson’s children,” she said, “and I took piano lessons from Bertha Seibel (Dorothy’s aunt) for 14 years.”

Little house

Carole Pettitt might well have grown up in a castle, as grand as it seems in her memories of Hannibal. The white clapboard one-bed house atop Birch Street Hill on Hannibal’s South Side – where four generations of her family lived in their turn – remains the focus of her homesickness for the days of yore.

While all her Hannibal family is at eternal rest – their remains at Grand View Burial Park – her mind still conjures up memories of the people, sights and sounds of her childhood.

“I’ve lived in Michigan for 45 years, but my ‘home’ is still Hannibal,” she said.

The Birch Street hill is but a mere mound compared to nearby Union Street, but the hilltop home that she remembers afforded her all the sights and sounds that constitute Hannibal, particularly the sounds of the riverboats, and the trains of her childhood, rumbling through the valley, their whistles rebounding off the hills.

“I had the deed to the property; the people who lived there (long ago) got fined for letting pigs run loose.”

A 1964 graduate of Hannibal High School, she left Hannibal reluctantly, first for college at Kirksville, and then following her marriage.

“Southside Christian Church, that’s where I got married,” she said. Rev. Elba Martin was the minister. “It had old, old dark wood; it had beautiful stained glass windows; the stone steps out front were curved, and when you went inside there was that big giant painting of Christ knocking on the door. That was a gorgeous place.”

After her marriage, she returned frequently through the years with her husband and daughters to revisit the people and places she yearned to see.

Her mother and father, Wilma and David R. (Bob) Davis lived in the little house right behind the former school house at 711 Birch Street until their respective deaths. They were married in 1941, while he was in Army training for the medical corps and she was working at Bluff City Shoe Factory.

Family timeline

Rosa Icenogle Phillips – Carole’s great-grandmother, lived in the little house for awhile in the early 1900s. She moved out by the old Douglass school, and Carol’s grandmother, Ruth Phillips Farrar moved in with her two children, Wilma and John Farrar. When Wilma married David R. Davis at the end World War II, they moved into the house, and raised their only child, Carole, there.

Through most of those years, Carole’s family rented the property from Mr. Roth, who also owned the old school building.

“Everybody was poor, back then you didn’t know you were poor. My mom and dad paid rent, all my family paid rent for that house.”

In early 1980s, after Mr. Roth’s niece inherited the property, she said she was going to have to raise the rent. “She raised it from $20 to $30 and my mother had a fit. I told mom that she couldn’t live anywhere for a fraction of that,” Carole said. Eventually, Bob and Wilma Davis bought the house for $10,000. Carole sold it after her father’s death in 1992.

Fun facts

The old, old South School, located at 711 Birch Street, served South Hannibal students from the early 1870s until the late 1880s.

* Newly appointed staff, June 1875: South School, Prof. J.W. Ayres, principal, Miss Carrie Holman, Mrs. S.S. Woodruff, Miss Belle Ayres, Miss Amelia Kaley, teachers. (Note, Belle Ayres is Mary Lou Montgomery’s great-grandmother.) Salaries for new teachers to the district were $35 per month.

* South School class enrollment, May 28, 1875:

Number enrolled: 240 boys; 218 girls; total: 458

Average daily attendance: 317

Average per teacher: 53

Mr. Ayres: 46

Miss Volk: 45

Miss McKennie: 57

Miss Ayres: 49

Mrs. Austin: 47

Miss Kaley: 74

Neither absent nor tardy during the year: Miss Ida M. Volk, teacher; Nellie Disbrow, Mary Boedeker, Katie Carle, Nettie Clement, Amanda Goodin, Effie Clark, Mattie Brunch and J.W. Ayres, principal.

This street sign still identifies Missouri 79, to the south of the Third Street viaduct, as Birch Street. The old South School was located at 709 Birch Street. The new South School (later renamed Stowell School) on Clay Street (later renamed Fulton Avenue) opened before 1890. MARY LOU MONTGOMERY

These granite steps once led South Hannibal students to school. The steps are located in the 700 block of Missouri 79, previously known as Birch Street and Fifth Street, South Hannibal. Behind the steps, to the west, was the site of the South School, built circa 1875. MARY LOU MONTGOMERY

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