History of the Ishpeming School District


The people of Ishpeming have always desired a quality education for their children.  In 1868, before Ishpeming was incorporated as a village in 1869 and a city four years later, a charter to form a school district was granted.  The meeting to organize the school district was called by Julius Ropes who started the Ropes Gold Mine north of town.  The first school house in the district was built at the Cleveland Mine.  It was a single story frame building which was closed in 1870, with a new school being erected on Ready Street at a cost of $2,000.  This school also closed and now serves as a Masonic Temple.

 A second school was built on the corner of Main and Division Streets containing three classrooms to accommodate the Lake Superior Mine and Barnum Mine locations.  It was closed when the Division Street School was constructed on the present high school site.  Another school was located at the Nelson Mine Location which was in the area now known as Wabash Heights.  This building was moved to the Junction Location in 1896.  The Junction School was closed in 1943 due to falling enrollment in the area and the advent of bus transportation.

The Division Street School, a large three story brick building, was constructed in 1874 where the present high school now stands, at a cost of $38,000.  It was poorly constructed and not well planned, being heated with coal stoves in each room.  An interesting note was that the teachers went out on strike in 1879, refusing to continue  carrying hods of coal from the basement to their rooms.  It would be 110 years later, 1989, when the teachers would walk out in the only work refusal in the 20th century.  In 1880, a hot air heating system was installed, but during cold winter days children had to be sent home.  In May, a new heating system was installed.  The school was demolished in 1908 to make room for a new high school. 

The old Salisbury School, a two-room structure, was built in 1881 at a cost of $2,000 for the building and site.  This school was replaced by a six room building in 1890 at a cost of $13,000.  It was closed in 1949.  A three room school was constructed on the corner of Ridge and Lake Streets in 1891.  This proved to be inadequate to the needs of the locality and a second story, consisting of five rooms, was added the next year, completing the very neat and attractive Ridge Street School.  This school was closed in 1962 and is now utilized as an aprtment building.

 The High Street School, or the first high school, was a beautiful structure of brick with sandstone trim and a slate roof.  A substantial iron fence surrounded the landscaped grounds.  The total cost was $23,445 when completed in 1886.  This school was later demolished to make room for the C.L. Phelps Middle School.  The Grammer School, the then new high school, was dedicated in 1896.  The total cost of this superb building with its landmark clock tower, was $24,580.  William G. Mather, President of Cleveland Cliffs Iron Co. purchased the equipment for the Manual Arts Department which was located in the basement of the new building.

The Manual Arts Building, the west wing fo the present high school, was erected in 1900.  It was described as the first and best appointed building entirely devoted to industrial arts in the State of Michigan.  Charles M. Schwab, President of Carnegie Steel Co., donated $1,000 for equipment.  He made the comment, “It is a fine place for young gentlemen who will be taught to use their hands and heads within its walls.”

The old high school building on Division Street, that most of the older residents remember, was built in 1908 and was destroyed by fire on August 25, 1930.  During the 1930-31 school year the entire town served as campus for the student body.  Makeshift classrooms were setup in community lodges, halls, and vacant business space.  By September of 1931, the student body was welcomed back to the present high school.  Razing of the old and erection of the new, magnificent high school have been completed in one year at a cost of $330,000.

This completed the building of schools by a group of dedicated men elected to the Board of Education in those pioneer days of Ishpeming.  Many of the names are very prominent in our early history as being leaders in business and industry.

Sports played an important part in the lives of students and the whole community.  Out school teams played not only other high schools, but teams from colleges in Marquette and Houghton and adult city teams.  One Lower Michigan reporter said that our boys tackled  hardwood trees all winter and summer in logging camps and came back to play football in the fall.  His team lost by a big score in a game played for the championship of Michigan. 

Another era in the history of our schools started when C.L. Phelps was hired as superintendent of schools in 1915.  He had a tremendous impact on the education in Ishpeming during his twenty-seven year tenure.  His ancestors were farmers in southern Illinios, but he wanted no part of that.  He worked his way through Dartmouth College earning Phi Beta Kappa honors on his way.  One of his main goals in education was to have instructors teach all children how to read, write, and cipher to the best of their abilities.  Attesting to his success in this endeavor are the grand achievements of thousands of IHS students recorded in all walks of life.  He was a strong believer in a diversified education by stressing industrial arts, music, forensics, arts, and sports.  His love of sports led to the building of one gymnasium in 1923.  At that time it was one of the finest athletic facilities in the state.  Mr. Phelps retired in 1942 and Ogden Johnson very ably continued the idea that every student deserved a quality education.

Two new schools were built in the 1950’s.  The Birchview Elementary School was dedicated in 1958.  It contatined eight classrooms, a multipurpose room, kitchen, and cafeteria.  A new facility for special students was also provided.  An addition to the school was constructed in 1971 to accomodate an influx of students to the area created by the mining expansion.  The C.L. Phelps Middle School was dedicated in 1959.  In addition to the formal classrooms, the school had facilities for home economics, industrial arts, music, art, a large multipurpose room, and a large kitchen and cafeteria.

1985 through 1986 would see the High School/Central School complex receive all new doors and windows, along with other heat conversion measures, a cost just exceeding one-half million dollars.  The highly successful 1984 Centennial Yearbook and Reunion proved to be a catalyst for physical change in the district.  The Centennial Celebration profits of approximately $20,000 would provide the seed money for a $300,000 renovation of the beautiful auditorium which would soon after be named for long serving teacher and administrator, W.C. Peterson. 

This auditorium renovation would be financed almost in total by alumni and friends.  The project also benefited from many hours of volunteer labor.  The community continued the push to bring our educational facilities up to standards in 1995 by passing a 15 year millage levy that finances physical and technological improvements in the district and generates approximately $140,000 per year.  The most recent commitment made by our community was the 1997 bond issue that generated $4.3 million and allowed the district to bring the 70 year old faciltiy up to standards, correct come long standing deficencies, construct a new gymnasium, and enhance the beauty of this historic complex.  Modern Art and Music rooms would also be created in the new Technology and Fine Arts wing (old Manual Training Building.)

Keeping pace with the Technological Revolution is the continuing task of the school district.  Classrooms, from preschool to high school, find this technology available.  The challenge lying ahead for our school district is to allow our future leaders to effectively compete in this fast moving revolution.  Schools of Choice legislation had dictated that a “business as usual” approach is no longer acceptable.  Accepting and retaining students is and will be the challenge of schools throughout Michigan.  Modern and attractive facilities, a current, comprehensive curriculum, a dedicated staff, and scholarship incentives to higher education all play a part in this most challenging educational period.