The Man Who Went to School for 45 Years

The Rochester Community School District has named several of its buildings in honor of well-known educators, administrators, or civic leaders. However, the district’s oldest building is not named for a teacher or a public official—it is named after the building’s caretaker, who was a friend to all of the students he served during his 45-year tenure there.

Two-story brick building from 1889.
The 1889 school building as it appeared during William Harrison’s tenure.

The rise of Fourth Street as it approaches Wilcox Street was known in nineteenth-century Rochester as “Academy Hill.” The name derived from a private school called the Avon Lyceum that operated on the site from 1847 until 1857. When the private academy closed, its property was transferred to Avon School District #5, the predecessor of today’s Rochester Community Schools.

Thus, Academy Hill became the home of the village schoolhouse, the same wood-frame building that had been occupied by the Lyceum students. In the summer of 1888, however, the school was destroyed by fire. The pungent aroma of kerosene at the scene told local officials that the fire had been a work of arson.

The arsonist was never identified, but if a student hoping for a “get out of class free” card set the fire, he was disappointed. The school board quickly arranged to rent other quarters so that the 1888-89 school year could proceed on schedule. Students in the lower grades attended class at the nearby Adventist Church building on Oak Street. (This ca. 1875 church building stood on the west side of Oak Street until the summer of 2020. It has recently been demolished, and a new building is now under construction at this site.) The upper-grade students who had been displaced by the fire attended class in the Avon Township Hall at Fourth and Pine streets (now the Paint Creek Center for the Arts).

Meanwhile, the school board selected Michigan architect Claire Allen to draw plans for a new schoolhouse. The Rochester school was one of Allen’s early designs; he later when on to design such structures as the Hillsdale, Gratiot, Shiawassee, and Van Buren county courthouses, as well as many of the churches and most of the public school buildings in Jackson, Michigan. At least six of his buildings have been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Allen-designed, brick schoolhouse on Academy Hill opened to Rochester students in the fall of 1889. Eight years later, the school board agreed to hire William F. Harrison as custodian of the school building at a salary of $22 per month.

Two-story brick building from 1889.
The Harrison Building as it appears today.

William F. “Bill” Harrison was born in Rochester in 1861. He was the grandson of Rochester pioneer Joseph Harrison, who owned the property just south of the school where today’s Harrison Street (named for the family) is now located. Joseph Harrison, his son Abram, and grandson Bill all served at various times in history as sextons at nearby Mount Avon Cemetery.

Every school day for 45 years, Bill Harrison walked from his home on Harrison Street to the nearby school building and greeted each student coming up the hill. Lest any of his young charges be marked tardy, Harrison was known to keep ringing the school bell until the last straggler chugged his way into the classroom and slid into his seat. In the winter, he’d bring out an old coal scoop and allow the students to use it as a sled. He was remembered for knowing the age and life history of every child who attended the school under his watch, and students and teachers alike loved him.

During the Great Depression, the school board applied for federal Civil Works Administration (CWA) funding to renovate and improve its buildings. The 1889 school was completely reconfigured during this time; the entrance was moved, the bell tower was closed, and the classroom space was remodeled for exclusive use by elementary grades. The school board then named the building the William F. Harrison School, to honor the man who had been on duty there continuously for 37 years at that point. This designation, made in 1934, was the very first time in history that any Rochester public school building was named in honor of an individual.

Harrison remained at his post until the close of the 1941-42 school year, when ill health caused him to retire. During its annual meeting in the summer of 1942, the school board honored Harrison’s long and faithful service with these words:

Forty-five years is a long time. Yet, for all those years he never failed in the responsibilities of his position. Forty-five years and not an unkind word can be recalled by those who knew him. To William Harrison achieved a character attained by few men, and for the hosts of boys and girls who knew the security of close association with him this brief tribute of appreciation and honor is given. May his name be forever hallowed and enshrined in the building named for him. May the memory of this good man be an inspiration to all.

Tombstone with the Harrison name on it.
The grave of William F. Harrison in Mount Avon Cemetery.

Harrison died a few weeks later at the age of 80 and was laid to rest at Mount Avon Cemetery, only a block from the place where he had lived and worked his entire life. The schoolhouse that he cared for is now 131 years old. It is part of the Rochester Community Schools administration complex and is still referred to as the Harrison Building. It was placed on the Michigan Register of Historic Sites in 1987.

Did you attend school in the Harrison Building? Please share your memories in the comments!

About Deborah J. Larsen

Deborah J. Larsen recently retired after 34 years as local history librarian at Mount Clemens Public Library. She currently serves as the research chairperson for the Rochester-Avon Historical Society, and writes on a wide range of local history topics.

Comments

  1. Sydney Ann Zaremba says

    My mother and her brothers attended. My uncle, Leonard Siudara was a football player for Rochester and I have pictures of him with the team in front of the school. He graduated during the Depression time. My mother graduated in 1941 with a class of , I believe, 62. She played accordian in the band and we have pictures of her from the yearbook, which I still have.
    My sisters attended Central, as it was called then, for junior high, then went on to the new Rochester high School. I went to Adams and raduated in 1973.
    Because we lived out on Winkler Mill (my Mom was born in the house on the corner of Mead and Winkler Mill on her parents’ farm), I also attended Red Barn Nursery as a child and my uncle Leonard and I believe, my Uncle Joe, attended the schoolhouse on Washington Rd. in Stoney Creek. We have pictures of that as well.

    All very interesting!

    Nice article!

    Sydney Zaremba

  2. I attended school in the Harrison Building when it was Central Junior High School. It housed 7th & 8th grade. It was September 1969 until June 1971. My sister attended the Harrison Building for Kindergarten, when it was a K-12 building. She went Fall of 1959-1960.

  3. David Phillips says

    Deborah, I attended (Central High School) Harrison Also Then attended Van Hoosen Jr. High (First Class to Graduate From) Then Attended Adams High School and Graduated 1978. Remember Central Very Well, Had Miss Rose for Study Hall.

    Those Were The Days…
    David A. Phillips

  4. Sandra Spring Miller says

    My mother her siblings and my siblings all went to school there. When I got to the high school, Rochester High, I had teachers that taught my mom, her sisters and also my sister and brother. Central Junior High, great memories.

  5. Harold Mowat says

    Debbie As you know i went in the 4th street door of the Harrison building in 1942 and out the 5th street doors in 1955. They truly were the hallowed halls. You do have a very special gift in getting all the facts. You do make me proud! Dad.

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