Thursday, June 9, 2016

These Old Walkin' Shoes: An Educating Stroll

If any of you have ever read any of my earlier “Reminiscing”articles that appear each Sunday, you’ve probably seen my take on the closing of Washington Hunt and how it affected me and my family. We get attached to things we know, and don’t want to let go as time comes a-knockin’. But, let’s face it-- we Washington Hunters were not the first to go through this. Even the folks from DeWitt Clinton, John Pound, or Charlotte Cross weren’t the first.

Every morning, I walk down Walnut Street to Pound Street. My route takes me right past the UAW Hall on the corner of Walnut and Vine Streets. As long as I can remember, it’s been the union hall, through ups and downs, near sales and a decreased enrollment. How many of you knew that it used to be a school?

The Walnut Street School was built 1890-1891 by the Lockport School Board. A notice to contractors was put into the local newspapers on September 28, 1890, for proposals to build a “Primary School building, on the site recently purchased by this Board of Jane Mooney, and situate on the south side of Walnut Street, between Pound and Vine Streets, and in Primary School District No. 3.” The building was to be completed by January 1, 1892. It was opened to students in December 1891.

By the end of the 1942-1943 school year, School Board Trustee, Charles Upson, put forth a resolution to have the Walnut Street School closed. The nearly 200 students attending that school would be transferred to Emmet Belknap and Washington Hunt. At the time of its closure, the Walnut Street School was the oldest educational building still in use in the Lockport City District.

According to Upson, “It is the last of a poor lay-out of a poorly lighted and poorly constructed buildings. It is very unsanitary and has no modern ventilation. We have room in other nearby schools to house the pupils who will be benefitted by the change. At the same time we be effecting a substantial savings to the taxpayers.”

Additionally, it was revealed at the meeting that the costs of maintaining the building were rising significantly. With the war going on, it was nearly impossible to keep the school in good repair under those wartime restrictions. As part of the closure plan, 175 tenth graders from Emmet Belknap transferred to the High School. Ownership of the building was transferred from the school district to the City in July 1944.

The UAW/CIO acquired the old school at public bid at a special meeting on Thursday, January 11, 1946. With a winning bid of $13,500, the sale was not a popular one with many residents of the city. Almost immediately after the sale of the building, a Union-Sun reader, under the name, “Taxpayer,” wrote a letter to the editor that forced a response by William Hilger. Hilger was the Business Agent for the UAW/CIO, and he rebutted the letter point by point. The sale went forward and the old school became the union hall.

Even as late as 1951, the closing of the Walnut Street School stirred bitter memories in some local residents. As the district was moving forward to build the new Lockport High School on Lincoln Avenue, a letter to the editor explaining why the city did not need a new high school was written. As part of the justification for not building a new high school, the letter details perceived shortcomings in the actions of the sale of the Walnut Street School. “Keep in your mind the fact that the Board of Education condemned and sold as useless, that splendid Walnut Street School to the CIO for a pittance….This looks like intentional mismanagement to get unwary Lockportians propagandized to build an unnecessary school…”

Despite these misgivings, June 1946 saw the grand opening of the new CIO Memorial Building. A week long celebration ushered in the new life of an old building. Friday evening, June 14th, a CIO Ball was held, open to the public. There was dancing in the ballroom, and a dance band broadcast. Saturday was the official opening day with sports, children’s programs, and a concert. George F. Addes of Detroit, International Union Secretary/Treasurer, dedicated the building for the union.

The building was “dedicated as a permanent memorial to the men in the Armed Forces from the Lockport area who lost their lives in World War II.” A bronze tablet was erected in front of the building which commemorated the dead from that war, with a quote from President Franklin Roosevelt. That tablet is no longer in front of the building. In fact, I’m not sure where that tablet went. I would be interested in knowing what happened to it. Possibly, part of it is in Building 7A at the West Plant on Upper Mountain Road.

So, when I’m walking down the street, I see some of these old buildings and imagine what life was like when these neighborhoods and buildings were fresh. A little research on the UAW hall brought this article together. I knew it was originally a school, but I didn’t know some of the deeper history. There were several other schools around town that were left behind. Maybe at some point, I will post about some of those. Until then, I hope you enjoy this article about the Walnut Street School, and I hope some of you look at some other old buildings with new eyes.

Craig Bacon loves history. He also loves thinking about life -- past, present, and future -- while on his morning walks.

Next Week: The Sidewalks of (Lockport) New York.