Rountree Elementary, one of Springfield’s oldest schools, celebrates its centennial in 1917.
When kids began walking to classes at Rountree Elementary, nestled in one of Springfield’s oldest neighborhoods, homes still had hitching posts, street cars carried locals to the Public Square, and Grand Street was near the edge of Springfield’s city limits.
Much is different these days. After all, time marches on — but so do students, who still start their days at Rountree. For some, however, the school is more than just a building. It’s a memory repository of generations come and gone, all connected within vintage beauty.
“My grandmother went to Rountree, and lived on Pickwick, my children went to Rountree and lived on Pickwick, and now my grandson will start next fall and lives on Pickwick,” says Laura Key, who resides in the Rountree neighborhood. “It’s just a comfort. It’s a safe place. It’s a nurturing place. There’s something about history, not that you’re sitting around talking about it, but knowing that your mother (attended) there, and your grandma.”
They’re sentiments echoed by Rountree principal Amy Patton, who says others often feel the same.
“People just feel like it’s part of them,” says Patton, who has led the school since 2014. “So many people that live in these older homes, they have multiple generations that have been here. So because of that, they just have this ownership, and this vested interest in Rountree, because grandpa went here, and great-grandpa went here.”
This weekend, that legacy comes to the forefront at the school’s centennial celebration, and the entire community is invited to attend.
In the beginning
Pickwick School is pictured in 1916, the same year locals decided to replace the school with Rountree. (Courtesy of the Springfield-Greene County Library District)
While today’s Rountree dates to 1917, newspaper accounts actually indicate that it wasn’t the first school named that in Springfield.
In 1894, a “Rountree school house” was noted in a September edition of the Springfield Democrat, and was referenced several other times through the early 1900s.
Regardless of that school’s presence, however, aspects of today’s Rountree Elementary still date back much farther than 100 years.
“History of Rountree School is rooted deep in the educational history of the city, and it all began in 1831 when Joseph Rountree started and taught in Springfield’s first school one and a fourth miles west of the present city,” printed the Springfield Leader & Press in March 1954.
The newspaper continued: “The original school was built of logs, and a dirt floor, and was equipped only with rough, log benches. It housed 11 children.”
Pickwick School, Springfield’s next educational facility, was built in 1832 and was originally located near where Drury University is today. This school directly ties to Rountree Elementary — and illustrates the beginning of Springfield’s southward expansion.
In 1890, a series of advertisements boasted lots for sale in “Pickwick Place,” and encouraged folks to think about building new homes in the development near Springfield’s southern edge.
“This beautiful residence addition is now on the market,” proclaimed an ad in the Springfield Leader in May 1890. “Every business man of Springfield who wants a pleasant, retired home, with fifteen minutes (street car) ride of the Square, should at once secure a lot.”
It seemed that the area needed a school, because a new Pickwick School eventually popped up “two blocks east of the Normal School Street Car Line” on the southwest corner of Delaware Avenue and Grand Street.
Around 1908, the school settled — for the third time — at the corner of Kickapoo Avenue and Grand Street.
An early view of Rountree Elementary.
Less than 10 years after the newest Pickwick School was complete, growing pains led the community to grumble. The school had been annexed into the Springfield School District in 1910, and locals decided that the school was just too old and outdated to serve students any longer.
Their solution: Form a committee, and convince the community to pass a tax levy to build a new school.
“First warders at meeting urge new Pickwick school,” proclaimed a headline in the Springfield Republican in January 1916, which also noted the First Ward Improvement Club’s efforts to help “present need for larger and more sanitary quarters for 300 pupils.”
“That conditions in the Pickwick school district are woefully inadequate and deplorable, both from an education and sanitary viewpoint, was the substance of several short talks made by property owners in the district.
“Mr. Roberts (secretary of the First Ward Improvement Club) also called attention to the fact that they building is poorly heated and ventilated and that at times the room became so cold as to make it necessary for the teachers to give the children gymnastic exercises in order to keep warm. The room used in the basement is damp and insanitary, it was stated, and conditions generally were not conducive to the best results for pupils and teachers.”
According to a February article in the Republican, the school board discussed submitting a levy for between $60,000 and $70,000 for the project, which also included building a new school in the seventh ward. “The first ward school as well as the structure to be erected in the seventh ward are to be modern in every detail,” noted the newspaper.
At the time, the committee proposed that the former Pickwick building — assuming the levy passed — would be turned into a community center.
Somewhere between February and August, the levy was seemingly approved. It was announced in the Republican on Aug. 19 that Pickwick’s replacement would be named for N.M. Rountree, son of Springfield schools organizer Joesph Rountree, and a founder of the Keet-Rountree store in Springfield, “following out the policy of the board in naming all of the schools after pioneer residents of the city.”
Along those same lines, the seventh-ward school would be dubbed Doling Elementary, in honor of local businessman J.M. Doling.
Soon, plans were underway: The newspaper noted that bids for the project, estimated to come in at around $40,000, would be accepted through Sept. 10.
“The building will include four rooms and a basement,” noted the Republican of soon-to-be Rountree. “The plans provide for the first construction in such manner that a second story can easily be added at a later time when the addition becomes necessary.”
“Necessary” came before most might’ve guessed. In May 1917 — prior to the building’s opening — leaders decided to delay the its start so that four more rooms might be added.
Finally, Rountree was ready for students in December 1917.
“One big feature of the coming term is the fact that the Rountree school, located on Grand Avenue, just east of National Boulevard, will be ready for occupation next week,” printed the Republican in December 1917. “The new building is considered one of the most modern in this section of the country and will accommodate approximately 600 students.”
Connecting with the community
A school pageant in June 1921. (Courtesy of Susan Hodges Martin Family Collection)
Plans to transform Pickwick School into a community center never materialized. Around six months after Rountree opened, the Republican announced that the former school had been sold for $250, and was soon demolished and sold for its building materials.
However, in spite of Pickwick’s demise — or perhaps because of it — the community found its center at Rountree. Less than a year after it opened, the Springfield Leader announced that locals rallied to fund playground equipment at the school.
“The committee reported that approximately 70 persons in the district were visited and contributions were made in every instance,” reported the Leader in May 1918. “The original plans for equipping the gymnasium and playgrounds called for $400 but this amount was almost doubled in the campaign.”
That theme of community support has seemingly never stopped.
The next year, a gathering helped raise $110 for school equipment and charities. In 1922, the school — in the aftermath of World War I — won the poppy-selling contest led by the American Legion.
Springfield Republican, April 7, 1925
By the early 1920s, newspaper advertisements were touting the school as a reason to purchase real estate. In some ways, genders were also unexpectedly equal: In 1928, accounts note the school’s 54-member parent-teacher circle was approximately 50 percent male.
The school was revolutionary in other ways, too. In 1935, Springfield’s first public kindergarten came to be at Rountree.
The addition came to be because of newcomer Fannie Arbeitman, who asked the school board if she and friend Mildred Wheeler could start one locally. At the time, Springfield’s only kindergarten was private and cost $8 a month — something few could afford during the Great Depression.
“We used to go (to meetings at City Hall) and just because we were women, they would have us sit outside,” recalled Arbeitman in a 1998 Springfield News-Leader article. “And then when they were through with their meeting, they’d send for us. (One time) they said, ‘Now what did you women want?’ So we told them we would do everything if they would just give us a room in the school.”
The offer was initially declined — but minds eventually changed.
“(Guy Cowden) said, ‘Well, we’ll give you the room in the basement of Rountree school and you’ll have to furnish it. And all we will give you will be the electricity and the water and the heat.'”
“We said, ‘Okay, we’ll take it.'”
It’s only one example of Rountree’s can-do attitude.
“She just decided she was going to take it on, and then it was successful, and it went to Boyd and now look at kindergarten,” says principal Patton.
Saving the school
Local sentiment, grown along with trees shading the school, has developed into strong support for Rountree. The facility has been threatened with closure numerous times over the years — but, thanks to the community, has managed to rally and keep its doors open.
One example was in 1982, when district administrators considered consolidating Rountree with nearby Delaware Elementary. Rountree friends, however, weren’t having it.
“(Locals) said they are aware Delaware school is newer, but they don’t believe it will be better for their children or for their neighborhood,” printed the Springfield Daily News in December 1982. “They said Rountree is the cement that keeps the neighborhood together.”
One of the people supporting that cause was Mona McCann, who spent more than 50 years of her life living in the Rountree neighborhood and whose children attended the school. Looking back, McCann says that the school really helps make the neighborhood “stable.”
“I think it’s one of the best neighborhoods in town because I felt like they cared about neighbors and what was going on,” says McCann, expressing feelings that extended to the school. “It has a lot of tradition behind it.”
Locals won the battle: The school didn’t close, and led to the creation of the Rountree Urban Conservation District project, a list of city ordinances designed to preserve the area. According to a 2014 article in the News-Leader, the district’s goal was simple: “To protect single-family areas from the adverse effects of higher-intensity development.”
But that wasn’t the only fight. In total, locals have petitioned three times to keep their school open. The most recent efforts were in 2005, when the Springfield School Board and the district’s Long Range Committee again proposed Rountree’s consolidation with nearby Delaware Elementary.
“The committee is trying to form a vision for the district’s buildings and is discussing school by school, which to close and which to expand,” printed the News-Leader in August 2005.
That vision ultimately didn’t include closing Rountree — because the community mobilized, and won their school once again.
Someone who remembers those fights firsthand is Sharon Taylor, who has lived her life in the Rountree neighborhood except for years away at college. “I’m 45, so it’s safe to say I’ve been here 40 years,” she says.
In that time, she’s seen the neighborhood — and the school — from different perspectives. First was as a child, and now it’s as a parent of five.
“From a grown-up perspective, looking back at childhood, I’d say it was pretty much idyllic,” she says. “We rode our bikes around, we ran down alleyways. It just felt very safe, and calming. We could call upon our neighbors; we could borrow a cup of sugar.”
And at the heart of it all was the school. “It’s just a great little place to raise a family — and go to school,” she says, noting that the building’s character is a great gift.
“We live here by choice, because we like old homes, we like old schools,” says Taylor, who notes the historic feel of the entire surrounding area. “And our school is beautiful. I go in there and am amazed every time … because the architecture is just so wonderful.”
While Rountree’s core building is 100 years old, Patton says the facility has been expanded four times over the years to meet growing demands. Today, it serves approximately 250 students kindergarten through fifth grade.
One of its teachers is Jennifer Mongromery, who teaches second grade at the school. While she didn’t attend Rountree personally, much of her family has — ranging from her grandmother back in 1929, to today and her own children. She also lives in the neighborhood, and speaks to its influence on local life.
“Rountree is more than just a school, it is a community, a family,” she says, reiterating the community’s love of its school. “People in our neighborhood have a pride in our beautiful school. You can stand in front and look at the majesty of the building, and the beautiful character it presents.”
While Rountree’s appearance is characteristically historic, its curriculum the opposite: It became an International Baccalaureate World School in 2013, which according to the program’s website, develops “the intellectual, personal, emotional and social skills needed to live, learn and work in a rapidly globalizing world.”
And that education is offered from little, 100-year-old Rountree. The school teaches lessons from beyond its classrooms: That new schools can become great, century-lasting learning environments. That students can learn on a world-class level from within historic walls. And that communities can make a difference when their members become a team with a common vision.
“I think it has a lot to do with the neighborhood, and the way that the neighborhood views this school,” says Patton of the school’s success. “You really look at it as that central part of their neighborhood, and they’re always willing to help and be a part of what’s going on at the school. That’s something that they feel greatly about. I mean, even now, anytime there’s a need, or there’s something that needs to be done, it doesn’t matter if people have kids or they don’t.”
Want to celebrate?
The Centennial Celebration for Rountree Elementary (1333 E. Grand St., Springfield) will be held at the school on Sunday, April 2 from 1 to 3 p.m. Old-fashioned games, musical performances (including the singing of the Rountree song) and student-led tours, will fill the afternoon. The event is free and open to the public.
“500 new pupils in grade schools,” Springfield Republican, Dec. 30, 1917
“Buys old school,” Springfield Republican, July 4, 1918
“Community rally at Rountree School,” Springfield Leader, Nov. 4, 1928
“First warders at meeting urge new Pickwick school,” Springfield Republican, Jan. 20, 1916
“Fund is raised to equip playground at Rountree school,” Springfield Leader, May 30, 1920
“Know your school,” Springfield Leader & Press, March 29, 1954
“Looking out for the little ones,” Lisa Wingo, Springfield News-Leader, Oct. 20, 1998
“Neighborhood turns out to save Rountree,” Cory de Vera, Springfield News-Leader, Aug. 3, 2005
“Plans for school building in first ward accepted,” Springfield Republican, Aug. 19, 1916
“Proposal to close Rountree unites school’s supporters,” Kate Pound, Springfield Daily News, Dec. 10, 1982
“Quiet crowd says don’t close Rountree,” Jeff Catron, Springfield Daily News, Dec. 3, 1982
“Rountree Elementary joins 2 others as ‘world school,'” Springfield News-Leader, Oct. 4, 2013
“Rountree Elementary School: 1917-1987”
“Rountree patrons vow to fight for school,” Jeff Catron, Springfield Daily News, Dec. 9, 1982
“Rountree school wins,” Springfield Leader, May 30, 1922
“School board to submit levy for new structures,” Springfield Republican, Feb. 16, 1916
“Springfield of the Ozarks,” Harris and Phyllis Dark, 1981
“To tear down school,” Springfield Republican, June 15, 1918
“Will talk to them,” Springfield Democrat, Sept. 9, 1894