BY DAVID HOLSTED
TAMPICO - When it comes to information about Illinois high schools, Cody Cutter of Sterling is a walking encyclopedia.
Oldest public high school? Peoria High School, known also as Peoria Central, founded in 1858.
Oldest township high school? Princeton High School, founded in 1867.
Smallest public high school? DeLand-Weldon, enrollment 47 students.
Although only 20 and a student at Sauk Valley Community College, Cutter is knowledgeable beyond his years.
"People think I'm 50 years old," he said with a smile.
Cutter has combined his love of history and high school sports into a unique and fascinating venture. Along with four other devotees of Illinois high school history, Cutter maintains Illinoishsglorydays.com. The Web site tells the story of hundreds of de-activated high schools that once held a hallowed place in just about every crossroads hamlet, farming community and small town in Illinois.
Cutter, site creator Dave Nanninga of Chicago, Beau Spencer of Macomb, Kev Varney of Bloomington and Richard Soseman of Princeville have driven hundreds of miles, talked to legions of people, looked through countless yearbooks and combed newspaper files to track down the history and accomplishments of such now de-activated high schools as Manlius, Leaf River and Dixon North.
"I've learned about cities and schools I've never heard of," said Cutter, whose career goal is to be a sportswriter/historian.
As an example, Cutter said he never knew Harmon had a high school.
Cutter met Nanninga on a Peoria Journal-Star message board. It was there that the two learned of their mutual interest in old high schools.
According to Cutter, one of the first old high schools he researched was Hillsdale High in southwestern Whiteside County, where members of his family attended. He recalled peeking into the old gym at Hillsdale.
"It looked like it hadn't been touched since the 1950s," Cutter said.
Remembering the old days
Nanninga, who is an Illinois State Police trooper, is originally from Mineral, a small town in western Bureau County. Mineral High School was annexed by neighboring Annawan in 1961, about the time Nanninga was born, but he has always been fascinated by the stories of the school.
"I've always had a passion to keep the memories alive for the people of Mineral," Nanninga said. "The closing of the high school just killed the town. Losing the school always takes the heart and pride out of a town."
Mineral High had a bell that rang at the beginning and end of each school day. When the building was sold after the school was de-activated, the new owner kept the electrical connection to the bell intact and it continued to ring every day for 15 years, reminding the citizens of Mineral of times past, Nanninga said.
Nanninga originally suggested on the Journal-Star message board that a hall of fame should be established for all the old high schools. When someone suggested a Web site for people to visit, Nanninga had the genesis for his project.
That was in January 2005.
"The last few months, it's caught fire," he said.
About 551 de-activated high schools are now represented on the site, and Nanninga still has a long list of schools that need to be researched.
"It seems like every time I get it down to 60 or so, someone writes in with five or more," he said.
Each of the men take a region of Illinois to research. Cutter usually takes the northern part, although overlapping often occurs. The urge to stop and learn about an old high school can hit at any time. Cutter recalled once, on a trip into Chicago, he made a detour to Steward to research the high school that once educated the young people of the town.
Nanninga has seen many types of architecture in his trips around the state. His favorite, as well as Spencer's, is the high school in Dallas City, a small town on the Mississippi River in western Illinois. An imposing three-story stone building, it has towers, turrets and steeples and looks like a castle, Nanninga said. Cutter agreed, saying that Dallas City looks more like a castle than Dixon High School.
By the way, Nanninga and his friends add to the Web site's fun by including school fight songs wherever possible. For the Dallas City link, the browser is immediately greeted with the theme from the television show "Dallas."
"My passion is, let's make sure we remember the small schools," Nanninga said. "Nothing against the big schools."
Nanninga particularly enjoys hearing the personal stories from alumni and community members, stories like farmers betting wagon loads of grain on a game.
Many de-activated high schools had a rich athletic history, and the Web site goes into as much detail as possible on them. No information is too trivial, Nanninga said.
"It doesn't have to be sports. It could have been a band, a favorite play or even a janitor who had stories."
Typical of the response to inquiries are the people of Rollo, a small community in DeKalb County a few miles east of Paw Paw. The high school closed in 1954, and there are about 40 alumni left alive, but they are eager to tell the story of their school, Nanninga said.
"They were very enthused about it," Cutter said. "The people were very willing to talk."
Rollo High School, along with Lee and Shabbona high schools, had the foresight to save their athletic trophies. Those from all three former high schools are now in a museum in Shabbona, Cutter said.
As he watches consolidation swallow up one small high school after another, Nanninga is saddened by the loss what he perceives was a better educational environment.
"I think we're really missing the boat here," he said. "There was better student involvement, better parent involvement and better community involvement."
In every little town
Spencer is from Annawan. In fact, his sister was in the graduating class with Nanninga.
Spencer said he is often sidetracked on trips to his parents' home. There's always another small town to drive through and another empty high school building to pique his interest.
"It's crazy, some of the towns you drive through and the sign says there's a population of 100," Spencer said. "You never would think there was a high school there."
In LaFayette, pop. 231, about 11 miles south of Kewanee, Spencer found a research gold mine. Every yearbook, dating from 1891, when the school opened, until 1970, when it closed, had been saved.
Among the interesting tidbits he found in the yearbooks was that LaFayette's football teams in the early 1920s often played teams from schools two and three times its size. The Panthers were not intimidated - they beat schools from Peoria, Spencer learned.
In his research, also Spencer learned that many of the big names in Illinois sports history got their start at small schools. For example, in 1968, tiny Bardolph High School near Macomb hired Steve Goers to coach its basketball team. The Wildcats went 7-14 that year. Goers later moved on to Rockford Boylan, where he has won 612 games and has advanced to the state tournament on numerous occasions.
For 75 years, Tampico High School was the alma mater for hundreds of students. In 1996, it merged with Prophetstown. The building, which houses the middle school now, remains in fairly good shape, unlike many de-activated high schools.
Another vestige from the old days is the scoreboard at the former football field. It's old, battered, with paint chipping off. At the top, it says, "Home of the Warriors."
That's probably the name of the middle school teams, Cutter said, because Tampico High's teams were the Trojans.
As Cutter walked around the grounds of the former high school, he explained why he got involved in the Web site.
"I love history, especially local history."
The following area schools are listed on the Illinois High School Glory Days Web site:
Albany High School
Ashton High School
Buda High School
Buda Western High School
Chadwick High School
Compton High School
Dixon North High School
Franklin Center High School
Franklin Grove High School
Harmon High School
Hillsdale High School
Kings High School
Lanark High School
Leaf River High School
Lee Center High School
Lyndon High School
Manlius High School
Mineral High School
Monroe Center High School
Mount Morris High School
Nelson High School
Port Byron High School
Savanna High School
Shannon High School
Sheffield High School
Sterling Nazarene High School
Steward High School
Tampico High School
Walnut High School
West Brooklyn High School
Wyanet High School
To relive those high school days, go to www.illinoishsglorydays.com.
Reach David Holsted at 284-2222 , (800) 798-4085, ext. 525 or 625-3600.