To those of us who grew up in Fort Worth during the era of Reddy Kilowatt, Pete the python, Goatman, Icky Twerp and Harold Taft, the flood of forty-nine, Leonard’s Department Store, and the M&O Subway, the city’s school system has grown into some staggering numbers in the twenty-first century: eighty-six thousand students distributed over eighty-three elementary schools, twenty-nine middle schools and sixth-grade centers, eighteen high schools, and sixteen other campuses.
Those are big numbers for a city that did not build a school until its tenth year of incorporation in the late nineteenth century. The city incorporated in 1873 and four years later had grown in population enough to need wards (districts) to give voters localized representation in city politics. On February 6, 1877 the city council created three wards, which divvied up the city geographically. Thereafter voters in each ward elected an alderman to represent them on the city council. In 1883 the city (which covered essentially the area of today’s downtown) created the Fourth Ward out of the Third Ward. The intersection of Main and 9th streets formed the axis of four quadrants. The northeast quadrant was the First Ward, northwest was the Second, southeast was the Third (and included Hell’s Half Acre), and southwest was the Fourth Ward.
The wards would also divvy up the city for public schools. John Peter Smith had opened the first private school after he arrived in 1853. Other private schools came and went. Although Fort Worth voters in 1877 had approved free (tax-supported) public schools, legal challenges from opponents delayed formation of the school system until 1880.
In 1882 civic leaders had a city census taken to determine if Fort Worth had enough people to qualify to create a school system; 10,000 was the minimum to qualify. B. B Paddock supervised the census. Smith and K. M. Van Zandt funded the wages of the enumerators. Fort Worth’s population was found to be 11,136. So, that year a special election was held, supervised largely by Dr. Carroll Peak. Fort Worth voters approved a tax of .5 percent to finance the public school system. Professor Alexander Hogg was elected first school superintendent. Among the first trustees were J. J. Jarvis and John Hanna.
(The school system was an arm of the city government and would not become independent of the city until 1925.)
On October 1, 1882 Fort Worth’s public schools opened with seventeen teachers and about 650 students. Classes were held in rented buildings. But in 1883 the first three schoolhouses were built—one each in the First, Second, and Third wards. That year a total of twenty-one teachers taught eight hundred students. The Fourth Ward School opened for the 1884 school year.
In the beginning each ward had one school, referred to as the “First Ward School,” the “Second Ward School,” etc. Ward schools taught grades one through six and sometimes seventh and eighth. Schools had six to nine rooms, a seating capacity of 250 to 450, and were heated by stoves.
In those “dear old Golden Rule days” students went to school to the tune of the whistles of the waterworks and the T&P roundhouse. By 1886 boys graduated to high school for eighth grade, girls for ninth grade. High school classes (through only the eleventh grade) had begun with a school for boys in 1884 and a school for girls in 1885.
The Central High School (for boys) was on Burnet Street between 5th and 6th streets in the Second Ward. The girls’ high school was at “west end 4th street,” also in the Second Ward (assistant principal: Miss Lily B. Clayton).
In 1888 the city bought the First Baptist Church building at Jennings and West 10th streets after the church moved to its new building. The former church building became the girls high school.
But in 1891 Fort Worth went co-ed as its co-educational high school opened at Jennings and Daggett streets in the Sixth Ward (near South Side).
By 1886 the city had six wards with seven ward schools. The boys’ high school had one teacher and twenty-one students; the girls’ high school had two teachers and forty-two students. By 1888, the city directory boasted, all of the ward schools were enclosed by “neat and substantial picket fences.”
By 1899 the city’s population had reached forty-three thousand; public school enrollment was about 3,700. There were now nine wards and ward schools, as listed in the 1899 city directory. Note that each school had two designations. For example, the First Ward School was also called “School No. 1.” (Fire stations would also be numbered according to their ward. For example, fire station 10 on Lipscomb Street was in the Tenth Ward.)
In 1904 ward schools took on a third designation: To encourage students to study history, the school district allowed students to vote to name their school in honor of a person in Texas history. Thus, for example, the Fourth Ward School/School No. 4, located on Texas Street in southwest downtown, became known also as the “Houston School.” To further complicate the nomenclature, a school was sometimes known also by the street it was on.
Thus, the school on Texas Street was the Fourth Ward School, School No. 4, Sam Houston School, and Texas Street School. (The central fire station is located there today.) (1920 Rogers map detail from Pete Charlton’s “1000+ Lost Antique Maps of Texas & the Southwest on DVD-ROM.”)
This contemporary map shows where the nine ward schools were in 1899, all south of the Trinity River.
Fort Worth schools have always been in flux: Schools have changed locations or buildings or names; school buildings have changed names or grades; school buildings have burned down, been torn down, been expanded, and new ones built. Some old buildings have been engulfed by new buildings. And by 1922 wards would double in number from 1899 to eighteen. But this four-part series is a snapshot of the dear old Golden Rule days of the schools of Fort Worth’s first nine wards.
Parts 2-4 look at the early schools of each ward: