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Around The Grange
The Way We Were: Country schools were gathering places

By Greg Olson, Journal Courier, Jacksonville, Illinois (1/16/12)

  JANUARY 23, 2012 --

Ceres, Illinois is so small it doesn’t appear on some Illinois maps. However, the community, especially its school, was once a big part of life in northeastern Greene County.

Ceres is located about a mile south of the Morgan-Greene County line on Illinois 267, formerly U.S. 67.

The town, if it can be called that, was founded in the 1890s and was given its name by Mrs. James Sink, who lived in the area, in honor of the Roman goddess of agriculture.

The National Grange, a large agricultural organization, played a part in putting Ceres on the map. The Grange helped build a store at Ceres “so that the isolated farm families wouldn’t have to travel so far to shop for staples,” wrote former Journal-Courier farm editor Bill Kilby, in a 1978 story.

Ceres never was a large community, but it did have a post office in its early days, as well as a general store, a blacksmith shop, a barber shop and a school.

Pauline Kennedy Peak of rural Roodhouse recalled that the general store was a two-story, wood-frame building with an outside stairway. “They used to have an occasional revival meeting in the large room upstairs,” she said.

The late Ida Harper Simmons, who grew up near Ceres, did not remember the post office, nor any mail delivery to her family’s home. “People living within a mile or two of Ceres picked up their mail from a row of mailboxes in front of the Ceres store,” Simmons said in a 2006 interview.

 “I think my sister, Della, and I picked up the mail there during the school year, which was from early September to the first of April,”  Simmons said. “In the summer, our father rode his horse, ‘Old Deck,’ to the mailbox. No doubt, he hung around the store to visit with neighbors. The store was a gathering place.” 

The Bracewell family donated land for a church at Ceres, which was never built, and for a cemetery. Families in the Ceres neighborhood usually attended one of three nearby churches in the 1920s and ’30s, Simmons said.

The three churches were Union Grove Baptist, also known as “Possum Trot,” which was northeast of Ceres; Zion Methodist, which was called “Greasy,” north of the village; and Richwoods Baptist, located a few miles southwest.

The Simmons family attended Zion church, but Simmons said several neighbors went as far as Murrayville to attend church. “There were a number of Irish Catholics who lived in our neighborhood, including Langdons, Lonergans and McGraths,” she recalled. “We didn’t differentiate between religions. Our Catholic neighbors attended special functions, such as Children’s Day, at Zion church, and their Protestant friends sometimes went to Mass on Christmas Day in Murrayville.”

As in most small communities, the school at Ceres was one of the town’s most important features. “My education began at an early age, because I constantly begged to go with my older sister (Della) to visit school,” recalled Simmons, who wrote a book about her memories of Ceres School. “I soon had the primer memorized, and my parents succumbed to my pleas to start to school just four months after my fifth birthday.”

Simmons said that on her first day of school, she and her sister wore new gingham dresses and carried tin dinner buckets, wooden pencil boxes and new writing tablets.

“Sometimes there was a pretty picture on the tablet cover, but more often we had ‘Big Chief’ tablets with a picture of an Indian in full dress on the front,” she said.

The Ceres School was a typical one-room schoolhouse, but it offered a “world beyond our farm home” for Simmons and her sister.

“As we entered the main room, there was the universal classroom odor — a mixture of chalk, sweeping compound, heat from the furnace, and ink in the inkwells,” recalled Simmons. “Pictures of poets hung on the painted classroom wall, with the New England poets grouped in a single frame. We probably learned in our eight years at Ceres School more literature than today’s high school students.”

Classroom studies and work also included penmanship, geography, physiology and orthography, which is the study of the history and derivation of words. “I regret that (orthography) has become obsolete,” Simmons said. “Many students found it extremely interesting; a fact that should dispel the misconception that rural schools taught only rote learning.”

The Ceres School closed in 1954. The school property was then returned to William Gilmore, a grandson of the original owner. The schoolhouse, which is today a home, was used for a time as a community center and for a few school reunions.

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