On a recent drive to Spoon River country Little Nick and I, accompanied by Stephen Beatty found ourselves in the village of Maquon. We had gone down to photograph some old schools in the area as well as another stop in nearby London Mills. We stopped to have lunch at a small restaurant in town, the Feed Store, a building which had been repurposed many times before becoming a restaurant, a historical story all to its own! While eating we talked with the customers about other places we might check out and a fellow by the name of Jeff Jefferson approached us.
He mentioned he had heard us talking and wondered if we would be interested in a private tour of the abandoned Gilson high school. Well, the answer to a history nut such as myself was obviously a resounding Yes! So after lunch we drove over to Gilson for our tour. Gilson is a small unincorporated village of about 250 people and so I was surprised to find out the Gilson school was easily the largest building in town. It sits imposing on a lot of its own and has quite a history.
The Gilson school, also known as the Haw Creek Township high school was built in 1903 and graduated their first class of five students in 1905. In 1928 the school was modified in a big way when a gymnasium was added onto the building, On the second floor! (I can just imagine what class was like downstairs during basketball practice.) For being such a small town Gilson school was very forward thinking. Theirs was the first to use buses in Knox County to bring children to and from school. They took their students on field trips and introduced them to innovative, fresh idea's to broaden their minds.
But as is the fate of many smaller schools, Gilson fell victim to the Consolidation surge of the late 1940's and the high school closed in 1948. Grade school classes were held their until 1977 and after that the doors were shuttered for good. The building has sat empty ever since with only the Boy Scouts using it as a haunted house every year but even that stopped in 2015. Now it awaits its fate as time marches on and the structure deteriorates. Inside there's obvious water damage , and it could use a couple fresh coats of paint. A new roof alone would cost over $80,000 dollars and for a town the size of Gilson it's hard to make that happen.
The day we visited Mr. Jefferson took Nick and Stephen inside and showed them the class rooms, the old gym (Which is still in remarkably good shape) and even let Little Nick ring the old bell. It is their hopes to attract outside help to renovate and restore the school to its former glory. Personally with its proximity to the Spoon River valley I think this is an excellent candidate for a living history museum or perhaps a very unique bed and breakfast inn with its original period fixtures and pressed tin ceilings.
So if you ever find yourself down that way and spot the turn off for Gilson consider driving over and snapping a few photo's of the school. And if you close your eyes and listen you just might hear the creaking of the swing set or the tolling of the bell. My thanks to Stephen Beatty and Little Nick for going inside
and tackling the stairs I couldn't do.