Flashback Friday: Be True to Your School

A postcard view of Hancock Central High School.

Comfortably nestled in the shadow of the Quincy Mine–Old Reliable–Hancock became one of the Upper Peninsula’s preeminent towns and the Copper Country’s first city. Along its hillside and its two main thoroughfares, the commercial and artistic amenities of a large settlement sprang up: shops, taverns, performance halls. Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, and Episcopal churches, as well as a synagogue, arrived in the decades that followed Hancock’s creation to tend to its residents’ souls. And, as children came to Hancock, schools emerged to nurture their minds.

Records of the earliest educational facilities in Hancock went up in smoke during the great fire of 1869. According to a history prepared by Hancock Public Schools a century later, “some kind of school must have existed similar to typical ones of the period–one room structure furnished with hard-wood benches and heated with the usual round shaped wood stove.” As the town expanded, it constructed a larger, two-story facility to house all its young pupils near the corner of today’s East Franklin and Tezcuco streets.

Wood-framed school building
The Franklin Street school after it ceased to serve students, undated. Image from John Haeussler’s “Hancock” in the “Images of America” series.

Only six years after the fire, which the school incredibly survived, the student body had outgrown the wooden structure, and a new brick building rose on Quincy Street to take its place. Quincy continued booming; Hancock continued expanding. By 1893, it was clear that even the larger structure could no longer provide enough space for all the city’s schoolchildren. A facility called the Central Primary, for the younger learners, was built adjacent to the Quincy Street school, which transitioned to serving high school and junior high students. It was expanded in 1900 to feature a handsome sandstone facade, popular among Copper Country architecture of the time. The elegant cupola that had crowned the building since its inception remained.

View of high school building in snow
The 1875 Quincy Street high school before its renovation.

Hancock Central High School thrived, and it attracted top teaching talent from around the Midwest. The 1912 Han-Cen-Hi, the school yearbook, enumerated graduates of the University of Michigan, Michigan State Normal, the University of Chicago, and Olivet College among the faculty. Together, they presented a curriculum designed to prepare students for office occupations, hands-on vocations, or post-secondary degrees. Beginning in the seventh grade, according to the 1928-1929 school handbook, pupils could select a literary or engineering course of study, both of which were designated as college prep; the commercial and English programs offered an education geared toward entering the workforce immediately. The course catalog was remarkably expansive. Students in all courses studied the “three Rs”–reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic–along with history, civics, domestic science or manual training, general science, chemistry, physical education, and geography during their years at the high school. Electives like botany, solid geometry, and physiology were open across the curricula. Other classes helped students to customize and specialize in their courses of study: bookkeeping, commercial law, typewriting, or stenography for vocationally-oriented students, Latin, French, trigonometry, and mechanical drawing for those seeking college.

In the 1920s, classes began at quarter to nine in the morning and continued until four in the afternoon, with a lunch break of a little over an hour. The handbook strictly charged students to “avoid unnecessary noise in the halls” and “never march more than two abreast” when moving between class periods. “There should be no running, shouting, snatching of things from others, or banging of lockers… boys, hats off on entering the building!” High school students have not changed much over a hundred years.

High school life then, as now, involved developing a strong sense of class community. Students elected officers for their peer group, selected class colors and a flower, and named a motto. “Out of School Life, into Life’s School” was the choice of 1946; the 1912 graduates favored, “He Who Conquers Endures.” They kept busy, as well, with an ample program of arts, sports, social groups, and other activities. In 1928, clubs included the Iagoo Literary Society, “a girls’ club formed for the purpose of promoting literary and social interest among the girls of the Hancock High School,” the Senatus Club (which had “as its purpose the promotion of an interest in ancient Mythology”), the Hi-Y Club emphasizing “the practice of… Clean Athletics, Clean Living, Clean Scholarship, and Clean Speech” for boys, a booster club, male and female glee clubs, and an orchestra. By 1912, the tradition of the senior class presenting a play had been established; the junior class had assumed the same responsibility by 1945. Girls in the ‘40s presented style shows for Mother’s Day, and a Christmas program featured the talents of Hancock’s public speakers. Track, basketball, football, hockey, tumbling, and baseball called to the athletes over the years. Naturally, Houghton’s high school became Hancock’s fiercest rival. The boosters wrote school yells and songs for eager fans, shamelessly borrowing the tunes used by Michigan and Wisconsin for their university athletics. Later, Hancock’s teams became known as the Bulldogs.

View of high school building with broad lawn
The replacement Hancock Central High School, circa 1923, with the Central Primary School at left.

Hancock Central High had its triumphs and its tragedies. On July 25, 1922, the remodeled sandstone school caught fire. So intense was the blaze that the Methodist church next door also suffered minor damage. The valiant efforts of three bystanders who rushed into the building preserved some of the school’s records, but the building itself was a total loss. For the next school year, students attended classes in a cramped space they dubbed “the tub-factory.” They had each other, however, and they determined to keep up with their vibrant school activities and social life; this more than made up for the inelegant surroundings. Their replacement high school, constructed at a cost of $375,000 in 1923, arose behind the ruins. Featuring “a large auditorium with a stage, a large gymnasium, offices, classrooms, and an excellent library,” the building served Hancock’s students faithfully for over seven decades. Students delighted in the high school’s broad front lawn as a place to relax or take in a beautiful view of Hancock and Houghton, especially after the Central Primary School was razed in the early 1960s.

In 1999, high school students moved out of downtown Hancock for the first time. A new building opened atop Quincy Hill, tucked back from the highway and the mine that gave the hill its name. The 1923 building housed students in grades 6-8 for another decade before a middle school wing adjoining the new high school was completed. Finlandia University subsequently acquired the Quincy Street property.

By 1968, Hancock Central High School had graduated almost 5,000 students, sending them out to enrich communities, homes, and workplaces; the ranks of Bulldogs have only grown since then. They worked for the mines, as physicians and nurses, in business and in keeping house, in engineering, in countless fields new and old. Their lives testified in part to the thoughtfulness and success of their alma mater in preparing its young people to be good citizens and faithful neighbors. They are indeed, as one school chant said, “the mighty, mighty Bulldogs.”

2 Comments on "Flashback Friday: Be True to Your School"

  • Finn,American,Yooper and proud!!
    April 2, 2021 at 12:49 pm

    Wow a nice tribute to a wonderful school !! I married a “Bulldog” and she is just as proud of the school now nigh on 47 years later as she was then . It is amazing how we love our schools more as we age.

  • MarKay (Gasperich) Riippa
    April 11, 2021 at 6:41 pm

    What a great recollection of Hancock Central High for me. I still enjoy looking at that building when I come north to visit my family. It brings back great memories for me. Yes, there was a deep sense of community and I took pride in being a “Bulldog, a mighty, mighty Bulldog”. Our culture was shaped by dedicated educators such as Mr. Barkell and Mr. Rousseau who expected nothing less than our very best. I can still hear the band practicing in the lower level, the choir rehearsing in the auditorium, the crowd cheering on the basketball team in our gym, the bells ringing to signal the end of a class, lockers banging shut, and the library where you could hear a pin drop lest you be scolded for making noise. The lawn holds special memories, too, where the marching band would rehearse for the half time show for our home football games, or we’d play girls’ soccer, or take a wild toboggan down in the winter all the way to the wall that kept us from landing on the road. My mother was a graduate of this school, too, and I recall her speaking so highly of her high school days and her recollections of Miss Sylvia Eskola.
    Thank you for this touching tribute to one of the best high schools. I hope many of my classmates share these fond memories of our community and time together.