This time of year is always exciting here in Bristol. Every year the town puts its best foot forward as people young and old come out, or in many cases return, home for the Bristol Homecoming. The town is filled with people and a number of fun activities like a parade, a carnival and even a homecoming queen pageant.
Here at the Elkhart County Historical Museum, we take part by hosting our own events. This year, there will be a book signing by Bristol’s resident reporter Rosemary McDaniel, who wrote Murder at the Museum based loosely on the museum. We’re also offering a guided tour of the museum – not to talk about our historical exhibits, but the days when the building itself was used as the Bristol School. A guide will lead visitors throughout the museum to look at what remains from days when children walked the halls.
To commemorate the Bristol Homecoming and our tour, I wanted to tell the story of the Bristol School, one of the town’s iconic buildings.
Entering into the 20th century, the town of Bristol faced a dilemma. The wooden building that was used as a school was declared too unsafe to meet the educational demands of the town. Leaders of Washington Township decided it would be advantageous to not just replace the school building for the town of Bristol, but to build a large building and consolidate all schools throughout the township.
This idea had both support and opposition. People in favor believed if students who lived in a larger cities benefitted from a new building and better instruction, why not those who students who lived in the country? Detractors to the plan believed a consolidated school building would depreciate the value of farm property; cause parents to lose out on farm labor their children provided; make transportation to school a hardship for those who lived further away; and spread disease more widely.
With all these things taken into consideration, trustees decided the advantages outweighed the negatives, and the construction of a new school began in the summer of 1903.
The building was completed at a cost of $16,000, and the eight-room building was ready for students on New Year’s Day 1904. The building was the first consolidated school in Elkhart County, and replaced eight one-room schoolhouses in Washington Township. As the school opened, many people who spoke out against it saw their fears slowly fade away: No diseases were spread and land value doubled in the area, while maintaining the values of rural life. The school initially served grades one through eight for four years. In 1907 a high school was commissioned, and the first class graduated in 1908 with a total of six students. The school began to increase its enrollment with the passage of time. For example, when the first class graduated in 1908 there were 30 students; by 1918, the school held 80 students.
With the increased enrollment, improvements to the school were needed. The first improvement took place in 1917, when electric lights were installed. An addition was put on the west side of the building in 1923 that included three rooms and very-much-welcomed indoor restrooms. Shortly afterward, 1925 brought the construction of a gymnasium that had a 750 person capacity for athletic and dramatic events. A kitchen and cafeteria were also part of the 1925 addition. These additions allowed enrollment to keep growing. In 1930 the school housed 320 students: 180 in grades one through six, and 140 in grades six through 12. The last addition to the building was made in 1949, when more rooms were added to its west side, and a power plant was built behind it.
Even with all of its additions, the school was still busting at its seems as the number of students enrolled increased. In response to this, the community opened a new elementary school in 1957 that had 12 classrooms and a large, all-purpose room that was used as a cafeteria, gym and theater. The elementary school held first through sixth grades, leaving the Bristol School for middle and high school students. The school continued to be used, and small improvements were made from year to year – most notably in 1963, when the outside of the building was sand-blasted and painted, and florescent lights were installed. Water fountains were added in 1965.
In the mid-1960s, the building, while still serving a large number of students, was beginning to show its age and was too small, despite the additions. During this time people voted for the Elkhart school district to be expanded to residents in Cleveland, Washington and Osolo townships. The merger reorganized the districts, putting Bristol High School on track to be closed. The Elkhart School Board justified the closing by there was a lack of space at the school to develop modern vocational, athletic and counseling programs. The vote to officially close Bristol High School took place on July 8,1966. The students would attend the newly built Elkhart Central High School.
The school was empty until 1968, when the building was purchased by Howard Rush. He gave the building to the Elkhart County Parks and Recreation Department so that it could be used in partnership with the Elkhart County Historical Society to operate a museum. Now, the Elkhart County Historical Museum has been in the building for 46 years.