STEELE SCHOOL: A History Lesson...
1901 - 2001"Thar's gold in them thar hills!" In the 1890's, the cries of the miners echoed through Cripple Creek and brought booming prosperity to the entire Pikes Peak region. New houses were built along the dusty, treeless roads at the extreme north end of Colorado Springs, and the families who lived in those houses wanted a school. On July 18, 1896, the School Board purchased several lots (9, 10, 11, and 12 in Block F of the Edwards' Addition) on the northwest corner of Del Norte and Weber streets for $3,200. A 24 X 56 feet frame building which had been used as an annex for Garfield School was moved onto the property. The two-room schoolhouse was called the Del Norte School. During the first year of operation, there were 25 first graders and l8 students in a second and third grade combination class.
Less than five years later, the North End had become the heart of the city's residential area. The small Del Norte School was no longer adequate for the rapidly growing community. Bonds were issued for a new $50,000 brick building, and local architect Thomas MacLaren was hired to design an eight-room school. After hearing the plans for a new school, the Pikes Peak Press Club in conjunction with the local chapter of the International Typographical Union petitioned the Board of Education to name the school in memory of Benjamin Wheeler Steele.
Benjamin Steele was born in Haverhill, Massachusetts on January 25, 185l. His father and brothers fought in the Civil War. As a boy, Steele was determined to have an education and worked as a janitor through grade school. He was an avid student of history, war and politics. He later taught night school while attending Brown University. While in college, he suffered severe respiratory damage in a chemistry class explosion. He graduated in 1876 and moved to Colorado Springs in 1877 in poor health.
Steele began working on the editorial staff of the Weekly Gazette with a salary of $8 per week. On May 1, 1878, he became the first editor of the Daily Gazette and managed the Gazette's large printing contracts. The printing business was one of the city's largest employers and the only manufacturing plant at the time. By 1888, Steele became the principal owner. He was admired by his employees and city and state leaders as a man of singular honesty, diligence, fairness and perseverance. His lungs failing, Steele insisted on supervising the construction of a new building for the newspaper in the summer of 1891. He died suddenly but not unexpectedly on November 3, 1891 at the age of 40.
Ten years after his death, bachelor Benjamin Steele's legacy was established with the opening of The Steele School on January 28, 1901. The two-story, blond brick building was touted as "the most modern and complete school building in Colorado Springs and the equal, if not the superior, of any other building in the west." The Mosely Commission, a group of English educators, praised the building as both practical and artistic and claimed it was one of the best of its kind they had seen in the United States. MacLaren's design was selected by the Colorado Educational Commission as a model grammar school and exhibited at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. Steele School was officially dedicated on February 22, 1901.
General William J. Palmer, founder of Colorado Springs, offered "to beautify the grounds of the Steele School by the gift of a large number of his favorite English trees." The trees were similar in quality and selection to the plantings General Palmer used at his Glen Eyrie home. The school board readily accepted his offer, and the trees were planted in the spring, 1902.
At the end of the 1902 school year, Steele School reported 384 seats with an average daily attendance of 334 students. There were nine teachers, eight classrooms, and 92 books in the library. The school offered classes in first through sixth grades as well as half day seventh grade curriculum.
By 1906, the population in the area had more than doubled. Steele School was using the basement "recitation" areas as classrooms, and some classrooms had more than 50 students. The average daily attendance was 438 pupils in grades one through eight. There were 507 volumes in the school library. On April 10, 1906, a group of community "patrons" petitioned the School Board for four additional classrooms. The estimated cost was between $16,000 and $20,000. The bonds carried on May 8, and Thomas MacLaren was hired to design the back (north) addition on the building that also included a kitchen and "parlor" in the basement.
School enrollments began to decline in Colorado Springs after 1910. However, Steele School maintained its prominence as the largest school in the north of the city. In 1913, there were 501 students enrolled in Steele School, and the average cost per pupil was $34.29. A portable building was added to the school grounds in 1921. The school was "reconstructed" (remodeled) in 1935.
There were no further changes at Steele School until another economic boom rocked the area. Instead of gold mines, it was World War II military installations that brought more people and businesses rushing to the area. Difficult decisions had to be made concerning growth projections and the cost of maintaining older schools. Steele School as seen in 2001 is the result of a three phase building program which was begun in the 1950's: A multipurpose room was designed by Carlisle Guy and added on the west side of the school 1954; four classrooms and a kindergarten room were designed by Nakata & Muir and built 1969 ; and, finally, ten "open concept" classrooms and a resource center were designed by Harry Pierceall and completed in August, 1972. The cost of the new school was $545,000 in 1972.
The 1901 Steele School building was torn down in the summer of 1972. All that now remains of the old structure is the "stone cropping which (formed) the street boundaries of the lawn and (added) materially to the beauty of the building and grounds." That low stone wall was located at the entrance to the old school on Del Norte Street and is now part of a three-tenths acre park which adjoins the school. Beginning in the 1980's, local leaders fought for over ten years to establish the city's first neighborhood-owned park. Students called it the "Penny Park" and collected over $1,400. Neighbors and businesses donated the additional money (nearly $83,000), equipment and manpower needed to build the grassy addition to the school grounds. The park was dedicated in November, 1997.
Steele School has enjoyed a one hundred-year history of academic excellence and neighborhood support. Del Norte and Weber streets are no longer dusty country roads. General Palmer's plantings are now towering trees which surround the school in the heart of the city. At the turn of the New Millennium, there were 303 students enrolled in Steele School. Several students boasted that their parents and grandparents had also attended the school. Benjamin Steele would be proud of his living legacy.
This article was submitted September 5, 2000 by Carolyn Johnson. We would like to thank her for her work.