Picture, if you will, North Bridge Street as a treacherous, steep gully leading down to the Grand River in an area of nearly impenetrable hardwood forest. Angling off in the direction of East Front Street was a footpath to a clearing and there stood the first school in Grand Ledge, known as the Red School. On the block where Greenwood School is today, this first wooden school building, with its one room and six benches was completed in May, 1851. Earlier that year five families had banded together to provide a school for their nine children and the first teacher was Mary Ann Sanders. The first week of school was actually conducted in the Abram Smith home which still stands at 801 West Jefferson Street.
Until 1853 when the first bridge was built, the southside children were ferried to school across the river when the water was high. In low-water periods they walked on top of the dam located upstream from the present bridge. In the winter they could cross on the ice. The village grew rapidly and in 1862 a second building, called The Stone School, was constructed next to the Red School and held as many as 200 pupils in its two rooms. A southside school was desired and a third school, the White School was built in 1870 on the block where Sawdon School now stands.
Tension between the north and south sides of the river in the 1870’s over where to build a high school, caused the school district to split, each side of the river forming their own district. During this period private high schools operated here. Best remembered is one conducted by a Miss Wheelock in a building in the 400 block of South Bridge Street. In the 1880’s more space for students was needed, and the southside district acquired Miss Wheelock’s school and the abandoned Presbyterian Chapel in the 200 block of West Scott Street to house its students.
In 1887 both districts built substantial brick buildings to house the students. The northside hired local builder George Brown to build the Northside School, later known as Greenwood School, next to the Stone School. The south district hired architect Claire Allen of Ionia to build Union School next to the White School. Both schools were built in a Romanesque Rival style.
Not wanting to maintain two high schools, and looking for accreditation, in 1907 the school districts consolidated again to form one district. At that time there were 115 in the high school at Union School. The offerings in the high school early in this century were limited. The curriculum consisted of English, History, Mathematics, Languages and Science, taught sometimes without laboratories. However, vocational classes came early. In 1904 Jonas Sawdon, then a science teacher at the high school, offered a course in bookkeeping and later a “typewriting” class that proved popular. Mr. Sawdon became principal of the high school in 1907 and in 1910 he was named superintendent, a position he was to hold until 1946. Under Mr. Sawdon’s supervision agriculture and domestic science were added to the curriculum about 1923, and manual arts came soon after.
In 1912 substantial additions were made to both schools, yet enrollments soared as many rural districts sent students to Grand Ledge for high school education. In 1929 a new high school (now Sawdon School) was built for of $200,000. It had an enrollment of 301 students and was built next to Union School.
After WWII, the district began acquiring land for future expansion. They purchased the 80 acre Kent Farm on Jenne Street. The Kent house on the corner of Jenne and Lovell Streets was used as the Kent Kindergarten for several years. 12 acres off Jones street was also purchased as well as a large parcel across Jenne Street, now called Marsh Field. An 80-acre farm was also purchased on Willow Highway in Delta Township.
By the 1950’s the Grand Ledge Schools served not only the local students but was affiliated with 39 rural districts. Twenty-nine core districts that sent all students to Grand Ledge, and ten fringe districts that sent part of their students. A 1954 study by the Michigan Agricultural Collage (now Michigan State University) recommended consolidation into one regional district. Superintendent Kenneth T. Beagle, who replaced the retiring Jonas Sawdon in 1946, oversaw this expansion of the district and closing of the country school buildings.
The district wanted to keep younger children as close to their homes as possible. A new Greenwood School was built in 1950 next to the older school. In 1953 West Elementary was built on Jones Street. This was later renamed for T. Carl Holbrook, a long-time school board president. In 1954 Clarence W. Neff School was built on Jenne Street on the Kent farm and named in honor of the benefactor who gave $160,000 to the schools. The Mulliken district came into the school district in 1956 with their school which had been built in 1951. In 1958 the Delta Mills School was built. In 1959 Delta Center School was completed; old Greenwood School was torn down and additions were added to the new Greedwood and to several other schools.
A new high school was also needed. When it came to finding a location for the school, it was first proposed to build the school across from Neff School on Jenne Street in Marsh Field. But it was determined that the property was too small to house both the building and the activity fields. So the new high school was built on the Kent farm at the corner of Spring and Kent Streets. When the district determined not to build on Marsh Field, a parcel was sold to St. Michael’s Church for construction of a new church and school. The new Grand Ledge High School was dedicated in 1959. Cost of the new high school was a million and a half dollars. The old high school was renamed in honor of Jonas Sawdon as the Sawdon Junior High School.
In 1964 old Union School was torn down and more classrooms and additions were added to many of the other schools. In 1967 the Hayes School was built on the Willow Highway property. Nixon Road was extended from the corner of Saginaw Road through to Willow Highway at this time. The Hayes School housed both a middle school and an elementary school and was named in honor of Leon Hayes, a school board member for many years.
In 1975 two new schools, a new Wacousta Elementary and the Beagle Middle School, were completed. Wacousta is unique in design in the district. It features a no walls concept. Class rooms are not determined by interior walls, but by movable partitions and furniture, to allow classroom configurations to be changed as needed. Beagle School was built on the Kent farm at the end of South Street near the wooded area of Sandstone Creek called the Heart. It was named in honor of Kenneth Beagle who had recently retired as Superintendent. With the addition of a new middle school, Sawdon Junior High was changed in 1976 to house only the 9th grade students.
Financial troubles and declining enrollments saw the closing of Muliken and Delta Mills Schools in 1982. Also in that year the old Armory Building on Jenne Street was purchased from the State. In the early 1990’s this was converted to house the Administration Offices that were previously in Neff School, freeing up additional room for students. In the mid 1990’s as enrollments grew, a major addition was added to the high school. To make room, the bus barn was moved to Hayes School. Sawdon School was no longer needed to house the 9th grade and was converted to Adult Education and the Administration Offices were moved there. In 1996 Willo Ridge Elementary School was built near Hayes School. This replaced Hayes Elementary and allowed for the expansion of the middle school into the former elementary classrooms. With the district expecting increased growth, planning is currently underway to deal with both the lean economy and the continued need for more classrooms.