Beye School is 130 years old. That makes it – as of Aug. 16, its actual birthday – the oldest school in District 97.
Some though would trace its origins a few years further back still. That would be the early 1870s when parents, then as now, protective of their little ones, objected to the long walk from east Oak Park all the way to Lake and Forest where the school district’s Central School was located. The short term fix was a one-story storefront school at Lake and Ridgeland.
By 1877, more than 30 students attended classes in the storefront location, but the school wasn’t able to accommodate the growing number of students. So Oak Park’s District 1 school board agreed to build a new school. The school system would be renamed Dist. 97 in 1902 when Oak Park broke from Cicero Township and become an independent municipality.
Ridgeland School, also known historically as Ontario Street School, was built in 1879. The two-story, four-room building cost $8,000. It was William Beye, a school board member and wholesale grocer, who pushed for the construction of a newer, modern school. So in 1896, the old Ridgeland building was demolished and replaced with an eight-room building costing more than $26,000. That school was constructed at the current site of Beye School.
The school took the name of its patron on May 14, 1897. That followed the April death of Beye at age 55. Upon his death locals asked the school board to rename the school in his honor. The school became the first in Oak Park to be named for a local person, according to the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest. Later William Hatch School would be named for an Oak Parker and decades later Nathaniel Hawthorne School would be renamed to honor Percy Julian, the noted scientist and village resident.
William Beye had served on the school board for the seven years leading to his death. A wholesale grocer during his time in Oak Park, he lived on Maple Street and was a member of the Oak Park Club, a prominent social club, now a condominium building at Oak Park Avenue and Ontario Street. Beye served as chairman of the school board’s finance committee and also helped to bring the arts and music into the district’s curriculum. On the day he died, the schools in the area were closed in his honor. His obituary noted that Beye was “an honest, earnest, and spirited public servant,” according to the Historical Society.
Born in Germany in 1842, Beye served in the Union Army during the Civil War before receiving an honorable discharge in 1861 when he only 19 years old. After living in Elk Grove Village, he moved to the Oak Park area. Beye and his wife, Nellie, had eight children.