FRANKLIN — For decades, a building stood in the corner of the park in this community of 1,000 people.
To many it was just a building in the park. At one time, the park caretakers lived there. At other times, it stood vacant. But in its early days this two-story white building with the inviting front porch was the home of music for many students from south central Nebraska.
The Dupee Music Hall was built in 1902 as the home of the music department for Franklin Academy, a college preparatory school operated by the Republican Valley Association of Congregational Churches.
Twenty years later, the school closed as times changed, and the building took on different roles in the community.
A school on the plains
By the late 1800s, families had moved to south central Nebraska where they were beginning to set up communities, establish churches and create ways to educate their children.
It was a group of four Christian-minded settlers of Franklin County who through prayer came up with the idea of starting a school through the Congregational Church.
On Feb. 9, 1881, representatives of the Congregational churches in southwestern Nebraska approved the plans to formally establish the Franklin Academy.
The Franklin Academy was called “the mother” of the Congregational academies west of the Missouri River. It was the first to be established, located the farthest west of any other institution, and the last to close.
The Rev. C.S. Harrison, who came to Nebraska from Illinois to help establish the school, believed Franklin was a great place for a school as there were no saloons, but plenty of families wanting to educate their children.
Franklin Academy and other Congregational schools in Nebraska were established in the state’s early settlement days as college preparatory schools. That’s because there were few, if any, high schools that offered a college preparatory curriculum in the state.
Until the Franklin Academy and Gates Academy in Neligh opened, Doane College had to send many of its freshmen into its college preparatory school before they could start college courses.
Franklin Academy offered the regular high school curriculum along with courses in music, business, medicine, journalism, engineering and farming. The school also offered athletics including team sports in football and basketball along with track and field. Military tactics classes were included.
In addition to the academic program, students were encouraged to attend regular chapel visits and Bible study.
In the early days of the school, Franklin Academy admitted students from lower grades but later moved to a strict focus on college preparatory classes.
When the one-building school opened in 1881 on 15 acres of barren land, there were 70 students enrolled. Franklin had just seven houses at the time.
Five years later, Harrison returned to Franklin from Illinois to serve as the Congregational Church pastor and was shocked to see that the campus still consisted of only one building amid barren landscape. That’s when he started a fundraising campaign to change that.
A three-story girls dormitory was built, followed by a smaller boys dormitory that burned in 1901. The Dupee Music Hall was built in 1902 along with an addition to the original academy building.
The goal of Franklin Academy was to keep tuition low in an effort to allow Christian education for anyone who wanted it. As such, the academy was reliant on donations that became more difficult to obtain.
The school closed in June 1922, following the way of other Congregational schools, due to a lack of funds and a reduction in the number of students as more public schools began to provide college prep programs.
In total, the school enrolled more than 2,500 students in 40 years. Many of those graduates entered the ministry or foreign missionary work. There were also many college and university teachers who graduated from Franklin Academy.
Distinguished alumni include author Adah Patterson, U.S. District Judge Robert Van Pelt, and Dr. Frank Cyr of Columbia University, under whose leadership the standard yellow school bus was developed.
A lone building remained
The last mention of a reunion of students who attended the Franklin Academy appeared in the Hastings Tribune in 1945. Several of the campus’ buildings met their end when they were demolished in the 1950s.
By 1985, when the Franklin County Historical Society applied to designate Dupee Music Hall for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, it was the last building of any of the Congregational schools in Nebraska.
The rectangular two-story frame structure sat on a raised limestone foundation that allowed light to shine brightly into the lower level. Simple classical hoods topped the window and door openings of the white building.
Originally, the building’s main floor had three lesson rooms that could be opened up to make one large recital space. There were also two practice rooms and an office at the foot of an open staircase.
The city took ownership of the building in 1922, and for several years it was used for meetings and church functions. Then, at some point in the 1940s or 1950s, the park’s caretakers took up residence in the building, converting two rooms into a kitchen and bathroom. The staircase also was enclosed to save energy.
When the historical society applied for the building to be put on the National Register in 1985, it had planned to move the Franklin County Museum into that space.
Within the past few months, the building has been moved from his former location at the park and taken outside of town where it is being remodeled to serve as a private residence.