By: Kay Fanshaw
The founder and principal of Hillcrest School in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, held a dream since she was a young girl. Sarah Margaret Davison was a reader of Louisa M. Alcott’s novels. She read “Jo’s Boys,” a book about a boarding school for boys. Aunt Jo was a teacher at the school and mother to the young boys. Sarah’s dream was to open such a school herself one day, but for young girls. Sarah carried that dream throughout her young life. She was forecasted in her high school class prophecy as being the head of a boarding school for girls.
Sarah was the daughter of James Sr. and Sarah Weimer Davison, who settled in Chester Township, Dodge County, Wisconsin in 1868. When Sarah left her farm home in Dodge County to attend the University of Wisconsin, her childhood dream continued with her. She graduated in 1903 and then spent a year at Colorado College. She spent time traveling with her brother, Brigadier General P.M. Davison.
Sarah returned to Beaver Dam, where she owned a small house that was located on the corner of North University and Park Avenue. Her childhood dream was still constant; she borrowed money from an uncle and turned her tiny home into a boarding school in 1910. The first year began with only one student, a nine year old. Two weeks later, another girl enrolled. As more students began to enroll during the year, space became a problem. Sarah used her ingenuity and acquired a dozen folding desks. When school hours were over, the desks were folded up and stacked in a closet, leaving the rooms free for living. Aunt Sadie, as she became known to her students, also roomed and boarded two public school teachers and gave dancing lessons to help finance that first year.
The second year saw an increase in enrollment, so Sarah rented the J.J. Williams home, which was just west of Dr. Swan’s residence. The school’s needs grew, and in 1915 Sarah purchased the George W. Chandler/Lamoreux home, which required needed remodeling that entailed some expense. Accomplished by the aid of loans and careful planning, this included the attic of the building being modified to create a third floor dormitory. The finished building was called Hillcrest Hall. In 1925 the property south of Hillcrest Hall on the corner of Washington Street and Lincoln Avenue was purchased. It housed classrooms and music rooms and was called Woodbine Cottage. Finally, in 1926, Davison purchased property from Rudolph Klatt directly east of Hillcrest Hall; the former George B. Gongdon home became Senior Hall and was connected to Hillcrest Hall by an underground passageway.
Hillcrest school for girls age 6-14 became an accredited school that enrolled as many as 50 girls. Most of the students were from the Midwest, a lot from the Chicago area. Hillcrest academic standards were high. Many of its graduates attained Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude honors in universities and colleges. In 1917, the regular fee for the school year was $475.
This included room, board, tuition, vocal music, drawing, physical training, art crafts, sewing, and instruction in courses that prepared them for high school or an academy. The girls were grouped in pleasant rooms according to age, grade and choice. Each week, though Hillcrest was non-sectarian, Vesper services were held.
The playground and tennis courts provided outdoor activities. In the winter Sarah had the courts flooded for skating. The school had costume plays and celebrated traditional holidays. A large decorated tree presided over Christmas activities. Birthdays were celebrated and if a girl’s birthday did not fall during the school year, she had a “pretend birthday party.” Sarah’s school was like a home and that’s the way she dreamed it would be.
Besides Hillcrest, Sarah helped run the Holstein dairy farm of her parents, which also housed over 100 pigs. Sarah belonged to the American Legion Auxiliary, the Beaver Dam Women’s Club, the American Association of University Women, the order of the Eastern Star, and she was listed in “Who’s Who in America.”
Hillcrest was Sarah’s great success, as she realized her dream. Another hope was to build Hillcrest on a farm in the country one day and, as Hillcrest’s founder, to establish an endowment fund so that the school would endure after her death. Sarah died in December of 1944 without realizing her last two dreams. After her death, Ethel Ring, a former teacher at Hillcrest, managed the school until a replacement could be found. Sarah’s younger brother A.K. Davison hired teacher and administrator Amanda Naumann to assume the duties of principal. Sarah Riggs became principal in 1946, and due to increasing financial difficulties, the school closed with the last graduation on June 6, l947. Hillcrest Hall was purchased by Norman and Dorothy Hoyt and operated as a rooming house until 1965. It was then sold to Nick Stromberger, who later sold the property to First State Savings of Wisconsin. The structure was razed in the 1970’s to make way for the new bank. Woodbine Cottage was purchased by Byron Spangler and converted into a home with apartments, and the Jessie Canniff family purchased Senior Hall for their home. Several years ago a time capsule was recovered from the former Hillcrest property and its contents are on display at the museum along with other pictures and artifacts.
The Dodge County Historical Society is located at 105 Park Avenue in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. It is open to the public from 1-4, Wednesday through Saturday. Admission is free.