In 1888, when the Northwestern Military Academy opened in Highland Park, locals thought a boys' military academy would cause problems in town. Just the previous year, the U.S. Army post Fort Sheridan had opened on the town's doorstep with fears of drunken brawls (which never were a problem).
The animosity for the academy was reflected in the children's taunts as they called the new cadets "Dead Cats."
The first Northwestern Military Academy building (above) was built as the Highland Park House hotel in 1873 at St. Johns Avenue and Ravine Drive. In 1876, it began to be used as an educational institution for young women during the summer and was known as Highland Hall. Harlan P. Davidson purchased the building in May 1888 for his military academy.
When the academy was destroyed by fire only a few months after opening, on November 1, 1888, the people of Highland Park set aside any misgivings and made meals for the cadets and opened up their homes to the displaced boys. Rebuilding of the academy progressed rapidly and not one day of classes was missed.
The academy's second building (above) was designed by William W. Boyington and completed in 1889. It was made of brick and able to accommodate 75 cadets. This real photo C.R. Childs postcard was produced in 1910. LCDM 97.3.2.
By the 1890s, the academy's reputation had made it possible for many cadets to be offered direct admission to colleges and universities.
When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, Royal offered the U.S. government the services of the corps, but was politely declined.
Around this time, Royal was at work on another military invention, his Automobile Battery, the forerunner to armored vehicles. His original design was a light frame, three-wheeled machine, operated by gasoline and armed with a Colt automatic gun and a shield to protect the driver. This was the first of a series of military vehicles constructed by Royal for the use by the Northwestern Military Academy.
Royal then had the military gun carriage vehicle built by the Peoria Rubber and Manufacturing Company using patents of Charles Duryea, a well known automobile manufacturer. Duryea put the vehicle into an automobile style patent which he filed for on May 16, 1898, and was approved as Patent No. 653,224 on July 10, 1900. The vehicle was built on a Duryea Automobile Company standard production automobile chassis that was converted for military purposes, and cost $1,500.
In 1900, the vehicle was modified into a sturdier four-wheeler (above) which became known as the Davidson Automobile Battery armored car. This photo was taken at the academy in Highland Park. Courtesy of the Northwestern Military Academy Archives.
Royal's bicycle corps and the automobile corps were created at a time when the cavalry was still popular with military commanders. Although he was the inventor of the first armored military vehicle in the United States, Royal Davidson received little credit from the Army for his efforts.
By 1908, the academy offered naval encampments in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and in 1911 officially became a military and naval academy. After another fire in the academy's main building in 1915, the school moved permanently to Lake Geneva.
In 1996, the academy merged with St. John's Military Academy in Delafield, Wisconsin, and together are known as St. John's Northwestern Military Academy.