Search This Blog

Friday, April 1, 2011

Northwestern Military Academy, Highland Park

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 at 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 academy was founded by Harlan Page Davidson (1838-1913), a graduate of Norwich University, a military college in Vermont. Harlan purchased Highland Hall in Highland Park and renovated it for his academy in which he strove to provide a good education, military discipline and structure, and moral training. The cost to attend was $400 in 1888, and by 1908 had risen to $600 with enrollment averaging about 50 cadets per year.

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 postcard by C.R. Childs was produced in 1910. Dunn Museum 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.

Perhaps the academy's most notable accomplishments were the brainstorms of Davidson's son, Royal Page Davidson (1870-1943). About 1895, Royal developed a military bicycle corps, thinking that the bicycle would speed up the movement of troops. In June of 1897, he staged a cross-country, 1,000-mile expedition to Washington, D.C., operating as a military foray into enemy territory, and as a "test of bicycles as an accoutrement of war." The bicycle corps had a membership of 28 students, averaging 19 years of age. The trip took 15 days and was widely covered by newspapers along their route.

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.

Image of the Davidson Automobile Battery armored car. Northwestern Military Academy Archives.

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. 

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.


Trident Military University said...

It's very interesting to read about the history of the various military academies in Lake County. It's fascinating that they started out having a negative connotation in the community but evolved over time to respected institutions known to instill discipline and structure in its students.

Frances said...

Aside from instilling discipline through various measures, military academies are also know to provide education which surely equips students for college life.

Anonymous said...

I graduated from NMNA, Lake Geneva.
Davidson would have been appalled at what his academy became.