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Our History

Old Main with horse and carriage in the snow

The Founding of Elgin Academy

Elgin Academy was granted a charter by the Illinois General Assembly on February 22, 1839.New Yorker, James Talcott Gifford, seeking a location for a new town, selects a site in Illinois in 1835. That site would become the City of Elgin. Elgin Academy was granted a charter by the Illinois General Assembly on February 22, 1839. In a radical departure for the time, the seven-member Board agreed that Elgin Academy would be non-sectarian and coeducational. 

Elgin Academy is incredibly proud of its rich history and of our important role in educating thousands of students from around the globe. The country and world have changed in countless ways since the charter of this school in 1839, and yet the premises upon which an Elgin Academy education are built remain beautifully unchanged. To this day, Elgin Academy continues to inspire students to become our creative, courageous and compassionate future.

Throughout the years, the young men and women of the Academy have benefited from countless opportunities and individualized attention that allows each student to take risks and experience success.

Founders' Day - February 22ndEach year we celebrate our founding and our history on Founders' Day.

Today our mission of inspiring students to become our creative, courageous and compassionate future is relatively new in its specific words but 183 years old in its sentiment. For all of our history we have been committed to educating all of our students to not only know things but to apply those things to make the world around them better for others. Even as our students have come from different backgrounds around the area and world, we have been in the same spot, high upon the hill, in a historic city, and chartered by this city’s founders, intertwined in this mission of making Elgin a better place. For these reasons, service has been integral to our program and each year we celebrate Founders' Day by giving back to the wider community. 

Elgin Academy 175th Anniversary Documentary

Long Live Academy

In 2014 Elgin Academy celebrated its 175th birthday. This documentary was created by EA students to highlight Elgin Academy's rich history for the 175th celebrations.

Historical Timeline

1839  Elgin Academy's original charter was signed, four years after the founding of Elgin.

James Talcott Gifford

1856 The original campus building, "Old Main" was opened. From the beginning, the Academy has been both non-denominational and coeducational, offering a program dedicated to academic excellence and high moral character.

1861  School motto originated:

"Not How Much, But How Well."

1872  The Academy granted its first diploma to Laura Davidson, the granddaughter of Elgin's founder, James T. Gifford.

1874  A total of 274 students were enrolled for the winter term and the Academy offered high school degrees in several courses of study, including College Preparatory, Normal, English, Classical, Latin-Scientific, and Business. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Academy had a football team, a basketball team, and a school newspaper.

Graduating Class of 1878

Graduating Class of 1878

1903  After a brief association with the University of Chicago, the Academy affiliated with Northwestern University and was for a number of years know as Elgin Academy of Northwestern University.

1911  Judge and Mrs. Nathaniel Sears (the former Laura Davidson, EA's first graduate) donated $35,000 to the Academy's endowment fund, beginning a philanthropic association with the school which spanned several decades. Through the years, the Sears family donated funds for a number of campus features (as noted).

1914  The Academy began a Junior College with two years of college work offered and courses accredited by Northwestern University, (discontinued in 1927, reinstated in 1932, and in 1943 was discontinued for good).

Historical Timeline (continued)

1918  The Academy's first gymnasium (built with funds from the Sears family).

1920  Campus boarding program introduced (boys only).

1924  Sears Art Gallery (funded by Sears family); Athletic Fields on Franklin Boulevard were opened.

1939 (circa) 7th and 8th grades added.

1940  Sears Hall (built with funds from Sears family).

Sears Hall

Sears Hall Opens 1940

1941 (circa) Girls accepted into the boarding program. The following description from a school publication of this era signifies an approach to the education of young people that is still true of Elgin Academy today:

"The Academy expects of its students a desire for self-education. Each student is challenged to develop discriminating judgment and independence of thought; and through varied work in literature, music, and the arts, creative as well as appreciative, Elgin tried to cultivate the imaginations and emotions of its students."

1940s-1950s  The postwar years were prosperous and stable years for the Academy as they were for the Midwest in general. The construction of Sears Hall dormitory in 1940 created an environment in which a traditional boarding school could flourish and the yearbooks of the time reflect the annual rituals of the homecoming games, social activities, and serious academic work, all pursued in conservative attire and hairstyles.

1950s-1960s  The decade from the late 1950s to the late 1960s brought many changes to the Academy's physical plant.

1958  New Gymnasium constructed

1962  North Hall built (as a girls' dormitory)

1969  Edwards Hall dedicated

1972  Old Main, the original Academy building, had fallen into disrepair and was closed to all school activities (also see 1978).

1975  Frank J. Hogan began a 10-year tenure as headmaster, launching a period of growth and renewal (after hitting an enrollment low of 85 students in 1973, enrollment has climbed steadily to more than 400 in the new millennium).

1970s Basketball Game

Athletic Program Grows as Enrollment Climbs

1978  Old Main is donated to the city of Elgin which completed extensive restoration of the beautiful landmark building. Old Main now houses the Elgin Area Historical Society as well as the Seigle Room (used for Upper School classes and school meetings; contains displays of Elgin Academy memorabilia).

1980  (circa) In the early 1980s, the Academy's Board of Trustees set the school on course to become a K-12 day school.

1984  Lower School is opened.

1987  Boarding program formally discontinued.

1980s-1990s  Parents, alumni, and friends have built and sustained a vigorous fundraising effort dedicated to strengthening the curriculum and improving teacher compensation, while ensuring long-term viability of the institution.

1994  Board of Trustees approved the Academy's first strategic plan.

1997  The City of Elgin recognized EA's campus improvements by awarding the school with its first of two  "Elgin Image Awards."

1999  The Academy opened an Early Childhood Education Program for 3- and 4-year-olds.

2001  The Academy was the first Preschool-12 independent school in greater Chicago to launch a specialized website for every class and teacher.

2004  Capital Campaign was begun to build the Media, Science, and Fine Arts Center and renovate other areas of campus.

2006  Elgin Academy announced plans to operate the former Summit Academy as the Elgin Academy-River Road Campus and then consolidate all students on the Hilltop Campus. The consolidation occurred the following year.

2007  Elgin Academy broke ground for the new Media, Science, and Fine Arts Center.  James J. "Jimmy John" Liautaud [EA Class of '82], chairman and CEO of Jimmy John's Franchise LLC, contributed $1 million to the Capital Campaign.

Rider Center Opens 2008

2008  Grand Opening of The Harold D. Rider Family Media, Science, and Fine Arts Center in October.

2009  Enrollment at the Academy thrives despite the nation's difficult economic downturn.

2014 The Academy celebrates it's 175th


2015 An updated website and branding, along with an new mission bring a fresh look to Elgin Academy

"Inspiring students to become our creative, courageous, and compassionate future."

2017 The The Hilltop Capstone Project is added to Upper School curriculum. The Hilltop provides seniors the opportunity to design their own curriculum that touches on one or more subject areas to answer their own essential question. 

2019 Elgin Academy celebrates 180 years. Upper School implements the J-Term program. An opportunity for students to expand their intellectual curiosity and geographic horizons by choosing a travel experience, studying a subject that sparks their interest, or investigating a career with an internship.

2020 In the face of a pandemic the flexibility and innovation of the Elgin Academy administrators, faculty, and staff enabled EA students to consistently continue in-person learning, augmented by high quality, on-line learning when needed. Elgin Academy continuously adapted and evaluated which learning environment was best for students and did not let the disruptive nature of the pandemic slow the pursuit to provide students more robust programs that enhance curriculum, increase support, and provide them with a personalized experience.

2022 Renovations to the Gym including a new weight room, updated bathrooms, locker rooms, and lobby are completed.

2023 The EA logo and branding are updated and a new website is launched. Paul Druzinski becomes Elgin Academy's Interim Head of School. 

In November of 2023, the Board of Trustees announced "It is with a heavy heart that we announce that the current school year, our 185th, will be the final year of Elgin Academy. Despite the tremendous efforts of the Board, school leadership and other dedicated community members to find a path forward, we have recently determined that our model of an independent Preschool through 12th grade school is no longer sustainable in Elgin. The Board of Trustees has voted that the school will close at the end of the 2023-2024 school year."


2024 Elgin Academy celebrated its 185th year. 

The Elgin Academy, A Legacy of Excellence exhibit opened in Old Main. Through EA's partnership with the Elgin History Museum, the legacy of Elgin Academy will be permanently on display in Old Main and highlighted as an important part of the history of the City of Elgin. 

Sears Gallery, built in 1924, celebrated 100 years! An EA student-curated Hilltoppers! exhibit opened in the Sears Gallery. EA’s History Club created this exhibit as part of our Founders’ Day celebrations. 

On May 25, 2024, Elgin Academy welcomed back over 600 Alumni, former faculty, staff, parents and friends along with the current community to celebrate the Legacy of Elgin Academy for a final time.

Long Live Academy! 


From the beginning, the Academy has been both non-denominational and coeducational offering an educational program dedicated to academic excellence and high moral character. Laura R. Davidson was the first student to receive an Elgin Academy Diploma in 1872.

After Graduating Vassar College in 1876, Laura returned to teach mathematics and other subjects at Elgin Academy from 1877-1887. 

On May 26, 1887 Laura Davidson married Nathaniel Sears. Nathaniel was the son of Principal Amos Sears and also attended Elgin Academy with Laura.

Laura was elected to the Elgin Academy Board of Trustees in 1912 and remained a trustee until her death in 1930.

Nathaniel Sears became an Elgin Academy trustee in 1920 and served as president of the board from 1920-1926. He continued to serve as chairman until his death in 1934.

Judge Nathaniel Sears and Laura Davidson Sears were generous benefactors of The Academy, providing funding for endowments, and improvements. They gifted real estate, including an athletic field, that expanded the campus and also funded a gymnasium.

The Laura Davidson Sears art gallery was built in 1924 and dedicated to Laura by her husband. Not only did they provide the building but they filled it with what a Boston art critic in 1927 declared was “the finest collection of early Americans in the world.”

The Davidson Sears Academy of Fine Arts is a neo-classical structure built in 1924 with funds donated by Judge Nathanial Sears and his wife Laura Davidson Sears. The structure, designed by architect Fred B. Schmidt, is of marble and brick with Doric columns stretching across the portico. The low relief frieze at the top of the portico is a replica of the frieze on the Parthenon in Athens. The Gallery originally was built to house an extensive art collection donated to the school by the Sears Family.

Elgin Academy’s 180th Birthday Tribute

Celebrating 180 years, through 180 pictures, in 180 seconds!

We hope you enjoy this video tribute from Elgin Academy’s 180th Birthday.



Long Live Academy!

The Elgin Academy Hymn was writen in the 1890's. A second verse was added in 2014 as part of the 175th Birthday Celebration.

Listen to the EA Hymn



Elgin Academy Heads of School

Robert Blenkiron 1856-1858
James Sylla 1858-1860
Clark Braden 1860-1863
C.C. Wheeler 1863-1865
I.H. Nutting M.D. 1865-1866
William H. Brydges 1866
B.G Cilley 1866-1867
Alfred S. Barry 1867-1869
Amos G. Sears 1870-1881
Mrs. A.G. Sears 1870-1881
Rev. Alexander Gibson Wilson 1881-1883
J. Adolph Schmitz 1883-1886
Nathan Thompson 1886-1890
A.M. Mattoon 1890-1891
Alfred Gardner Welch 1891-1897
George P. Bacon 1897-1898
George Newton Sleight 1898-1917
DeForest Walton 1917-1919
Karl J. Stouffer 1919-1935
Earl G. Leinbach 1936-1943
Sanford Sellers 1943-1945
Cpt. Benyaurd Wygant 1945-1948
Edward P. Droste 1948-1955
Marvin L. Brett 1955-1958
J.M. Thompson 1959-1962
C.J. Doane 1962-1964
Leland T. Hanson 1964-1966
Donald E. McLeod 1966-1971
John F. Joyce 1971-1972
Robert G. Hagemann 1972-1975
Frank J. Hogan III 1975-1985
Don Reed 1985-1989
Selden Edwards 1989-1994
Susan J. Thompson 1994-2000
John Cooper 2000-2012
Seth Hanford 2012-2023
Paul Druzinsky 2023-Present

Elgin Academy's Legacy Celebration - May 25, 2024

Elgin Academy's Legacy Celebration brought together over 600 Hilltoppers of all ages under a beautiful blue sky on May 25, 2024. School spirit and nostalgia were soaring, and it was gratifying to see all of you reconnecting and reliving your days on campus.  Thanks to all of you -- students, alumni, teachers, parents, and friends past and present who attended the event and sent messages sharing your EA stories. This memorable gathering served as a testament to your love for the school and a fitting farewell. Throughout the day, one thing was evident. Something as significant as the history and legacy of this amazing place will never be forgotten. Although the school's doors are closing, the spirit of Elgin Academy truly will live on in all of us. Long Live Academy!