School History

Most of what is now downtown Elk Grove was once the property of two brothers, Joseph and George Harvey Kerr. It is the name of Joseph Kerr though that will live forever, shouted proudly by youngsters at Joseph Kerr Middle School in downtown Elk Grove.

For George Harvey Kerr, however, there is nothing. Yet, it was this man whose philanthropy and futuristic thinking resulted in much of what we treasure about Elk Grove. George was also a schoolmaster, so why indeed did we name the school after his brother?

Joseph, was a competent blacksmith, a wagonmaker, rancher, grower of fruits, and a winemaker. But most people do not know what he did that made his name live the way it does.

In 1891, California legislatures passed a law that allowed elementary school districts to join together for the purpose of funding and organizing a high school district. At this time, Elk Grove graduates of the eighth grade had to live with relatives or friends in Sacramento, San Jose, or San Francisco in order to further their schooling as there was no high school in South Sacramento County.

It took some doing to get a high school district accepted by the votes of the small rural elementary districts, but it was done. A primary leader in that endeavor was Dr. James McKee, Elk Grove’s “horse and buggy doctor” who gently convinced many local residents of the value of a high school education for young people. There are others too – Joseph Kerr among them, and finally, sixteen districts voted for the high school, and victory was assured.

This accomplished, another event delayed the construction of the school. In 1892, a disastrous fire leveled much of the town on both sides of the railroad tracks. The forward thinking people of Elk Grove did not let this deter them for long, and before long, talk of the new high school was everywhere.

When the Elk Grove Union High School District was finally organized, the first task was to decide where the school would be built. There were those who fought valiantly for Florin, and those who shouted loudly for Elk Grove. Perhaps this was the beginning of the long time rivalry between the two railroad towns.

Joseph Kerr came to the rescue. He announced that if the high school building was erected in Elk Grove, he would donate the land on which it could be built.

Joseph Kerr’s word was good. He delivered the deed to a choice property in the heart of the town. The first high school in south Sacramento County as built on a parcel of land at what is now the corner of Main Street/Elk Grove Boulevard and Derr Street. Elk Grove had the distinction of having the first union free high school in the state of California. The year was 1893.

The school was a fine wooden frame building with several rooms. Later, an annex was built, and this is what was known as Elk Grove Union High School until 1922, when a new school was built at the corner of Elk Grove Boulevard and Elk Grove-Florin Road. You’re right – that’s the present site of Joseph Kerr Middle School.

The name Joseph Kerr was given to that site when the third high school building was completed at its present location next to Elk Grove Park in 1964. At that time, the vacated high school rooms became Joseph Kerr Junior High School.

Truly, the Kerr family were responsible for what we now call Elk Grove. But there is no Kerr Boulevard, no Kerr Estates, and no Kerr City. But we do have Joseph Kerr Middle School, and it is indeed a fitting way to honor a person who knew that the way to improve the lives of the people of a place was to provide for a proper education for children. Yes, we should remember Joseph Kerr – who paved the way for high school education. (Source: Elizabeth Pinkerton, exerts from, “Joseph Kerr, the Hero of Elk Grove,” July 3, 1991)
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