What’s a manual? Manual High School’s name, explained.

And no, Denverite readers, there’s nothing nefarious here!
4 min. read
Manual Training High School in 1914.
Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/WH1990

Manual High School, home of the Thunderbolts. Located in the Whittier neighborhood.

The school has been in the news for this and that over the years, but one fact has remained seemingly obscured: Where does Manual get its name from?

Many high schools in Denver are either named after someone, like Bruce Randolph, or directions or locations, such as West or Montbello high schools.

But a manual? The things folks don't read when they're putting together their TV stands?

One Denverite reader asked us: "Where did the school name come from?" Turns out the answer is quite simple: Manual High School used to be a vocational school that taught, you guessed it, manual labor.

The Old Manual High School during winter's night in Denver, Colorado. Circa 1910.
Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/WH1990

"The school simply assembled and began work."

The word "manual" comes from the Latin root words meaning "of the hand," aka the perfect name for a vocational school.

Manual Training School opened in April 1894 with few frills, according to a Rocky Mountain News article from that time.

"The new manual training school was opened yesterday and 110 scholars were enrolled," the newspaper reported. "There were no ceremonies and no speech making. The school simply assembled and began work."

The school curriculum consisted of various vocational classes, electrical engineering, wood-working, masonry and free hand drawing. In other words, manual work.

The school's mascot was the Bricklayers, an ode to a time when houses in Denver were mostly made out of bricks, thanks to a fire near South Platte River and Cherry Creek.

Photograph of an Opportunity Class in Blacksmith at Manual High School in Denver, Colorado. Circa 1910.
Denver Public Library/Western History Collection

So why a vocational school?

Jim McNally, a Manual alumni and historian, said the idea for the vocational school came from the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia.

Excuse me?

The Exhibition of 1876 was the first official World Fair, focusing on arts, agriculture and machinery. But the idea for the Manual Training School came from the education pavilion at the fair.

Two famous Coloradans, Chester S. Morey and James B. Grant, arrived at the education pavilion and were captivated by the Imperial Moscow Technical School's display, which focused on that school's vocational teachings. A lightbulb clicked for Morey and Grant, and the pair brought the idea of the vocational school back to the Denver school board.

"There weren't many high schools in Denver at the time, so Manual was the first school to focus on that type (vocational) of learning," McNally said.

The school board approved the idea, McNally said, but construction was delayed due to a lack of funding (a problem that continues to plague the school).

But the doors eventually did open. In the 1950s, "Training" was dropped from Manual's name, according to McNally, and the rest is history.

Senior prom for the Manual High School class of 1959.
Burnis McCloud/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/WH1128-2018-985

Manual's legacy

Besides being one of the few vocational schools in the state, what set Manual apart from other high schools in the beginning was its acceptance of women and Black students.

McNally said an African-American female student (he couldn't recall her name) was a part of the school's second graduating class, in 1897.

"Manual had a few Black students, definitely more than the other schools in the area," McNally said. "For a long time, Manual was the only integrated school in Denver."

A Manual High School football game in 1951.
Clarence Holmes/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/WH1270

Manual today

The school continues to serve the minority community, though enrollment is low.

But McNally holds faith.

The 81-year-old attended Manual and taught at Manual. His family went to Manual, and even though the pandemic has kept him away from the school, he eventually wants to create space in the school to honor alumni and give those who are still around a meeting place.

And the Thunderbolts have plenty of things to be proud of. The school boasts many important alumnus, including Mayor Michael Hancock and Denver City Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca. The boy's basketball team won its twelfth state championship in 2019, a state record number of championships.

One question McNally couldn't answer was, when did Manual switch mascots?

"Through all my research, through yearbooks and news articles, I can't find when they switched the name or why," McNally said. "What's a thunderbolt?"

Another story for another day.

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