St. Cloud man reconnects with one-room schoolhouse teacher after 65 years

LaVerna (Noland) Birkland, who taught in old School District #67 near Willmar, and one of her students, Bob Erickson, of St. Cloud. The two are standing by a tree at the site of the school. The tree, measuring about 19 feet 6 inches around, is believed to date back before the school was erected in 1879. Birkland is holding a school bell she used during her school days. Photo contributed by Bob Erickson

About five years ago, LaVerna Birkland heard a knock on the front door of her home located six miles north of Willmar.

“I didn’t recognize the face right away, but I recognized the voice,” she said with a smile.

Birkland, 90, was a school teacher for 34 years, starting out in a one-room schoolhouse just a mile from her current home. The man at the door, Bob Erickson, of St. Cloud, was a former student of hers in that District 62 school.

It was the first face-to-face meeting in over 65 years for the former teacher and student.

“I had Robert as a student for two years – seventh and eighth-grade,” Birkland recalled. “I remember he was a very bright student and always very helpful. We had to get the water from a pump outside, and he always carried it into the school for me. And he helped sweep floors and shovel coal into the furnace.”

When she answered the door that day, Erickson asked: “Do you remember me?”

“Once I heard that voice I said, ‘Robert?’” she recalled.

The two sat down in Birkland’s living room and reminisced for hours about the old days in that schoolhouse.

“I’ve written five books, and I had included things about that country school in one of them about my life,” said Erickson, who now lives in St. Cloud with his wife Evelyn. “So I wanted to show what I’d written to LaVerna. I had talked to her just once before on the phone, and I just decided to surprise her one day.”

They have been corresponding ever since.

“She was an excellent teacher,” he said. “As you get older and you look back and how education is now and how it was in a country school, and I realize how fortunate I was to be in that one-room schoolhouse.”

Birkland (then LaVerna Noland) grew up on a farm outside of Kerkhoven, 15 miles west of Willmar.

“I grew up with the motivation to be a school teacher,” she said. “And I would line up all my dolls in a make-believe school; each one in their own grade.”

After graduating from high school in 1944, Birkland decided to pursue her dream of becoming a teacher.

“I was fortunate that there was a teacher training department in Litchfield (42 miles east of Kerkhoven),” she said. “There was a class of about 15 and most of us roomed in Litchfield.”

At 18 years of age, Birkland landed her first teaching job at the District 62 one-room schoolhouse in 1945.

“We had a teacher that was determined to make us teachers in one year,” she said. “She worked us hard. I would have liked to go home on weekends, but they were usually required for studying. As I recall, the bus fare from Litchfield to Kerkhoven was 28 cents.”

Birkland’s starting salary was $160 per month.

LaVerna (Noland) Birkland is pictured with her class in front of School District 62 near Willmar during the 1945-46 school year. The class includes (back L to R) Dale Kuiper, Gerald Kallevig, Elroy Wig, Henry Kuiper, Bob Erickson, Carol Wiese, Shirley Kallevig, (middle L to R) Roger Carlson, Doug Wiese, James Kuiper, Bev Hanson, Audrey Birkland, Ruth Ann Peterson, (front L to R) Bev Norhiem, Lavonne Hanson and Willamine Wiese. Contributed photo

“I had 16 students in grades one through eight,” she recalled.

Because she didn’t drive, Birkland would ride the school bus each morning to school.

“The bus left Willmar at 6:15 a.m., and I arrived at school before 7 a.m., even though school didn’t start until 8 a.m.,” she said.

Since there was no custodian, the teacher was required to take on that job, too.

“My job included making a fire in the coal-burning furnace,” Birkland said. “That was a bit of a challenge. Arriving at school one morning, I found the classroom completely covered in soot.”

The cause of the soot was because the coal gas has built up and burst one of the stove pipes. Students and parents assisted Birkland in the massive cleanup that morning.

Erickson got his teacher’s attention one day at school when he caught a small snake during recess and brought it to her just to see how she would react.

“I didn’t really like snakes, but I wasn’t going to let him know that,” she said. “So I took it in my hands and asked him what he was going to do with it. After thinking about it awhile, he thought he’d better take it back outside and let it go.”

Erickson was born at the height of the Depression in Willmar on 3-3-33; a fact he likes to joke about in reference to 6-6-6. When Erickson was only 6 years old and his sister Phyllis was 9, their father died.

“It was a difficult time for my mother,” he said. “There were no government safety nets, and mother received only $43 per month from an insurance policy. So she had to get a full-time job.”

Eventually, his mother remarried. But Erickson admits the three years without a father took an emotional toll on him.

“Having no father for those three years made me shy and timid,” he admitted. With the inquisitive nature of my Swedish ancestry and humor of my Danish, I learned to express humor, but beneath the radar.”

The school was closed in 1970, and a fire in the early ‘90s led to its eventual demise. All that is left of the old schoolhouse from 1879 is a behemoth cottonwood tree. A town hall now stands on the lot.

‘We used that tree as home plate when we played ball during recess,” said Erickson. “The tree now measures 19 feet, 6 inches in circumference. It is believed that the cottonwood was in the schoolyard before the first school was built.”

Items salvaged from the school when it closed after consolidating with the Willmar School District were eventually auctioned off. The hand-held school bell that Birkland once used was the “hot” item at the auction.

Birkland and her good friend, Marian Larson, got into a friendly bidding war for the bell. Birkland’s bid of $52 led to the auctioneer bellowing “Sold!”

“Marian’s husband went to that school so she wanted the bell, too,” laughed Birkland. “I collect bells, and I really wanted that one, too.”

Birkland was married to her husband Donald for 49 years before his passing in 1990.

After the country school closed, Birkland would go on to teach school in Blomkest, Sunburg and New London-Spicer until her retirement in 1992. She took 12 years off from teaching at one point before returning.

But the days in that one-room schoolhouse will forever be etched in her memory.

“Teaching in a one-room schoolhouse was a challenging, but rewarding experience,” she concluded.