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Colorful history of RCW school

District celebrated 100 years this summer

By Patricia Buschette

The Renville school as it looked in 1904. Contributed photo

Formal education for students of the city of Renville began simply. However, its journey to a school that encompasses three communities and outlying townships was long and circuitous. District 33 was organized in 1872. During the first seven years there was no official school building, and students met in the homes of settlers.

In 1879 a small building was erected at a cost of $500, paid for by 10 percent bonds. Two years later, an addition was added to the west side of the original building. This school presently houses the Renville Museum.

By 1888 it became apparent that this building was too small, and a four-room wood building was erected. Mrs. George Mix was engaged as the first teacher at $25 a month for a three-term school.

On June 27, 1894 a tornado ripped through the community. After destroying several homes and the First Lutheran Church, then located at Highway 212 and Second Street, the funnel swept its way to the four-room schoolhouse. The building was lifted and then slammed into the basement. Voters had earlier agreed to build an addition to accommodate increased attendance. Insurance coverage provided $3,000 toward the cost of a larger and more modern $12,000 facility. By fall an eight-room building was completed.

Records were lost in the tornado but at the close of 1916, a total of 195 students had graduated from the high school. Volume I of Franklyn Curtiss-Wedge’s 1916 History of Renville County includes an elaborate list of subjects added, including sewing in 1908, manual training in 1909, cooking in 1910, and normal training and agriculture in 1911.

Clock from early communication system, now battery operated given away through drawing. Board member Dale Negen. Photo by Nora Kronlokken Anderson

The school library was an important development. In 1910 a library association was organized in connection with the school library. A librarian loaned books to the general public twice a week. In 1912 the Association turned over management to the Board of Education, and it functioned as a public and school library

However, two unforeseen and equally challenging events were to take place that would affect the course of education in Renville. The first is the organization of schools under Chapter 239, Minnesota laws of 1915. The second, a fire that destroyed the school.

During the Christmas season of 1919, the weather was extremely cold. On Dec. 15, the local druggist, H.H. Molitor, was walking home from the drugstore. He noticed a flickering light in the basement of the nearby school, ran home and turned in the alarm. The fire had started in the vicinity of the stove in the agriculture department. According to the editor of the Star-Farmer, “The fire bell pealed forth its ominous sound, startling those who heard it from their warm bed, and out to learn the cause of the alarm.” Adrian Bottge, the community’s preeminent historian reported a “rampant, fiery tempest.” He remembered the view from the family’s bathroom window as a “tower of flame shot up 100 feet or more when the roof fell in.” A frozen hydrant delayed the response, and by the time the hydrant had thawed and alternate hydrants connected, the building was gone.

Seven-year-old Elizabeth Hoffman (later Elizabeth Larkin) reportedly watched the flames and cried. She had just gotten a new tablet. It was in her desk at the school and it was now gone.

The Renville School burned to the ground on Dec. 15, 1919. Contributed photo

No school days were lost due to the timing of the fire during the Christmas holidays. On Jan. 5, 1920, classes resumed in a variety of churches and the commercial club.

Prior to the fire, an addition had been considered. There was a question as to whether the new school should accommodate the influx of students from country schools. The school board debated the possibilities, citizens expressed their opinions. Some thought that the addition of a cafeteria was “frivolous.” A gymnasium–auditorium was considered by others to be excessive.

The anxiety of consolidation reared its ugly head. Arguments on both sides of the issue were compelling and the community was torn apart by the controversy.

Wendell Bakker, Renville Class of 1952 with his FFA jacket. Not only did Wendell keep his FFA jacket. He also saved this collection of school newspapers (below). Photos by Nora Kronlokken Anderson

The question of cost was paramount, as the local farm economy dealt with depressed grain and land prices, just when building and construction costs were high. Further, for those in the rural community, the one room schoolhouse was more than a place for the education of their children; there was a nostalgic response to the one-room school within walking distance. Here, their children were not far from home, and the teacher often boarded in a neighborhood home. The concept of a large community school was not considered an improvement, as parents believed their children were educated as well, if not better, than in the central school. Farmers learned their trade through experience, and were not impressed by the “young fellow fresh out of ag school.”

Country schools were structured through an 1849 statute “Reservation of Lands for Schools.” The statute designated Section 16 and 36 of each township for the purpose of the establishment of a school. In 1863 the Minnesota legislature enacted legislation that county commissioners would have power to create new public school districts, change the boundaries of districts, or unite districts. The Holmberg act of 1911 marked the beginning of formal consolidation. Consolidations continued at an increasing rate, overcoming problems of hiring highly qualified teachers and providing students equality of educational opportunity.

The controversy continued, and bitterness in the community left no one untouched. School board member, Floy Hassinger, wife of Mart Hassinger, partner in Bottge & Hassinger Department Store, was a target of those who disapproved of consolidation. It has been said that farmers, angry with her role in the decision, purchased supplies in nearby towns, and proudly paraded up and down Main Street with horse-drawn wagons, displaying merchandise from competitors.

Costs could be mitigated through consolidation of country school districts. Ultimately, the board submitted its plan with a price tag of $313,000.

The matter was settled when in 1920, the county board determined that the district would be enlarged according to state law. The fears of country people were realized when 20 districts were added to District 33, its territory covering 40 sections. Due to the collapse of the building industry, the bid came in at the lower price tag of $300,000 and the building was dedicated on March 10, 1922.

Many changes have taken place over the years. In 1956, a new south elementary wing and a north wing were added, including a gymnasium, music, home ec, ag and industrial arts rooms.

The conflict of 1920 was replayed in 2008 when the community considered the possibility of a new school on the southeast corner of the grounds, demolishing the present structure. After years of public debate and votes, the community voted to make improvements to the existing building, including the addition of more elementary classrooms, a new hallway, a gymnasium and weight room, among other things.

Consolidation did not end in 1921 and over the years, additional country schools were brought into the district.

Faye Schmidt hosted the 60s and 70s exhibit at the RCW 100-year celebration. They had memorabilia from many of the 10 decades. Photo by Nora Kronlokken Anderson

In 1980, a pairing experiment with Sacred Heart schools was initiated when the class of 1981 attended morning classes in Sacred Heart and afternoon classes in Renville. Buses delivering students to the schools met at the former Ranch House restaurant midway, switching drivers. Controversy was limited to adults, as students found that pairing meant more friendships. In 1981 graduations were held separately in the two communities. The class of 1982 was the last class to order separate class rings and the first class to graduate as an RSH graduating class.

Following this there was an association with Belview, Danube, Renville and Sacred Heart, the school known by the unwieldy name BDRSH. Later, Danube, Renville and Sacred Heart consolidated under the name Renville County West.

Renville County West has an interesting history. Following their course of study, 100 graduating classes have received diplomas. In June, the school was opened up to the public to celebrate those 100 years. An estimated 350 people attended, many former students and school staff.

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