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Memories from a one-room schoolhouse

By Anita Harmala of Dassel

On a gravel road in Wolf Lake Township in Becker County, stands a building which once was School District #72. From that schoolhouse are fond memories of school days long past for Annette (Keranen) Kilpela and her siblings.

One-room schoolhouses were the norm in rural Minnesota until the late ‘60s but were forced to close in the early ‘70s when the state legislature voted to consolidate the country schools with bigger town schools. In 1965, there were over 700 one-room schoolhouses, and the move to consolidate these schools by the state’s education department caused much debate. I recall hearing my dad was one of many parents statewide who traveled to St. Paul to the state capitol to show support for keeping the country schools open. Rural legislators wavered between loyalty to constituents and the states thought that a quality education was not possible in a one-room schoolhouse (Source:

School district #72 was where Kilpela and 11 of her 12 siblings began their education, along with their parents before them. Carrying their lunch pails, the Keranen siblings walked to school. Their lunch pails were made from old lard pails, which their mom poked holes in the side and then used wire for a handle. Most of their walk to school was wooded. 

“My brothers, who were 6 and 7 years old,  had to walk through the woods in the Wolf Lake Hills,” Kilpela recalled. “My mom bundled them up in the winter and sent them off walking to school. We finally got bus service in 1958, the year before I started school.”

Each day of school started with raising the flag. “The big kids did that. We also recited the Pledge of Allegiance and sang a patriotic song.”

There were about 11 to 13 students in the school, first-grade through sixth-grade. Good behavior was expected. 

“We never left our seats,” Kilpela remembered. “If we needed something, we raised one finger for a drink of water, two fingers for the outhouse.” When asked about bad behavior, she said, after some thought, “It seems like my brother had to go out in the entry way once for something he did. But if we got in trouble at school, we knew we would be in bigger trouble at home!”

There were books for learning, and paper and pencils were supplied by the school. The students didn’t take any homework home. “We studied English, math, geography, and spelling. We went one at a time and sat in a chair next to the teacher’s desk,” she said. Each lesson was 10 minutes. “The teacher started with the youngest child, and they all listened and learned along with the pupil at the desk.” They had a small library with books on one shelf.

The school’s outhouse was behind the school. In earlier years, for the older siblings, there was no supply of toilet paper. Sears, Penneys, Aldins, and Montgomery Wards catalogs were used in their place. Inevitably, each year at Halloween time, the school’s outhouse would get tipped over.

A hand pump outside the school supplied the water for the school. Each morning two students had the job of pumping the water and bringing it inside, “It was neat; we had some kind of water tank that had a drinking spout on it, and that is where we got our drink at lunch time. And that drink sure helped the dry sandwich that sometimes got caught in the throat,” Kilpela chuckled. 

Their lunches, which sat on a shelf in the entry way, rarely varied. Inside the pail was a sandwich made with homemade bread and summer sausage, and an apple. “Sometimes the teacher would ask to trade sandwiches with hers,” she remembered. “If I was feeling really extravagant, I would bring milk in a jar and put it in the snowbank to keep it cold.” Also, in the winter, it was cold in the entry way, so by lunch time those sandwiches were frozen.

Winter also made more work for the teacher. Each day she had to get the wood stove started. The school was still cold when the students arrived at school, “So, we marched around the school and did jumping jacks to warm up on the cold mornings,” she recalled. “If the water pump froze outside, two kids would walk half a mile to the Koskela’s house to get drinking water for the school.” They brought a pail with a lid, hoping not too much water would spill.

Wood was supplied by whoever got the contract, usually a family from the school. Parents would volunteer and help split the wood for the school. When there was no kindling left to start the fire, the teacher would go for a walk with the students, and they would pick up sticks to use. 

“We got an oil heater the year before I started school, so I had it good!” Kilpela commented.

The Christmas program was a big deal, and they started practicing for it right after Thanksgiving. There were parts to memorize for the play, songs to learn, and decorations to make of red and green chains made from construction paper. “We hung sheets in front of the school for the stage, half for us students to stay behind, and the other half was the stage.”

“Us students scrunched around the potbelly stove,” she remembered. The whole community came to the Christmas program, so the school was packed. There were people sitting on the top of desks and chairs. Each family brought a kerosene lantern so they could see, since the program was held in the evening. Once the program was done, the students exchanged gifts from the names they had drawn, and Santa came.

One particular incident stands out in Kilpelas’s mind. She was not yet going to school, being too young. On this particular day, she heard their dog barking, so she ran to the kitchen window to see who had come. The teacher’s car was in the driveway with a sixth-grade boy behind the wheel! He had brought her sister Helen home who had gotten sick. “I guess this happened more than once,” Kilpela said. “Since there was no telephone at the school, and there was a sick child, the teacher did what she could.”

When one teacher’s brother died, Kilpela’s mother came and taught them for the day. For being the substitute teacher for that day, “My mom got a hankie from the teacher and a few dollars,” she recalled.

Teachers were hard to get in their area, so they usually only had a teacher for a year or two. “The superintendent came out from Detroit Lakes once in a while to check up on the teacher.”

“Teachers didn’t get paid much,” she said. Once a week on Fridays, they had music. The teacher picked songs for them to sing, and sometimes they had to sing solos. One sibling remembered a teacher not liking their brother and had that particular brother sing solos. He picked the same song every time.

At recess, the students played games. “We played cops and robbers, pom pom pull away, and other games. We had monkey bars and a swing,” Kilpela said. 

When Kilpela got home from school each day, she and her sister Carol would take off their school clothes right away and hang them on a nail. “I wore red pants, Carol wore blue, and then we put on our everyday clothes.”

In the spring, on the last day of school, they had a field day. “Our parents came; we had relay races and gunny sack races,” Kilpela said.

District #72 closed in 1960, and the students then went by bus to the new Wolf Lake school.

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