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One room, big impact

Rural schools provided more than a century of quality education

Between 1855 and 1914, 139 state-sponsored rural “one room” schools were organized in Morrison County alone. Over time, that total reached 151. Multiply that by the 80 or so counties of Minnesota (five Minnesota counties weren’t organized until after 1900) and you’ll realize the impact the young, single, usually female teachers had on the education of several generations of Minnesotans. Serving as the educator of all subjects for eight grades, librarian, disciplinarian, nurse, parent, dietary supervisor, custodian, hostess of board meetings, and director of the “community center,” each teacher lived in the immediate community in which she taught.

Dorothy Lindquist, who attended Morrison County District # 1 and whose children also attended the school, is enthusiastic about the education they received and the history of rural schools in Minnesota. She has been instrumental in the restoration work on the 1875 school originally built north of Little Falls, which now resides on the Morrison County Fairgrounds. She also also organized a special tea event in June to bring more former rural school district teachers together (more on that later).

“Normal school” was the education program that prepared these young women (a few men, too, but most frequently women) for their careers. With a high school diploma in hand, a 17- or 18-year-old could attend nine months of this program designed to establish teaching standards or “norms.” With normal school training and only a short (three-week) practice teaching experience in another rural school or maybe six weeks of teaching kindergarten in a town school, these teachers were prepared to fly solo in primary grade classrooms, though at the time, primary included 7th and 8th-grades.

According to The Beginnings of Teacher Training in Minnesota by Hugh Graham of St. Louis University, the legislature of Minnesota passed a general law in 1858 under which Winona Normal School came into being as the first state normal school west of the Mississippi and the 14th in the United States. In the early part of the 20th century, Little Falls, Brainerd, Staples and Crosby Ironton offered normal school training programs for the Crow Wing and Morrison County areas.

“They turned bobby socks-wearing girls into teachers in nine months,” said Adella Seppelt Kapsner (Miss Seppelt) who trained via a normal school program in the mid-20th century and taught in the rural Hillman school. “We were taught how to dress, how to sit, and were not allowed to date or party. We paid $20 for supplies, brought our own food and went home on weekends. It was good training, and we knew what to do when we started teaching.”

“We even had teachers’ desks,” said Geri Quine Pavlacky (Miss Quine) of her normal school training, which allowed them to practice the position as well as the role.

Laura Siegel Larson (Miss Siegel) began teaching in 1938 when she was 19 years old. She remembers a school with no electricity or running water. “We didn’t always have a nine-month school (term). We started after harvest was done. Some of the older boys came only in the winter.”

Geri Pavlacky, of Pillager, wanted to be a teacher from the time she was a little girl. “I didn’t play with dolls. We played ‘school,’ even when my older cousins came, I was the teacher and I ‘taught’ them.” An aptitude for teaching started early and imitating the school day in play was also preparation.

“We played ‘school’ all the time, too,” said June Nieman Brutscher (Miss Nieman), who found that teaching in a country school meant that many of the students were related to each other, just as it had been while playing school at home. “It was cousins, aunts and uncles all learning together.”

In 1959, Lincoln resident Rosemarie Schroeder Starr (Miss Schroeder) taught students who were only four years younger than she was, a fairly common experience for new normal school graduates. “I wanted to be a nurse, but I went home one day and mother had enrolled me in teacher training.” She admits that her mother’s decision put her on track for a quality life in teaching.

All of these women recall the formality required of being a teacher and the respect that was given them. “Miss” was the required way to address the teacher, of course becoming “Mrs.” when she married. A dress code of dresses or skirts and stockings ruled, even in cold Minnesota winters. Laura Larson remembers skiing to school when the roads were drifted in. She’d poke the skis in a drift and get into school to start the fire in the stove and then unbundle to be presentable when the students arrived.

“I don’t remember being cold,” said Adella Kapsner. “I’d start the coal-fired stove and wait for it to warm up before taking my coat off.”

“We’d sit around the stove reading until it warmed up,” remembers Geri Pavlacky.

Rosemarie Starr attended a country school as a student. “I had to walk two miles to school. The teacher would check our faces for white spots (frostbite). It was so painful when our fingers and toes thawed out. But I loved school.”

During World War II, commodities were available for school lunches in some places. Several of the teachers recalled warming soup on the stove jacket for noon lunches. Mrs. Grass noodle soup was a popular one as well as bean soup. Outside of the years when these commodities were available, students generally brought their own lunches, as did the teachers.

A less pleasant task than stoking the fire or heating lunch was keeping the outhouse functional. “I had to take hot water out and thaw the seat where the boys missed,” said one of the teachers. Some schools had indoor chemical toilets in the boys’ and girls’ cloak rooms. These allowed for minimal maintenance.

All of the teachers cited the many benefits of a one room school education, but one stands out. Students were called from their desks by grade to a table for instruction. It was done within earshot of all the students and those who were particularly attentive were exposed to the material of the grades ahead of them. Sometimes these students, were allowed to skip a grade and advance more quickly. “They knew the material. Why should they have to go through it again,” was the general consensus. Laura Larson was one who started school at the age of 7. Progressed rapidly, she took the 7th-grade exam and then skipped 8th-grade. She graduated two years ahead of her brother who had started at the same time she did.

Students were tested in a state board exam for geography at the end of 7th-grade and then in math, English and history after 8th-grade.

For some students, education ended after the 8th-grade. June Brutscher, who attended a rural school and whose children attended District # 1, said her husband had to quit school when he was 14. His early education was a good one, though. He’ll be 88 this August. He and June are proud that four of their five children became teachers.

All of the teachers agree that teaching in a one room school wasn’t an easy job. They worked hard and didn’t have prep time during the school day because they often went outside with the students during recesses. Recess doubled as physical education, 15 minutes in the morning and the same amount of time each afternoon as well as an hour at noon. Teachers directed and coached softball, monitored kick-the-can, tag, red rover and other games.

“We were on stage all day,” said Adella.

“Yes,” agreed Rosemarie, “and when I got home I was exhausted. But I wasn’t dirty so the family I stayed with thought I hadn’t done any real work and should go help out in the barn.”

“And I had to sleep with the grandma, in her bed,” countered Adella, adding that it wasn’t that uncommon for the teacher to bunk in whatever bed was empty, or nearly so.

Kids put snakes in the teachers’ desks, expected them to drown gophers with them at recess and handle injuries like they were part of the normal day. When one student broke his arm, the mother told him, “that’s what happens when you don’t drink your milk.”

Most schools had special ed students who were mainstreamed before the term came into modern usage. Maybe it was because students were often related to each other or because they knew if they caused any problems in school the parents would deal with them at home, but there was tolerance and acceptance of differences. Rosemarie remembered one boy who wasn’t able to learn academic subjects but was content to cut pictures from catalogs in the back of the room. He came to school regularly. Geri stayed after school to give extra time to a student who struggled in certain subjects. Laura remembered a 12-year-old student in 4th-grade who couldn’t really do anything at home so he went to school. “I never heard anyone make fun of him,” she said.

Laura’s first paycheck was $60 for a month. “But we didn’t have to pay income taxes.”

A couple of decades later Adella’s paycheck was up to $225 a month. “I had to pay $25 for room and board.”

Most of the teachers never had to interview for a job. Word seemed to circulate within the neighborhoods as to who was available to teach. Contracts were agreed on by April 1 or teachers had to be content with the same salary as the previous year.

State-sponsored rural schools functioned well under the direction of local school boards and a county school superintendent. For just over a century, these schools provided a good education and served as the hub of the rural communities across the state. But in 1971, with bussing available and a state mandate that diverted pupil appropriations to “town” schools, all state-funded rural schools were closed. Some were repurposed; others were torn down.

The Morrison County District # 1 school (later renumbered 1176) was moved from its original site and sat on the farmstead of Peter and June Brutscher for 31 years before being moved to the county fairgrounds where it has undergone restoration.

According to Dorothy Lindquist, “It has been dedicated as a memorial to all of Morrison County’s rural schools, their teachers and students.” It serves as an example of what education in Minnesota used to be.

The school is open whenever something is going on at the fairgrounds. It also hosted hundreds of visitors during the countywide school picnics held there annually for 10 years

This year’s 8th Annual Tea for Teachers will be held in this historic building. All former rural schoolteachers are invited to come and share the stories of their teaching days on June 24 from 2-4 p.m. Call Dorothy Lindquist at 320-632-6082 for more information.

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