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Revisiting, honoring the country school

Sibley County group completes special homework assignment

If a country school teacher was grading a newly published book: Remembering Country Schools of Sibley County, Minnesota, she probably would write an “A+” in her report card to recognize the effort, determination and dedication it took to compile a definitive history of the rural schools that once dotted the prairie landscape years ago.

The idea for the book originated with Harriet Traxler, who was active in the Sibley County Historical Society. She was an avid photographer and published author of several books, including one that featured the Barns of Sibley County.

Although she got the project rolling, she didn’t live to see it completed, having died in 2013. But the book committee consisting of Sibley County Historical Society officers and volunteers pressed forward deciding it needed to be finished under the leadership of Dorothy Peterson, of Gibbon, who assumed the role of editor.

“It was an important story that needed to be told as we went ahead documenting the stories and memories of those still living who attended country schools,” said SCHS President Jerome Petersen, of Gibbon.

“Most of the people we interviewed were now in their 70s and older, including one lady who was 103 years old, and we needed to hear their recollections of going to country schools before it was too late,” he stated. “A lot of people who we talked to when this book project started have died already, including one man just seven days after being interviewed.”

Once there were as many as 80 rural public school districts located throughout the 17 townships of Sibley County in addition to 15 parochial, schools all under the supervision of a county superintendent. The oldest being District 1, which started in 1854 near Henderson.

Appropriately then, Henderson became the home base for much of the book project work, which took place at the Sibley County Historical Society Museum where a majority of the volunteers themselves were once students of the country school system.

For 2 1/2 years the book staffers spent countless hours doing exhaustive research, making hundreds of phone calls, video and audio recordings of interviews and personal visits with former students and teachers to gather all of the information, details and stories they could find about the long ago country schools.

Interviews often were done at the museum offices or with groups at various places in Henderson, Gaylord, Arlington, Gibbon, Lafayette, LeSueur and Fairfax.

“Dorothy would transcribe the comments and put them in text form while Eldrene Ebert and Arlene Busse assembled the historical data for the township history sections, which included where school properties were located, sales, who the land was purchased from and who bought it when the schools closed,” Jerome explained.

Meanwhile, Ruth Ann Buck was busy interviewing, typing, scanning photos, proofreading copy and photographing school buildings as they appear now. “She also provided some good humor for the group during some long days of work,” Petersen added.

The hardcover volume book has more than 500 pages, featuring colored township maps that show the boundaries served by the school districts. Along with the numerous interviews, the group collected over 2,000 pieces of memorabilia, including teacher lesson plans, notes, exams, grades and various programs. Hundreds of other photos submitted by people who attended country schools were scanned, pioneer families researched, and courthouse records and newspaper archives examined.

Twice group representatives traveled to the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul to get information and were surprised to discover several boxes of Sibley County teacher index cards from 1915 to consolidation with the town schools in the late ‘50s. They were copied to be used in a special index section of the book. Another index lists all of the names of students and eighth-grade graduation classes dating back as far as 1910.

“Dorothy was the glue that held all of this together as the book slowly came together…she was married to it,” Jerome recalled. “She had the biggest load, drove the most, arranged the most, did a lot of work out of her home, found a publishing printer, typed the proof corrections and printed out each chapter three different times to be read over and over again to make sure it was thoroughly checked for typos and accuracy.”

“We don’t expect there will not by any errors in the book, but we think the proof readers did an awesome job,” said Dorothy. “They even counted the number of people in the many photos to make sure we got all the names accounted for when identifying them.”

Others on the book team also were heavily involved in various production roles including Sharon Shimota, Marie Main, Millie Johnson, Mary Petersen, Roseann Nagel and Sharon Haggenmiller.

Jerome added they were all so immersed in the book that the museum office would look like a storm had blown through it. “I told Dorothy often that I hoped her head wouldn’t explode organizing all the content and designing the format.”

He pointed out many things they discovered about rural schools during the process of putting the book together. “We found some country schools had one teacher for eight grades with as many as 60 kids in one room while another school had as few as three students in the building,” he commented.

He added that most schools had no electricity until about 1940 and very few phones. “Kids from age 6 to 16 played together for recess and ate cold sandwich lunches.”

Petersen also explained that the students all drank from a common dipper filled from a water pail in the school room. “The outhouse was the bathroom, the school had no central heat, and pretty much the kids walked to school every day,” he noted. “But all the former students we interviewed praised the quality of education they received and overall country school experiences.”

School Day Stories Among the numerous experiences and interesting stories in the book was the time four students and a teacher were marooned in a Bismarck Township school building for three days during the sudden Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940.

With only enough food for the first day, the teacher rationed the student sandwiches to only a couple of bites a day until help arrived after the roads were cleared of snowdrifts. They had enough wood to keep the stove fired up for heat and water to drink as they watched wind-driven snow from the howling storm pile up as high as a desktop in one corner of the drafty room.

“You have to remember there was no phones or electricity or indoor plumbing for those people, and parents didn’t know for three days what happened to their children,” Jerome explained.

The book committee also learned that the eighth-grade graduating classes from all of the country schools in the county would traditionally assemble each year for a group photograph taken on the steps in front of the courthouse building in Gaylord. Previously that was done in Henderson until the courthouse was relocated in 1915. For one or two years while the new courthouse was being built, photos were taken in front of the Gaylord City Hall.

Millie Johnson, class of 1937, said that her Dist. 47 school was located at the end of her farm home driveway so she didn’t have to walk too far to attend classes, and her teacher was never very far away as well since she boarded with them during the school term.

Records show teachers were paid as low as $25 a month in some years, but one perk they did have was usually getting a ride to the school by the host family while the children still had to walk.

Outhouses seemed to be frequent targets for pranks. One time a few naughty boys decided to dynamite the outhouse next to a school in Cornish Township. The blast was so strong it also blew the windows out of the school building.

A visiting county superintendent also got a surprise one day when the outhouse he was using mysteriously got tipped over with him still sitting inside.

A prank that backfired on students occurred when they walked to school one day to find a “No school today- teacher sick” sign tacked to the front door. They all walked back home only to have to come back again after learning the note was a hoax.

Language barriers for immigrant families often was an obstacle to overcome in some schools when students only spoke German, Swedish or Norwegian, and the teachers first had to teach English in order to communicate. Often they relied on other students to be translators.

A lot of kids took their turn teaching parents how to speak English, and sometimes they reported never hearing their grandparents speak very much because they didn’t know English.

Students were usually assigned jobs in the schools. When lessons ended, boys were tasked with bringing in enough wood for the stove. They carried in water and swept the floors while the girls took care of blackboard cleaning, emptying trash, and dusting out erasers.

Sometimes students were older than their teachers. Students could attend school until age 21 and were mostly the boys who would miss fall or spring terms because they were needed for crop harvest or planting seasons. It was also remembered in interviews that sometimes the smell of livestock on farm boots became quite strong in the one-room school house.

Remarkably, of the approximately 80 country school buildings, book researchers discovered nearly 50 structures remain standing in Sibley County today. Some are now farm sheds or granaries while others, especially brick ones, have been remodeled into homes or town halls.

“I loved digging through the old records at the courthouse looking up this stuff for the book,” said Ebert, a former Sibley County recorder. “My husband, Ruben, helped with some interviews too, and we always came away from those sessions realizing how very proud people were of their country schools,” she commented.

With financing for book printing coming from a grant, presales and a private benefactor, 700 copies were published. “I think readers will enjoy this book, not only in Sibley County, but from other areas of the state too, as the stories pretty much pertain to all country schools during that period of history,” Jerome stated.

“It’s a relief to be done with the project, and we have a great book. All of us who worked on it are proud of our accomplishment and hope our readers and families enjoy the information we presented about past generations,” he added. For ordering information on the book on Sibley County country schools see the ad on Page 2A.

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