|Rural schools may be gone, but they're not forgotten|
|Written by Margaret Plevak/For Walworth County Sunday|
|Monday, 19 December 2011 13:47|
A 1927 class portrait from the former Bailey School, once located along County Highway F in Delavan Township.
(Read all of this week's stories in the e-edition HERE)
EAST TROY — Long before sprawling complexes of classrooms, gyms and media centers, one-room schoolhouses dotted the rural landscape.
The Wisconsin Historical Society estimates more than 6,000 schoolhouses once operated in the state. Some of the buildings have disintegrated. Others survive as private homes or sheds, public town halls, even museums. But in the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, before today’s consolidated school districts, teachers in one-room schoolhouses were the primary educators for many area residents.
The smaller confines of a one-room schoolhouse meant tighter quarters, with grades one through eight all sharing a classroom, though the total number of students could be fewer than 10 in some cases.
“You’d have the little ones and older children learning together,” said Al Gruling, author of “Good Ol’ Fashioned School Days,” a book about East Troy’s one-room schoolhouses.
Gruling himself attended Bigelow School, a one-room schoolhouse in Cedarburg. “Students tended to look out for each other then,” he said.
That cooperative spirit was needed, especially in winter, when in the days before school buses and carpools, most kids walked to school.
Those stories, however, of the 12-mile trek — uphill both ways — are the stuff of rural legends. Early records show school administrators tried to keep schools no farther than two miles apart.
Marilyn Bickle of Janesville often walked to Austin School, located on Austin Road and County Highway B in Janesville. On winter days, Bickle, who was a kindergartener in 1944, dressed warmly, tucking her dress into snowpants. Sometimes, she was lucky enough to hitch a ride with an older teenager who drove a milk truck and stopped at her family’s dairy farm.
Plows kept major highways open, but when cars couldn’t make tall snowdrifts, alternatives were needed.
“If the weather was really bad, my dad would take us in a horse and cutter or sleigh,” said Rose Lovejoy of Rockton, who usually walked a mile to Conklin School, five miles west of Rockton on Illinois Route 75, in the 1930s.
Parents and teachers tried to keep abreast of storms.
“I remember one day, we all got to school OK, but at noon, two fathers showed up on tractors to get everybody home,” said Ruth Anderson, archive supervisor at the Rock County Historical Society, who attended Ellis School in Janesville.
Anderson often walked to school through farm fields.
“Even in wintertime, there was a path, if it wasn’t drifted over,” she recalled. She was lucky enough to have her grandparents live midway along her half-mile route to school; she could stop at their house to warm up on cold afternoons.
In 1944, Marilyn Mohring, treasurer of the Rockton Township Historical Society, was a first-grader at Bluff Springs School, about 250 miles south of Rockton. Mohring frequently got a ride to school from her aunt, who was the teacher. By the time Mohring was in fifth grade, the school board hired a local family with a station wagon as a school bus of sorts, but many children still walked, she said.
Enough heavy snow could close schools. Delavan resident John Buckles remembers classes were canceled for six weeks during the winter of 1936 at Bailey School, located along County Highway F, north of Bailey Road in Delavan Township. The teacher, who lived in Fontana, couldn’t make it in to the schoolhouse.
“Of course, we kids thought it was great we were out of school, but we didn’t realize we had to go to school half the summer to make it up,” Buckles said. “It was almost the Fourth of July by the time school was finished,” he said.
The cold weather generally brought added classroom responsibilities for teachers.
“Keeping warm was certainly a problem in winter,” said Barbara Shreves, a teacher guide at the Blooming Prairie Schoolhouse, now located in the Walworth County Fairgrounds in Elkhorn as a classroom exhibit for schoolchildren.
The school, which closed in 1959, once stood at Old 89 Road and School Section Road, north of Darien. Its iron stove is not original, but it was typical of the coal or wood-burning heaters in many one-room schools, Shreves said.
“Early on, school teachers’ contracts often required them to come at about 6:30 in the morning to start a fire in the stove so the school would be warm by the time the children arrived,” she said.
She also heard of records for the school showing parents of students were required to provide a cord of wood for each child. “That was sort of the school fee back then,” she said.
Teachers like Jean Lees sometimes boarded with people in the community to have a closer commute. Lees, who drove to her job at Round School near Elkhorn, where she taught during the 1940s, didn’t have to fire up the furnace every winter morning — the school board hired an eighth-grade student to do that.
She doesn’t remember who shoveled the path to the two bathrooms, located outside the schoolhouse, but she knows recess wasn’t stopped by the cold.
“There was a pond in a field across the road from the school. At noon, after we ate, we’d go over there and skate. That would be our exercise for the day,” she said.
A pond across the road from Conklin School, dubbed “Lake Puckaway” by locals, also served as an ice rink for sliding kids during the lunch hour, Lovejoy said.
Lovejoy remembered a friend’s story of a group of eighth-graders who got a teacher out on soft ice, hoping it would crack, and she’d get wet, cancel school and go home. Although the teacher did break through the ice, she simply walked back to the schoolhouse, put her stockings near the stove to dry and taught the rest of the afternoon.
Mohring skated at her school, too, but indoors.
“The basement was our play space in the wintertime,” she said. “We’d bring our strap-on roller skates and skate down there.”
Kids often carried a cold lunch to school, but one-room schoolhouses got innovative in winter, improvising their own “hot lunch” programs.
“Some winters, mothers set up a schedule and a different mother would bring a hot soup for everybody for lunch,” Lees said, recalling that soup could be kept warm atop a heater in the classroom during the morning. “Everybody brought their own bowl and spoon from home.”
At Austin School, the coal furnace had a ledge inside that was large enough to hold food.
“We would bring a scrubbed potato from home with our initials in it and a little jar with butter, salt and pepper,” Bickle said. “About 11 o’clock, the teacher would take everybody’s potatoes down to the basement and put them on the ledge. At noon we had the most luscious baked potatoes with the crunchiest skins.”
Winter also brought Christmas, and the magic of the holiday permeated the classroom.
Lovejoy remembered students made paper chains to decorate the tree inside their school.
Mohring and her classmates made Christmas gifts in hands-on fashion, from painting glass to sawing wood. She still has a sample of her handiwork hanging on her wall: a wooden maple leaf with a tiny shelf complete with hooks for keys.
Christmas programs at the schools drew not only parents, but any local residents eager for some holiday entertainment.
“The schoolhouse in a lot of areas was really the neighborhood social center, because a lot of people lived too far from town,” Shreves said.
“Christmas was always a big gathering and the schools would be packed,” said Gruling, who once played Tiny Tim in “A Christmas Carol” at Bigelow. “Schools could put on a Christmas pageant or tell the Christmas story in those days, and sing religious songs. There weren’t the restrictions there are now.”
Bickle, whose classmates had a weekly music lesson from a traveling teacher, remembered playing a sugar plum fairy when her class put on “The Nutcracker” one Christmas.
“When the program was done, we’d hear jingling and then here came Santa Claus with candy and little gifts,” she said. “Usually we could guess who played Santa Claus — somebody’s dad — but one year even the eighth-graders couldn’t figure it out.
“He was such a jolly old man that one of the eighth-graders said, ‘Maybe I was wrong. Maybe there really is a Santa Claus.’ We never found out who he was.”
|Last Updated on Monday, 19 December 2011 14:03|