Country Schools


Would you believe, long years ago,
These weathered walls were white as snow...
The windowpanes were clean and bright
And rainbowed with reflected light?
Once it stood as proud and straight
As any schoolhouse in the state
And its importance clearly showed
As people passed it on the road.
The flag would fly, come rain or shine,
And every morning, right at nine,
The children would come in to class
And one more day of school would pass.

It served the whole community,
The apex of activity.
It was the best thing these people knew,
And all the children loved it, too.
They never missed a single day.
The parents praised it, all the way,
This was just a dream come true
That their small kids could go to school.
Cold and blizzards could prevail,
Drifts could block each prairie trail,
But they'd hitch up the old bob-sleigh
And bring the children, anyway.

It was a very busy place
With children running in a race,
Or playing 'tag' or 'let's go hide'
'Till Teacher's bell called them inside.
Three rows of desks in order stood.
Forbidden carvings in the wood,
Facing towards the blackboard wall
Where Teacher stood to teach them all.
The hung their coats on little hooks,
They could have had six dozen books.
Consolidation closed it down
And buses took the kids to town.
Birds fly in the broken door.
That prairie milestone is no more.

- Tim -

    On September 6, 1955 I transformed from child to youth. Because I was six years old, it was time for me to start school and consequently begin regular chores. I was first introduced to the cow that I would milk by hand morning and evening for years to come. Then my dad drove me to the New Home Number Four schoolhouse, which was one mile away, north on a gravel road called County Road 29 or the Red Trail.
    This school was built shortly after 1900 and had educated my father, his brothers, and many neighbors. Only eight grades of instruction were ever offered.
    There were no hot meals. My first school lunch was packed in a tin lunch pail with a cartoon of a rocket on the side. I had a peanut butter and grape jelly sandwich for what farmers called dinner and townies called lunch. Although this may seem to be modest fare, PB&J would carry me through many a grueling time in my life.
    I can also remember cold meals with lefse, braunschweiger, head cheese and that great Germany contribution to the world – kuchen!
    Our father never again drove me to country school in car or truck. I can recall one occasion when he drove a big tractor through near-whiteout conditions to the school, pulling a hay wagon with me and my siblings riding on it. Drifted snow had blocked the road and neither car nor pickup would have busted through the snowbanks, but we were going to get to class, by golly.
    The township school system used in North and South Dakota was created by legislation of the Dakota Territory government. (The two states were formed from Dakota Territory in 1889). Territorial law mandated the construction of four one-classroom schools in every township.
    The word township has many definitions. A township in that part of the country was defined as the most basic level of administration. It was deemed an area of 36 square miles, six miles on a side. Schools were built at three mile intervals.
    By design, no student would have to travel more than one and one half or two miles to school. Transportation in territorial days was generally by foot, bicycle, horseback or horse-drawn wagon.
    A typical school structure had a small arctic entry opening to a coat room which doubled as a playroom when weather prohibited outside play at recess. (That would have to be some very bad weather indeed.) From the coat room, one entered the classroom.
    The walls of the classroom might hold a blackboard, flag, pictures of Lincoln and Washington and the entire library in a bookcase. There was usually a small side room that could be used for storage (including coal) or as a bedroom for the teacher.
    In motorized days, the state provided a traveling library in a van called a bookmobile. The bookmobile was a wondrous thing and its arrival was anticipated with great longing and it was used with immense joy.
    Although the building I attended was wired for electricity (after a fashion) there was no plumbing. Running water was rare at any rural school in the Dakotas. An outhouse stood about 40 feet from the school and beyond it was the foundation for a long gone horse barn.
     The majority of country school teachers were female and most instructors were young. A high-school graduation certificate and a few weeks of training were sufficient qualifications.
    Often, the teacher was from the area and lived at home; some boarded at local farms. In other cases they may have slept in a small room in the school building. It was prudent to have provisions for at least a temporary stay-over because of weather and travel conditions.
    The rural schools had multiple uses: They were the “atoms” of local government at the most elemental and social centers and meeting places for non-governmental organizations like the Farmers Union and Farm Bureau. Sometimes church worship would be held in a schoolhouse. Card parties and pot lucks were frequent events.
    Prairie country life was tough for everyone, but there was a social richness that often lead to young single teachers finding spouses during their service.
    The following rules (as recorded by the South Dakota Historical Society) were made 82 years before I started school. Certainly things were less austere by 1955.

Instructions to Teachers, Dakota Territory (September, 1872)
1.  Teachers will fill lamps, clean chimneys and trim wicks daily.
2.  Each teacher will bring a scuttle of coal and a bucket of water for the day's use.
3.  Make your pens carefully.  You may whittle nibs for the individual tastes of the children.
4.  Men teachers may take one evening each week for courting purposes or two evenings a week if they go to church regularly.
5.  After ten hours in school, the teacher should spend the remaining time reading the Bible or other good books.
6.  Women teachers who marry or engage in other unseemly conduct will be dismissed.
7.  Every teacher should lay aside from his pay a goodly sum for his declining years so that he will not become a burden on society.
8.  Any teacher who smokes, uses liquor in any form, frequents a pool or public hall, or gets shaved in a barber shop will give good reason for suspecting his worth, intentions, integrity and honesty.
9.  The teacher who performs his labors faithfully and without fault for five years will be given an increase of 25 cents a week in his pay providing the Board of Education approves.

    For many of my parent's generation, eight grades at a country school was their sole education. High school was not mandated and there was no transportation provided by the school district. That would change in the late 1950's when consolidation began. The population on the prairies was diminishing as farms went out of business and were sold to other farmers in the area. Family sizes also shrank.
    During the time that I attended New Home #4, the largest number of students was ten; in my last year I had five classmates. To my knowledge there were never more than fifteen kids enrolled there.
    Country schools were closed in yearly increments. My school was closed as of the 1960 season. As far as I know, the last school in our area was closed in 1961 or '62.
    The closure of the schools and the ongoing shutdown of ubiquitous rural churches centralized social life. By 1960, all families had cars. For us, town, church and shopping was 8 miles away. That was now a 15-minute drive. Buses carried students to and from school and most were attending High School until graduation.
    By the 1970's town schools were also being consolidated – and controversy was frequent. Residents of towns targeted for school closure rightly feared that such changes could lead to economic collapse. Sadly, such expectations were frequently realized. Towns dried up.

    I’m including pictures and narratives to illustrate this rough and wondrous time in rural America, but first, credits are due: Kudos to my sister-in-law Lona Johnson for her own photographs and for countless hours digitizing images of archived photos.
    And let’s give a shout-out to my former teacher Karen Boyko for her loving restoration of Lake Margaret #3 shown below, originally near Casper Slough, north of Turtle Lake, North Dakota.

Probably bui­lt in the ‘20’s to replace a simpler structure that had burned down.

The “library” of LM #3. About the same size as the one at New Home #4. No wonder the Bookmobile was such a hit!

The sole source of heat (usually) and often replaced by an oil heater of similar size and B.T.U.S …

The one-and-only classroom. Presumably students in the grade being presented to at any one time would move to the front of the room. Other students could listen in, regardless of age.

Taken from the South side of New Home #4, probably in the 1920’s. Twelve students present.

New Home #4 in the Fall of 2015. Clinging to its past.

The sun has set on this extraordinary time in the American west.