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Stories, photos sought for Rural Schools project

WORTHINGTON -- Between the 1870s and the 1950s, 115 rural school buildings dotted the Nobles County landscape. Some were known solely by their district number, while others had names -- sometimes two or three different names during the decades th...

3185607+022817.N.DG_.NCHS District_72_Lincoln.jpg
The District 72 "Lincoln" School was located in Section 17 of Worthington Township, at the intersection of Oliver Avenue and 250th Street. (Nobles County Historical Society)

WORTHINGTON - Between the 1870s and the 1950s, 115 rural school buildings dotted the Nobles County landscape. Some were known solely by their district number, while others had names - sometimes two or three different names during the decades they housed chalkboards, coal-fired stoves and expanding young minds.

For the past three years, volunteers at the Nobles County Historical Society have worked to gather information on each one. The goal is to get a photograph of each district school house, as well as any additional information, from record books to stories from students - even, perhaps, from the teachers who taught there.

“I think we’ve located seven or eight teachers, and they’re all between 90 and 100 years old,” said Paul Hoffman, one of the volunteers working on the Rural Schools project.

“Sandy Wood just interviewed a teacher that was 102,” quipped Roger Zarn, another volunteer.

The interviews with teachers, as well as rural school students, are being recorded in hopes they will eventually be transcribed and added to binders filled with information on the rural schools that opened within Nobles County’s 20 townships.

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Those binders already include some artifacts, such as student report cards, souvenir booklets and class records.

The historical society’s list of 115 rural schools was developed using county abstract books, as well as minutes of county commissioner and township board meetings.

“There are 20 townships and there were probably four to six schools per district, on average,” Zarn said. One township was home to nine rural schools.

“At one time, each school district had clerk books, teacher’s records, library books,” shared Hoffman. “Most of those, over the course of 140 years, have disappeared. Some written records date back to 1872.”

 

Researching history An 1874 plat book identifies just six or eight rural schools in Nobles County. However, the year prior, 40 rural school districts were established on the same day, noted Hoffman. It took a while for some of the schools to be built.

Each school was constructed about a mile and a half to two miles apart, which provided rural families with a school that, at most, was about a mile or a mile and a half walk for its students.

The earliest rural school in the county was established in 1872.

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“They started consolidating probably around 1948-49, and they were completely consolidated by about 1956,” Zarn said. “That’s when all the country kids started going to public school in Reading, Wilmont, Worthington, Rushmore.”

Thus far in their research, the NCHS has discovered 39 of the 115 former rural schools are still standing. Hoffman believes there are more still in existence - they just haven’t been tracked down yet. In some cases, the buildings were moved not just once, but multiple times.

In one instance, Hoffman learned one of Nobles County’s rural schools - District 26 - was moved to Ocheyedan, Iowa, and used as a Christian school.

“Someone said it was turned into a house, but we haven’t confirmed that yet,” he said.

Hoffman has visited the site of every single rural schoolhouse in the county and taken a picture, whether of the school building still standing there; or of a farm field with a driveway approach.

He said photographs of 65 of the 115 schools have been taken, but the quest for more pictures continues.

Stories abound While the volunteers admit they should have started this project 20 years ago, they have been thankful for people who saved items from their rural school days - negatives and other documents.

Hoffman said one of their great sources was Blanda Weitgenant, a county school superintendent for many years.

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“She kept pretty meticulous records,” he noted. “She wrote down a list of school teachers - from 1910s to 1950s. She was the last county school superintendent.”

In another instance, volunteers tracked down Bessie Whelan, who began her teaching career at age 16 at District 33 in Grand Prairie Township in 1926. Whelan had a camera and took “volumes of pictures,” noted Hoffman. He was able to get the negatives and printed the photos, which he then shared with 96-year-old Ruth Birkett, who was in kindergarten that year.

“She was just thrilled to see pictures of herself and her classmates from 1926,” Hoffman said. The NCHS was thrilled to have the images as well.

NCHS has a committee of six individuals working on the Rural Schools project. In addition to gathering photographs, they are also collecting stories.

What they have learned so far is that one school burned to the ground after a student tried to set a beehive on fire. At another school, a male student brought a pistol to class one day and shot the rope off the school bell so the teacher couldn’t ring the bell. (That boy was then required to climb up on the roof every day to ring the bell for the teacher.)

There were also multiple stories of school kids locking the teacher in the coal building or the outhouse for an entire school day.

Hoffman said some of the teachers were just 16 or 17 when they began their careers, and among their students were big, strong farm boys that, while they may have been 20 years old, had an education equivalent to the sixth or seventh grade because they were always pulled from school to do farm work.

“It was quite threatening to the teachers,” Hoffman said, noting the discovery of notes by the superintendent that male teachers were needed to bring order to the classroom.

Hoffman and Zarn said they’ve enjoyed hearing the stories about life in Nobles County’s rural schools, and they are hoping others will come forward with photographs or artifacts.

Anyone with information about any of Nobles County’s rural schools is encouraged to contact the Nobles County Historical Society at 376-4431 or visit the office in the lower level of the War Memorial Building, 407 12th St., Worthington, between noon and 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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