Kenmare ND - Upside Down Under

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Upside Down Under

By Marvin Baker, a new weekly column in The Kenmare News


Lamenting the one-room schoolhouse

Posted 5/29/18 (Tue)

Several weeks ago my first cousin and I got together for lunch in “The Finish Line,” bar and cafe in Velva.

This wasn’t your average middle-age guys getting together to talk about farming or golf. We talked about a lot of subjects and people because we haven’t seen each other in 45 years.

He’s been in Alabama most of his adult life and made a trip to North Dakota, spending a couple of weeks here to thank churches for helping to fund his missionary work in the Philippines.

We talked about Hazelton where our parents grew up and lived much of their lives. So when Stan said he got lost trying to find the country cemetery where many of our relatives, and my parents are buried, he said he stopped at a farm and asked for directions to the Gayton Cemetery. He was told the best way to find it was to go just beyond the Gayton School.

It’s a one-room schoolhouse that still stands in Gayton Township, which is in Emmons County. It hasn’t been used in about 60 years and some of the windows are broken out and the paint is peeling off the exterior.

But it still stands about a half mile from the cemetery and I can’t imagine how many people who live in that part of Emmons County and who are buried in that cemetery, have gone to school there.

It’s just like in every township in North Dakota. Once upon a time, nearly all of them had one-room schoolhouses and one teacher taught six or maybe eight grades.

Imagine how interesting that must have been? How do you teach two first graders one thing and essentially three or four sixth graders something else on a different level?

They say teachers are challenged today, but just imagine for a moment how they coped with working in a one-room school out in the middle of nowhere.

Most of them were young, single women who were out on the prairie with little protection in case there was an issue.

The students also had chores while in school. Some stoked the furnace, some took care of the horses, some swept the floors, while others organized the schoolhouse for the next day.

When I was a young child, I remember my two older brothers going to a one-room schoolhouse about two miles north of our farm. When they became old enough, the Hazelton Public School bus picked them up. When I started school in 1965, the one-room school had already closed.

There’s no doubt some of you reading this will remember attending one of those schools in North Dakota’s past. My only experience with a one-room schoolhouse was during a tour of the Pioneer Village in Kenmare.

It is well equipped with the wood desks, a portrait of Abraham Lincoln on the wall, a book on every desk and those huge maps the teacher would pull down over the blackboard.

There’s a lot of nostalgia to that but it doesn’t do the real thing justice. It would be impossible to figure out how many of those schools existed at their peak.

And there may have been several in a township. If you think of where the population centers were in the 1930s and ‘40s, some counties like Cass, Grand Forks and Burleigh may have had numerous one-room schoolhouses along with a full public school in each community in the county.

We still have county superintendents in the state, but their role is mostly symbolic today. At one time that person was the leadership for all the one-room schools as well as the full public schools.

And we had a lot more public schools in the 1940s than we have now. Today, several counties have consolidated to just one school, while some of those township schools still sit there on the prairie.

But this isn’t all a piece of history. There’s at least two functioning one-room schoolhouses that I’m aware of in Burleigh County. One of them is no more than six or eight miles southeast of Bismarck and the other is about halfway between Bismarck and Hazelton, along the Missouri River.

I’m sure there are a few others scattered around the state that continue to operate.

For those that are no longer open, like the Gayton School; there’s a lot of them. If you look hard enough, you’ll probably find at least one in most of North Dakota’s counties.

Maybe those that remain should be restored to keep that part of North Dakota history.

Yes, it costs money to paint and maintain, but I’m sure fund raisers would find enough to keep many of them standing and looking good.