Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Wolfe School Museum - Clay County District #55

by Jerry Johnson

The Sutton Historical Society's rural school museum came from Lone Tree Township in Clay County, Nebraska about four miles southwest of Clay Center and two miles north of Fairfield. The school house was the Wolfe School in District #55 and operated until the 1962-1963 school year; Dorothy Shaw was the last teacher in the Wolfe school when there were six students.
The Wolfe School from the door looking toward the front of the room.

The school came to us complete with piano, stove, books and teacher and student desks. The blackboard extends across the front wall and there is the classic elevated stage at the front of the room.

The ceiling was dropped sometime in the history of the building leaving a four or five foot tall space between the new and old levels.

We have added one school desk to the arrangement of the school. This desk of a distinctive design has been in the basement of a house in Sutton for many years. It came from a rural school about five miles north of Sutton, District #8, one of the two schools in School Creek Township that were designated as "Nuss Schools," the other being District #16, my own school through the fifth grade.

The desk from the original District #8 in northeast Clay County.
District #8 was in the middle of a large tract of land that was settled by the Germans from Russia who found a home in the Sutton area after 1873. They built their first school furnishing it with desks of this design, a design that they were familiar with in Russia, and probably earlier in Germany.

When they built their second school they furnished that school with desks of the much more common design for American schools, the design of the rest of the desks in the room and for most of us.

We had a visit by a graduate student from the University of Freiberg in Germany in the spring of 2011. Emily Jordaning is originally from Fall City, Nebraska and a graduate of Doane College in Crete. Her graduate thesis was on German immigrants to Nebraska and Sutton became a center for her research. She told us that this desk design was a common school desk arrangement in Europe, a piece of information that makes this treasure even more interesting and appropriate.

The Wolfe School has two rooms in the corners beside the front door. Those were the old "utility" rooms used as coat closets, storage and for drinking water, etc. Rural schools did not have indoor plumbing. Two outhouses "out back" served for toilet facilities. We had an outhouse behind our school museum but the building suffered considerable damage when we used it in a parade - it was not in good shape anyhow. We are in the market for one, or two, outhouses to complete our museum and add a bit of authenticity. Early rural school houses also often had a barn where the kids and teachers could keep their horses during the day, especially harsh winter days on the Nebraska prairies. Yes, youngsters often rode horseback to school or maybe more commonly, had a small buggy that could carry several kids from a family or neighboring families.

We have desks of a variety of sizes and designs including these "double-wides."
There were at at least 67 rural schools in Clay County, more earlier before the Hastings Naval Ammunition Depot took a big bite out of the western part of the county. A typical school district was from seven to nine square miles putting about four or five schools in each of the six mile by six mile townships. The arrangement meant that few children were more than two miles from a school.

The districts were chartered as state corporations. The farmers in each district organized themselves electing three board members who were charged with the affairs of the school. The school board recruited and hired teachers and were responsible for the official and proper conduct of a state corporation. The board was furnished with templates and instructions for filing the necessary reports and documentation for their corporation. Historians have found that the reports were typically submitted in compliance, no strict compliance with the templates and guidelines furnished. Those families placed a high value on the education of their children though late spring and early fall field work sometimes took priority for the older boys.

The school board also had responsibility for fuel, generally coal and other maintenance functions. The teacher had responsibilities beyond the book-learning. She (generally "she") had to get to school early and get the fire going in the winter to warm up the building before the kids arrived. Teachers often maintained flower gardens and took pride in the appearance of their charge.

Teacher training was called "Normal Training" either in the local high school or in a separate school specifically for teacher training. Normal training often occurred in lieu of the upper classes of high school such that teachers were often working not much past their 16th birthday.

Imagine a sixteen year old girl running her own school in all kinds of weather a half a mile, or more from the nearest farm house. Imagine her level of responsibility as storm clouds built up in January threatening a snow storm, maybe a major blizzard. Imagine that situation before weather forecasts, radios, telephones or motorized transportation. Imagine the level of trust and confidence farm families put into the judgment and performance of their teachers, often teenagers or very young adults.

The academic guidance for a county's wide spread educational system came under the County Superintendent. The County Super directed and looked after the course work and the teaching performance of all of the county's teachers. Clay County had 67 or more schools over the period of rural education. The superintendent made periodic visits to the schools. It seems unlikely that they could visit more than four or five schools in a full day plus there certainly would have been work in the office. It'seems unlikely that a school received more than three or four visits in a school year, if that.

A visit from the county superintendent was a big deal at the school. This was a performance evaluation for the teacher. As a young fellow in a country school, I recall that we picked up onthe teacher's apprehension and sense of urgency about the visit. The superintendent, in our case, Mrs. Rippeteau watched as the teacher conducted classes. She inspected the building and the grounds. Our county superintendent had a weekly column in each of the county papers. Her assessment of the school appearance and the teacher's performance made the papers for all to see. Those reports make fascinating reading. Good marks weren't gimmies.

The rural school system was an important part of the settling of the Great Plains. One of the histories of the rural system points out that it was largely a feature of the British colonies. The idea that kids in even the most remotest settled areas were entitled to a free education led to rural schools in the United States, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand to a greater extent than elsewhere.

The Sutton Museums are open on Sunday's from 2 - 5 pm or by appointment by calling 402-773-0222 or at We like to show off our Wolfe School. Stop and see us. There is a diminishing number of us who remember, first hand, what country schools, the rural schools were really like. We enjoy hearing your stories too.

1 comment:

ed koznarek said...

I lived about 3-4 miles from school on a farm. Took pony, cart, brother and sister to school. 5-8 students. Mrs Hovet (sp) teacher. Stand up spelling bee each day. Fed pony during recess. Xmas play each yr. During dust storms had to stay in school until help came. Left farm 1939. 8th grade Omaha school was a snap. Remember Wolfe bros as students & Pesek family.