Remembering District 49
Today’s schoolchildren might have visited a museum that had wooden desks with inkwells. But real-life students once sat in them.
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories about one-room country school experiences in the southwest Minnesota area.
The lunch pails were empty, the maps were in a different location and the small wooden desks weren’t the original ones, but most of the furnishings inside the Burchard Schoolhouse were familiar to Marvin Chandler and (Lutterman) sisters Armella Deutz and Marion Swan.
The three former students — among many who learned to read, write and complete arithmetic in the rural one-room schoolhouse years ago — enjoyed reminiscing at an unofficial reunion recently.
“There used to be country schools every two or three miles,” said Swan, a former resident of Balaton who now lives with her husband, Arden, in Tracy. “It was just so different so many years ago.”
Roughly 8,000 one-room schoolhouses dotted the Minnesota landscape during the first half of the 20th century. Today, only a single one-room public school is in use in the state, making it imperative to preserve the history — the actual structures, and even more importantly, the real-life stories — that encompass the bygone era.
“I’m really glad I had the experience of attending country school,” said Deutz, who now lives in Marshall with her husband, Gary. “Marvin and I were classmates and we went to Burchard for seven years. “
Burchard School — known as District 49 — is one of the lucky ones to be preserved. Built in 1881 and later moved into the unincorporated village of Burchard in the late 1880s, the schoolhouse and its rich history have withstood the test of time.
“My mother attended and taught several rural schools around Balaton and recalled those days as very special,” said Mark Schwanebeck, who donated the Burchard School in memory of his mother, Eleanor Schwanebeck, who died in August 2015 at the age of 89. “She also enjoyed the Balaton (Area) Historical Museum very much. I am happy that the building will be used to tell the story of early education in this area.”
The Balaton Area Historical Society acquired the school, raising $20,000 for moving costs to give the building its new — and hopefully, its final — home.
“It was logical that the building be donated to the Balaton Area Historical Society,” Schwanebeck said. “Most of the students who attended this school went on to graduate from Balaton High School.”
Schools in Minnesota’s early educational history had no electricity, indoor plumbing, running water or school buses. Despite the challenges, most rural one-room schoolhouses provided a solid education and strong sense of community.
That connectedness and sense of community is what Chandler, who lives in Balaton with his wife, Charlene, feels was the best part about attending country school.
“I think the most important thing about country school is that we learned to socialize with other kids,” he said.
Swan said the students learned to be respectful to the teacher and to each other.
“There was no bullying,” she said. ” I don’t remember any big kid beating up a younger one.”
Deutz said there seems to be more bullying today than in the past.
“I’m shocked at the bullying that goes on — and it’s more often the girls who are the worst,” Deutz said. “There’s so much jealousy. I liked interacting with other kids, even ones who were different ages.”
Most one-room schools were from grades 1-8 and one teacher was expected to educate the students at every grade level. Chandler said he liked all but one of his teachers over the years.
“The other teachers I had in country school were wonderful,” he said. “There was Alta Gifford and Burchard was her first teaching job. Then we had Nettie Larson from the Tyler area.”
Deutz and Swan also thought well of Gifford and Larson.
“I remember her playing ball with us,” Swan said about Gifford, a Russell native who is now 95 and a resident at the Balaton Colonial Manor. “She was a Johnson to start with. I still remember her.”
The trio also had good memories of teacher Nora Kirpatrick.
“One time there was a quick snowstorm that came up and Mrs. Kirpatrick let school out at noon,” Chandler said. “My folks had been gone to Pipestone. She took us kids home and when our folks weren’t home, she stayed with us.”
The Lutterman sisters had nine other siblings — Alfred is their lone surviving sibling — and they walked about a mile and a half to get to school.
“We walked a lot of the time,” Swan said. “We’d cut through the field if there was no crop or when the corn wasn’t so tall.”
Deutz said her brother recalled getting to school in the wintertime with the help of horses.
“Alfred remembers our dad hitching up the team of horses with a bobsled,” Deutz said. “They did have a Ford and a Chevy, but when it was really, really cold, the car wouldn’t start. There was no antifreeze in those days. They could put water in the radiator and cover it with an old coat or something till it warmed up and then they’d go. But when they got home, they’d have to drain the water or it would freeze and bust the radiator.”
Swan said their mom (Martha) had attended a Catholic boarding school because she lived three miles away.
“I asked her why she stayed there the whole week,” Swan said. “She said they had to go by horse or walk and it was three miles. That was in Illinois. So that’s how different other generations were. We thought we had it rough.”
Chandler said he and his siblings — Lester, who died June 27, and Joan, who now lives in Florida — had to travel a good 2 miles to school.
“We walked or rode bike,” Chandler said. “One year, we walked or rode bike all but one day.”
Deutz said she fondly remembers Chandler teaching her how to ride a bike.
“It was down a hill,” Deutz said. “I must have been about second grade. I think I fell down, but I don’t think I wrecked Marvin’s bike.”
Chandler said the teachers were tasked with starting the stove before school.
“It was still pretty cold when we got there sometimes,” he said. “So we just left our coats on.”
After saying the Pledge of Allegiance, school would begin. Classes would take turns sitting up by the teacher to get their daily lessons while the other students worked on homework.
“We did learn a lot from just sitting there and listening,” Deutz said. When the teacher had a class up in front, if it was an older class, we could learn from that, too. We didn’t have homework that lasted all day.”
Deutz said that oftentimes kids would go out in the entry way to study but would end up playing catch instead.
“It was OK as long as we caught the ball,” she said. “If we didn’t, it would bounce and make a lot of noise. Then we got in trouble. We went out there to study while the teacher was up there with the other grades.”
Swan recalls that the older students sat in back.
“If I remember right, there were smaller pews on the left and then they had seats for the older ones in back,” she said. “You graduated sizes as you got older.”
Swan and Deutz said their favorite subject was spelling. Chandler preferred math.
“Spelling was my worst subject,” Chandler said. “I liked math. But the way they teach math is completely different now. They teach algebra and stuff.”
While the new math likely has its benefits, Chandler said he believes today’s math skips the basic life skills, like how to balance a checkbook.
“I think with a lot of the new math, they don’t emphasize finances in there,” he said. “Kids need simple life skills.”
Chandler also liked studying from the large maps at the front of the room.
“We used to look at the maps quite often,” Chandler said. “We’d pull them out and look at them.”
Reading was also an important part of school.
“We read ‘Dick and Jane’ books,” Deutz said.
Oftentimes, a student was moved up or down a grade if there were too few children at a particular grade level.
“It happened a lot that there weren’t any kids in a class,” Chandler said. “Sometimes, if there was one person that was supposed to be in that grade, they’d move them forward or backward so they had a little competition.”
That happened to Swan and her brother, Alfred.
“Ally skipped the sixth grade because there were no others in his class,” Swan said. “He said they gave him a test and he did as good as the others because he listened to them all year anyway. They did that to me, too. I did skip a grade. I was 16 when I started my senior year (at Balaton High School). I was 17 in April and graduated in May.”
Recess was one of the best memories for all three of the former Burchard School students.
“I remember sliding down the hill just north of the school,” Chandler said. “You’d slide clear to the railroad tracks.”
Kids also played Anti-I-Over the coal shed.
“Sometimes, we tried the schoolhouse, but it was a little too high,” Chandler said. “There weren’t many that could get it over. I also remember chasing gophers in the summertime and trying to drown them out. We had a large swing set and a teeter-totter, too, so we kept busy during recess.
Chandler said a farmer would also cut hay around the school in the summer and fall and the kids had fun with that.
“The schoolyard was basically about a square block,” he said. “The farmer would cut hay and we used to play in it. We’d gather it up, put it in piles and play in that. The farmer — I think it was Albert Stengel — was pretty laid back, so he didn’t mind.”
Swan said she recalls playing Fox and Goose in the wintertime.
“You made a big circle, like a pie, and you had to run without getting tagged or something,” Swan said. “We played that a lot.”
Swan noted that they often invented games to play.
“I remember steal sticks,” she said. “There were two sides and two people picked till you had two teams. We had a pile of sticks and you had to try and sneak through and get the other team’s sticks. What fun we had — just picking sticks.”
Of course, a lot of softball or kitten ball was played during recess. It was common for both boys and girls to play.
Once in awhile, students would go to the store and purchase ice cream.
“If anybody had any money, you could get ice cream at the store,” Chandler said. “There weren’t very many who had money, though.”
Students brought their own lunches to school.
“I remember peanut butter sandwiches,” Deutz said. “And I remember that we used to heat stuff on the stove for dinners.”
Swan said they’d oftentimes bring potatoes from home.
“We’d bring potatoes to bake,” she said. “I was thinking we put them in the ashes, but Ally said there was a pan on top of the stove that we used. We sure didn’t have tinfoil to put them in.”
Swan’s least favorite country school memory involved split pea soup.
“That’s a bad memory for me,” Swan said.
Deutz recalls students wanting to trade with Chandler a lot of the time.
“If you had a bad sandwich, you tried to trade,” she said. “I always wanted to trade with Marvin.”
Depending on the era and availability, students used a variety of lunch pails.
“We had a syrup pail,” Swan said. “That was our lunch box. We had pancakes a lot, so we had a lot of Karo syrup pails. They were round and about the size of a 3-pound coffee can.”
While Chandler also remembered using a syrup pail, Deutz did not.
“I remember the black domed ones,” Deutz said. “I never had a syrup pail.”
Eventually, Swan and Chandler did get to use regular lunch boxes, too.
“(Armella) was the baby of the family, so she got the best,” Swan joked. “Actually, I did get a fancy one later on, too.”
All three of the former students had fond memories of past Christmas programs at the Burchard School. When Swan stepped into the schoolhouse recently, the first thing she thought of was to look and see if a hook for the curtain was still there.
“The curtains went right across here,” Swan said. “The older ones got to pull the curtain. The whole school was involved in plays. Everyone took part and everyone sang the same songs. It was very special.”
Deutz remembered the kids performing a skit and also reciting poems.
“The schoolhouse was full,” Chandler said.
At the end of the year, students and their families also had a picnic, they said.
Of course, there weren’t any SMART Boards, dry-erase boards or even notebooks back then.
“I remember the chalkboard was bigger and up front,” Chandler said.
Marion recalled having to take the erasers outside to clean them.
“We clapped them together,” she said.
Deutz remembers using a variety of things to write with.
“We wrote on the blackboard when we went up for classes,” Deutz said. “We wrote on paper. We had a bottle with a screw lid on top and then we had a stick pen and we just dipped it in the ink and wrote. We had pencils, too, of course.”
Unlike some children over the years, country school kids learned cursive writing. Those writing utensils and school equipment certainly evolved as well.
“We remember buying our mom a new ballpoint Shaver pen for Christmas,” Swan said. That was a big deal. Then there were calculators. Our kids could start to use them in school. Our daughter, Lori, got an electric typewriter when she got out of high school and that went by the wayside so fast.”
Thinking back, Swan said they didn’t even have paper cups to use to drink water from and just throw away. That may have helped explained why diseases passed from family to family.
“We drank out of the same pitcher,” Swan said. “Everybody in the family had mumps, then the next week, another family did.”
Deutz added that “then it was the measles.”
“You got over it quicker that way,” Chandler said. “But actually, the teachers were pretty strict about not letting kids come to school sick.”
Deutz called to mind the time her classmate Gordon got polio.
“I was scared because I thought I was going to get polio, too,” she said. “When Gordy got polio, we were quarantined. We didn’t have school for awhile after that.”
Chandler remembered that his mother was among those who helped disinfect the schoolhouse.
“I think it was two weeks before we had school,” he said. “The parents took and totally scrubbed the whole schoolhouse down — ceilings, walls, everything.”
Scarlet fever also struck in the area.
“My older sister was expecting and I went there to help her,” Swan said. “I would’ve been 9 or 10. It was Easter Sunday and I went home with her to stay for vacation. I had to stay there for six weeks because the rest of the family was quarantined. I didn’t get to go to school the rest of the year.”
All three had chores to do after school and their families didn’t transport their children around to several different activities like many do nowadays.
“We weren’t in basketball or other sports,” Deutz said. “Now, they’re running all the time — even the little kids.”
The former students weren’t judging, but merely admitting how the times have changed.
“There’s no use telling the grandkids about us walking to school because they don’t believe you anyway,” Chandler said.
Swan agreed, noting the time she and Arden had been invited to the Twin Cities for grandparents’ day.
“I went with one grandchild and Arden went with the other,” Swan said. “They wanted us to tell about what our school days were like. These kids were so embarrassed. They thought we were making it up.”
While pioneers understood the importance of education, legislative consolidation mandates and advancing technology gradually changed how and where students were taught, resulting in most rural schoolhouses becoming obsolete. Its history, however, is still viable and worth keeping that way.
Angle Inlet School — located on the Canadian border in Minnesota’s Northwest Angle — is the only surviving one-room public school in the state.
The Burchard School was in operation until 1957, according to Schwanebeck. When it was closed, the building and its contents went up for auction. His grandfather, Elmer Benson, bought the building and used it to store grain. Schwanebeck said that when he was little, he remembered looking into the large classroom and seeing that the bottom half was covered in oats.
After his grandfather retired, the building was used for social gatherings.
“When my grandpa died, my grandmother moved to Ruthton and the school building was moved to our farm between Ruthton and Balaton,” Schwanebeck said. “When my parents, Clarence and Eleanor Schwanebeck, moved to Tyler in 1979, the schoolhouse came along.”
Later, they decided to restore the old schoolhouse building. Eventually, the school needed a new home — that’s how it ended up next to the Balaton Area Historical Center — where people can continue to visit the one-room schoolhouse and preserve the country school spirit.
“I couldn’t be more pleased with our decision,” Schwanebeck said. “The school looks so nice there and it can be enjoyed by so many people now.”