Looking back on a good foundation

Area residents share happy memories of attending country schools. They learned the three Rs — reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic — as well how to help each other out when needed.

Photo by Jenny Kirk Geneva (Pagel) Swan sits in a small student desk inside the Burchard schoolhouse next to the Balaton Area Historical Center. A charter member of the Balaton Area Historical Society, Swan shared some of the similarities and differences between the schoolhouse and the District 52 one she attended in Custer Township.


It’s been more than 60 years since the District 52 schoolhouse in Custer Township closed — an old flagpole and water pump are all that remain at the site. While the rural schoolhouse is long gone, former students like Geneva Swan and Ray Kirk still have plenty of memories of those country school days.

“They were good times,” Swan said. “We both could probably say we grew up in the best of times.”

Kirk, a retired farmer, vividly recalls mischief that took place, including the time his brother, Bobby, and Don Kathman rode their horses into the schoolhouse.

“Bob was running his horse up and down the aisle with the teacher right behind him,” Kirk said. “He had a shetland pony, but Don had a big horse and got his stuck. He couldn’t make the bend. We had to get a bunch of guys and push the darn horse back out. Then out came Bob with the teacher still on his tail. Those were the good old days.”

Kirk no doubt learned from the older kids, including his own brothers — Wes, Bobby, Ted, Fran and Claire — all of whom have since passed away.

“We had this big furnace and we’d throw rifle shells in there sometimes,” he said. “The older kids had to stoke it up, you know, so one time somebody put a shotgun shell in there and that sucker really went ‘bang’ and the teacher gave us hell.”

Kirk laughs as he remembers the memory. He said he feels bad about shooting spitballs back then.

“We’d spit balls at the teacher or shoot one over to another boy or girl,” he said. “We were all good people, but we did a few naughty things. I think the worst thing I did was those spitballs.”

When District 52 got another teacher — a firm-handed one — behavior improved.

“You didn’t try that anymore,” Kirk said. “She’d pound the crap out of you.”

While recovering from shoulder surgery a year ago, Kirk realized his former teacher, Anna Gene (Johnson) Burke was a resident at Prairie View Senior Living and took time to reminisce with her. Burke died recently at the age of 95.

“She was a nice teacher,” Kirk said.

Teachers had difficult tasks back then. Not only did they serve as the lone disciplinarian, they were also charged with teaching eight different levels of curriculum to the students.

“There were requirements that we had to follow, just like schools do now,” Swan said. “We took achievement tests to find out what our IQs were. I remember taking them — they were so boring.”

Swan recalls one teacher reading to all the children after they’d come in from noon recess.

“She’d read a chapter at a time,” she said. “She read ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ I remember. I enjoyed reading that.”

Although most of her teachers were married with families, Swan said teachers in earlier years had to be single.

“Esther Helmke told me that it was in their contract, that they could not be married and teach,” Swan said.

Swan’s classmates were Dave Leversedge and Sylvia Sanow. Music and geography were her favorite subjects.

“Minnesota history, that was wonderful,” Swan said. “I liked that. We learned about world geography, too. We had the big pull-down maps. But now, many of those countries aren’t even named the same as they were then. I started school just after World War II, so we heard a lot about that.”

Swan attended District 52 as a first and second-grader, but then came into Balaton the next two school years.

“They were already talking consolidation, so my parents paid tuition for me to go to Balaton for third and fourth grade,” she said. “Then as an incentive to get the country schools to move ahead on consolidation, the Balaton School Board raised the tuition — at that point, there were three of us who would’ve been going to Balaton.”

Swan said her dad thought the tuition was a little too high, so she and her siblings — Stan Pagel and Sandy (Pagel) Miller — went back out to country school. Swan’s youngest sibling, sister Brenda, didn’t attend country school.

“When I came in to Balaton from country school, I was way ahead of the other kids as far as reading and that kind of thing was concerned,” Swan said. “I think it was because there were so few of us that we got a lot of attention. We also learned things, even as first- and second-graders, from the fifth-, sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, just by listening to the teacher lecturing about things they were working on.”

Swan said she liked every one of her teachers and considered them to be of good quality.

“What’s kind of amazing, when I think back now, is that those teachers who were teaching us probably went to one year of training at the most,” she said.

Coming back to country school after a two-year absence wasn’t necessarily a pleasant experience for Swan.

“It wasn’t that I didn’t like the kids, but when you’re with them for two years and then you’re gone for two years and come back, you’re the new person,” Swan said. “You’d have to warm up and get acquainted all over again.”

The other negative memory Swan has of country school is the ball games.

“Because I was so little, I was always the last one chosen to be on anyone’s team,” she said. “I wasn’t competitive at all. That spoiled it. Everybody else ran like a deer and was good at softball — we called it kitten ball back then. The other kids would say, ‘Come on. We’ll help you.’ But I just wasn’t good at it, so I didn’t enjoy it.”

On the other hand, Kirk loved playing softball.

“We’d play that a lot,” he said. “One time, (my brother) Ted and (friend, classmate and later in life, brother-in-law) Arnold were on one side and Vernon (Sanow) and I were on the other side. I hit the ball really hard and it hit Arnold right in the mouth. The kids ran in (to get the teacher) and said, ‘Ray hit Arnold.’ The blood was running out of his mouth and the teacher was about to whoop me.”

Kirk also remembers a lot of wintertime fun.

“We’d slide down hills in the snow or else skate,” Kirk said. “We could skate all the way down to Shorty Saxton’s — that’s about three miles. But sometimes we were a little late getting back — they’d be ringing the bell and we were only three-fourths of the way back.”

Kids also played pick-up sticks.

“They’d put a pile of sticks and corncobs out there and they had to stay back by the fence,” Kirk said. “You had to come from behind the line and get in there and get a stick before they could touch you.”

Of course, the boys also had to find ways to interact with the girls.

“We’d throw snakes in the girls’ toilet,” Kirk said. “We always had a big straw pile there in the spring and it was just loaded with snakes. We’d throw them in the window and the gals would come out screaming.”

Kirk’s future wife, Jane Van Winkle, wasn’t afraid of the snakes, but her sister, Irma (Van Winkle) Fedde, grew to hate snakes with a passion — she did so until the day she died. Jane, who enjoyed playing softball, married Kirk in 1955. The couple celebrated 54 years of marriage before she died in January 2010.

“She was three grades behind me and was in (my brother) Claire’s class,” Kirk said. “We didn’t start dating until she was about a sophomore (at Balaton High School). I was already out of school by then.”

Kirk likes to tell his grandkids and great-grandkids that he was the smartest student in his class. They get a kick out of it when they learn that there were only three of them.

Kirk spent his first-grade year attending country school near Walnut Grove.

“We had to walk about 2-½ miles to school,” he said. “Then for second-grade, I came to District 52.”

District 52 was organized in 1880 and was located on the southwest corner of Section 20 in Custer Township. It was located on land belonging to Ray Kirk’s parents, Jay and Lovilla Kirk.

“It really was uphill both ways,” Kirk said. “We walked up to the fence line, stepped over the fence and then walked down to the school. When we were coming home for dinner, we walked up to the fence line and then down to the house. I walked to school pretty near my whole life.”

Living in such close proximity to the school, the Kirks often helped teachers out — including those who couldn’t get their cars started because the kids had stuck potatoes in the tailpipe. And rarely did they get a snow day.

“Sometimes the teacher would make it to school in a blizzard and the other kids wouldn’t make it there,” Kirk said. “I wanted a day off, but she’d come over and get my brothers and I so we could have school.”

When it was really cold, Kirk said his dad would take them to school with the horses or sometimes with the Model A. He added that he and his brothers had chores to do before school.

“I’d go to school at 9 o’clock, after I milked my cows,” he said. “We had 12 and I milked three.”

Swan said she never had to walk to school — located 2 miles away — because they lived along Highway 14.

“My mom (Millie Pagel) didn’t think we’d be safe walking,” Swan said. “Sometimes, I lucked out and got a ride, too. The Van Winkles were a mile north of us and they always had a carful to take to school. They’d drive by my place and pick me up. You just did that. Otherwise, Mom would take us.”

District 52 had a school dress code.

“We never wore anything but a dress,” she said. “I never had a pair of jeans in my life until I became an adult. The girls wore skirts and dresses. My mom didn’t sew, so they weren’t homemade, and (fortunately), I didn’t have to wear hand-me-downs. But when I grew out of them, my younger sister got them — until she got taller than me.”

Swan also recalls teachers dressing nicely.

“I had Goldie Skaug as my first-grade teacher,” Swan said. “She always looked so nice when she came to work — black skirt, white blouse and high-heeled shoes.”

Swan said the District 52 schoolhouse seemed to be larger than most country school buildings.

“There was the large classroom, but then we also had an addition onto the side that was a cloak room, a library and a room on the back for coal,” she said. “There was also a back door, but we didn’t use it. We had a separate area for classroom time. The teacher’s desk was back there. There was also a round table that students sat around. The rest of us were supposed to be studying.”

Kirk said the students would go up when it was their class time.

“The teacher would start out with the first grade, then second grade,” he said. “The rest of them, you’d have to study your assignments she’d give you. Then you’d go up when it was your turn. Then in the afternoon, it was the same way.”

Kirk recalled teachers often writing on the chalkboard, but that paper was also used.

We had geography books and we had to do arithmetic,” Kirk said. “We had papers she’d pass out. We had to add them up and then go up front and see if you were right or not. It’s so different nowadays. We never had algebra. We’d use just a little bit of paper, but now they end up using a whole sheet of paper for just one problem.”

Kirk said most of the boys completed the eighth grade and then worked full time on the family farms.

“Parents needed help at home,” he said. “A lot of times, that’s why they had big families.”

In 1944, District 52 students were among countless others who helped out the military when access to a floss material from the tropical kapok tree was cut off due to Japanese control of the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia today). Synthetic fibers weren’t an option back then, so a suitable substitute was needed. The floss from milkweed pods ended up being that substitute.

“In the war time, we’d go out and walk the railroad tracks and get these milkweeds,” Kirk said. “We’d walk clear to Garvin.”

While a lot of people thought the milkweed floss was being used for parachutes, it was actually used as stuffing for life preservers that were needed for airmen and sailors.

The Balaton Centennial book lists 1940, 1942 and 1948 as the years with the most students (27), although records are only available from 1939 till 1955, when the district consolidated with the Balaton school. The first school building burned and no old records have been found.

Swan said it has been 30 to 40 years since she’s driven down the gravel road leading to the District 52, but that time hasn’t erased many of the details of her country school days.

“We got water out of a pump and we had a water cooler with little paper glasses,” Swan said. “We’d bring our lunch every day in one of those little metal pails. I had a black one and my brother had Hop-a-Long Cassidy or Roy Rogers on his.”

Swan recalls that sandwiches and fruit were staples.

“We’d have bologna, cheese or peanut butter sandwiches,” she said. “Then in the winter, we brought soup or something in little peanut butter jars that my mom had saved. There was an oil-burner type stove and we’d put a canner on top of that with some water in it, so the soup got warm. I never got sick of those lunches.”

Diseases often kept children away from school.

“We had all the diseases that they didn’t have shots for back then,” Swan said. “We had the mumps, chicken pox and measles — it would all run through the families. I can just remember a couple of kids having rheumatic fever and scarlet fever. That left some after-effects on people.”

Swan said her early years helped mold her into the person she is today.

“In fifth and sixth grade, I happened to have a teacher who was a really good musician and we did fun things, like programs where we got to sing a lot of songs,” Swan said. “I liked that. We had this old piano at school and the teacher would sit back there and play for us as we’d all sing along.”

Swan said her family also got a piano at home when she was little.

“I started taking lessons at 5 years old,” she said. “I play piano every day at home (now).”

Swan has also sung in various choirs since she was 10. She continues to sing in the choir at Trinity Lutheran Church, where she recently retired as the secretary after 44 years of service. She’s also been a member of Joy Bells since 2002 and a charter member of Balaton Area Historical Society.

“We did a lot of memorizing in school,” Swan said. “Christmas programs were wonderful. We did different skit type things, with recitations we had to learn. And we got to sing all the old traditional Christmas carols. That was allowed back then.”

While there are few tangible remnants of their country school days, both Kirk and Swan say that those priceless experiences, as well as a strong foundation at home and church, contributed to their fulfilling lives.

“(At school), we learned to help each other out,” Swan said. “We also had the two-parent families and the stability of the home, the morals, church and all of this that our younger generations don’t necessarily have. We were very fortunate.”