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‘Responsible for everything’

Former country school teacher recalls rural education

Photos by Jim Muchlinski Mary Ellen Mattson began her teaching career at a one-room country school near Balaton.

Mary Ellen Mattson of Balaton is one of the few remaining educators who got their start in a country school.

Her first teaching assignment was at the District 45 country school in Ellsborough Township, Murray County. The school stood on a hill about a mile from the former Current Lake Store.

Mattson taught 17 students in the 1954-55 school year. There were three students in each of her six grades except for fourth grade, which had two boys.

“It was a wonderful place to start my teaching,” Mattson said. “It was a great experience because I was responsible for everything. I gained experience working with every elementary age group.”

Her school had no electricity and no indoor plumbing. Water was drawn from an outdoor water pump. Hot lunch featured soup or baked potatoes heated alongside the building’s stove.

For music classes she was helped by a sixth-grade student who played the piano. Physical education took place outside, usually with some type of outdoor game.

“I normally didn’t take any breaks,” Mattson said. “I went outside with the students when they were out after lunch. It was all part of the job.”

The stove was maintained by someone from the nearby country store, but other than that Mattson was responsible for all cleaning and daily building maintenance.

She enlisted the help of one of the older boys for the control of field mice, paying him five cents for each mouse that he trapped.

She served as the school nurse in the event that a student became ill during the day. Without a telephone, they usually had to stay at school until parents picked them up as planned in the afternoon.

Her teaching assignment and its many responsibilities proved manageable because she drew strong support from parents and school officials.

“I never had any serious discipline problems at country school,” she said. “The students enjoyed coming to school, learning new things and seeing their friends. The parents were always very supportive.”

She said country schools were changing with the times in the 1950s. Students were usually brought to school by parents instead of having to walk. There was a trend toward having married teachers instead of adhering to the tradition of young single women who often boarded with families.

Her year in country school was interrupted briefly when she was told to report to the Ruthton school building as part of a consolidation of schools. She was allowed to finish out her year at District 45 when parents refused to send their children into town for school.

When District 45 closed the following year, some students went to Ruthton while others transferred to the District 20 county school in neighboring Skandia Township. It was affiliated with the Balaton School District.

Mattson’s teaching career spanned most of the late 20th century. She taught classes in Ruthton, Lynd, Lake Wilson and Murray County Central in Slayton.

She lives on farm site located about a mile from her former country school. She enjoys her role as an organizer of Balaton’s community museum after having grown up and attended school in the community.

“It was always an advantage for me with teaching to be familiar with the local area,” Mattson said. “The trend over the years was toward having more students per class and specialists for some of the subjects like physical education and music. It seemed easy to have larger classes because all of the kids were in the same grade.”

As part of her volunteer work, she sometimes teaches programs at the former Burchard School one-room schoolhouse, located next to the community museum in Balaton.

“I’ve always enjoyed teaching,” Mattson said. “I enjoy hearing about the experiences of young people who teach. Many things have changed with education, but the basic need to care about students is still the same.”

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