By Jim Froemming
My grandmother, Esther Eul, began teaching in District 7 in the fall of 1917. It was a one-room rural schoolhouse with 18 students. As a child, I remember her talking about teaching out in the country. It was not until I made a trip to the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul to see its World War I exhibit, celebrating the 100-year anniversary of America’s entry into the Great War, that I realized it was also 100 years ago that my grandmother became a teacher. Two of my nieces are elementary school teachers and I thought it would be great to share with them my grandmother’s years of teaching, but first I needed to learn more myself.
Much of what our family knows is due to the foresight of my uncle (Esther’s son), Thomas Kokovikas, Jr. In 1964 he taped an interview of his parents, which included questions to my grandmother with regard to her time as a rural school teacher. Recently, my brother painstakingly transcribed the tape, but because of the softness of my grandmother’s voice and the sound quality of the tape in general, we were not 100% sure of some of her answers or spellings of names. However, with the help of the Minnesota Education Department‘s Annual Reports at the Minnesota History Center library, literature and plat books at the Stevens County History Society (SCHS), U.S. Census and ancestry records and records provided by the U of M – Morris Archives Department, we were able to confirm most of her answers, including the years she taught and the names of her students.
In this article my grandmother’s words are shown in italics.
“[In the fall of 1917] I went to District 7… they called it Mich District School at that time. Then I went out there and taught one year and then the 2nd year they said to me, “Don’t you want to come back and teach?” And I said, “Well if you want me.” They wanted me back. So I signed. Then when the school board had a meeting, they voted me in right away. And that was the 2nd year and the 3rd year they voted me in again.”
Shortly after statehood in 1858, Minnesota allowed county commissioners to establish smaller “common school” districts in each township. A typical township west of the Mississippi River is a survey township, an area six by six miles square. Each county numbered its own districts, starting with #1, in numerical order as they were organized. The number of school districts proliferated because the general idea was to not require a child to walk more than approximately 2 miles to school.
By 1917, Stevens County, with its sixteen townships, had 69 school districts (one added in 1919 and another added in 1928). In 1917, the only graded school districts were in the five towns of the county, all others were ungraded, rural one-room schools.1
Based on a 1923 study done by the US Department of the Interior, by 1920, there were 271,147 school houses in the continental United States, of which 187,951 were one-room schools. In Minnesota there were 9,077 school houses, with 7,668 of them being one-room schools.2 Teachers were needed for all of these one-room schools. The Morris High School ran an advertisement for its Normal Department for a number of weeks in the fall of 1915:3
No doubt this caught the eye of my grandmother, who was in the first graduating class of St. Mary’s High School on June 18, 1916 and took summer teaching credits at the West Central School of Agriculture in 1915 and 1916. The Normal Department was on the second floor of the new Morris High School building, built in 1914. She enrolled in the Normal Department the fall of 1916 and graduated with a Teacher’s Certificate on June 4, 1917, along with five other students, including her best friend Mary Just. This allowed her to teach in the rural schools.
The term normal school originated in early 16th century France from the école normale. The French concept of an école normale was to provide a model school with model classrooms to practice the standards or norms for teaching.4
Some of the school records of District 7 for the 3 years my grandmother taught1:
|No. of Pupils||Teacher’s Wages|
|For the Fiscal||Total Enrollment||Enrollment by Ages||Average Mo.||Total|
|Year Ending||Boys||Girls||TOTAL||5 to 8||8 to 16||16 to 21||TOTAL|
|July 31, 1918||12||6||18||5||13||0||18||$60||$475|
|July 31, 1919||14||5||19||6||13||0||19||$65||$515|
|July 31, 1920||13||6||19||5||14||0||19||$80||$605|
Note: $80 per month in 1920 is approximately $1000 per month in 2017 dollars (BLS CPI-U, All items in U.S. city average, all urban consumers).
All of the rural school districts in Stevens County had women teachers. Back then it was accepted practice to pay women teachers much lower wages than men. From a PBS online Teachers Series discussing this era: “… Still, women flocked to teaching. Not only were they grateful for the salary, however meager; they also welcomed the independence and sense of purpose teaching gave them. No doubt some regretted having to leave their homes and earn their own livings. Many assumed they would teach only a few years until they married. But many others welcomed the escape from a life of drab labor, isolation or frivolity. Teaching gave women a window onto a wider world of ideas, politics and public usefulness. …”5
The History of Stevens County by Edna-Mae Busch in the SCHS bookstore indicated that after the original District 7 schoolhouse building was sold, 24 years after the district was first organized in 1876, a second building was built in its place.6 The schoolhouse was located on the NW corner of Section 28 of Rendsville Township. The school director of the district in 1917 was Matt Mich, who coincidentally was the grandfather of a classmate of my uncle’s at St. Mary’s High School.
According to the Threshing Bee website, in the 1970’s the Donnelly Commercial Club (which later became the Donnelly Community Club) moved the second schoolhouse to the Threshing Bee grounds, where it currently sits. The schoolhouse is open to the public each year during the 2-day Threshing Bee celebration, the Saturday and Sunday on the weekend before Labor Day weekend. I never imagined that the schoolhouse would still exist.
“The first year [I stayed] at the Laudenslager’s, but in the 2nd year she was going to have a baby in the wintertime, so I didn’t and the house was small and then it would be crowded, so I asked Gina Johnson [Pederson] if they could. They said, “Yes I could come and stay there.” So I went and boarded and roomed for 2 years there. I didn’t have to walk very far [to school] about ¼ of a mile. [Any concern with weather?] Yeah, but I only lived, up and down the hill.
Oh, yes I had to start the fires in the morning, so when I arrived there wasn’t any fire. What do they call big belly stoves? Potbelly. And I would cut my own kindling. … and I got the coal bags in the wintertime from dad. Oh, I had about 21 kids – the Waller’s, Olsen’s, Schueller’s, Pederson’s, Dornquast’s, Kruize’s and the Laudenslager’s.
Mrs. Olsen used to walk clear down to the school about a mile and ¼ and tell me to come up and have coffee with her. So, pert near every afternoon I was invited to come for coffee. Mrs. Olsen used to come out on the corner and say, “Come in teacher and have coffee and cake.” I had a real good time… [they] were real good to me.”
Comparing with US Census and ancestry records, the following would be the names of her students. The ages shown are from the 1920 census.7
With the help of the SCHS this fall I was put in contact with Harry Kruize , the chairman of Rendsville Township and one of the organizers of the Threshing Bee. Normally locked, except for the two-day annual Threshing Bee, Harry agreed to meet my sister and me on a beautiful October Saturday to open up the schoolhouse for us. Fortunately, it had rained a lot in the weeks before so Harry was not out harvesting. Harry invited his uncle, George Pederson, to join him to give us the “tour” and share their memories of the school. George was instrumental in getting the schoolhouse moved and preserved. An unexpected outcome of my research was that my grandmother taught both of Harry’s parents (William Kruize and Laura Pederson) and George’s sister (Laura) and her 1st cousins (the Waller children). Also, in her second and third years my grandmother boarded with George’s aunt, Gina Pederson Devick.
To be able to walk into “our grandma’s” classroom and to see the desks, the blackboards that encircled the room, the pictures of Washington and Lincoln hanging on the walls, and how the sunlight filtered into the room and shined on the desks was an incredible feeling. This would have never been possible if it was not for people like Harry and George, both District 7 alumni, who cared enough about the importance of the past. I cannot express enough gratitude for them caring about their (and my family’s) past. As the Minnesota Historical Society emphasizes with their slogan – History Matters.
As much as my grandmother enjoyed her teaching she did not return for a fourth year: “Then after that [third year] in the summer time I went collecting bills for my dad [Christian Eul’s Standard Oil delivery service] and I happened to come into the Candy Kitchen. And theywere looking for a girl to wait on tables.”
My grandmother took that waitressing job that summer– perhaps you could not take the city out of the girl. Three years later she married the proprietor of the Morris Candy Kitchen, my grandfather, Thomas Kokovikas, Sr., and Miss Eul became Mrs. Kokovikas.
In 1958 District 7 was renamed District 2153. On October 11, 1960, the district and 15 other common school districts voted collectively to consolidate with Morris ISD 769, although the precinct District 7 was located in voted against consolidation. 8 The consolidation became effective July 1, 1961, and the last school year was 1960-61. After that consolidation, there remained only 5 rural districts in Stevens County. In 1967 the Minnesota state legislature determined that a school district should have both an elementary and secondary program. Those districts that only had an elementary program were given until 1971 to merge with a district that provided K-12 education. During the 1970-71 school year all but 3 of the 446 school districts in Minnesota had a full elementary and secondary program. 9 Nationally, the 187,951 one-room schoolhouses that existed in 1920, were down to 200 by 2014.10
In the August 20, 1974 issue of the Morris Sun there was a wonderful ad provided by the Morris State Bank, with the title “Country School,” that gave me a sense of what these schools meant to the students, teachers and communities who were a part of them:
“The one room schoolhouse is gone, but the things we learned there – good sense and decent ways of treating people, love of land and love of life – are still with us. And they always will be.”
Notable events from 1917 to 1921:
- April 6, 1917: United States declares war on Germany, enters World War I
- May 18, 1917: Congress passes the Selective Service Act giving the U.S president the power to draft soldiers
- March 4, 1918: Start of the Spanish influenza pandemic in the United States
- October 11, 1918: First reported case of the “Spanish” flu in Morris
- November 11, 1918: Armistice signed at Compiegne, France marking the end of World War I
- January 16, 1919: The Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is ratified beginning the era of Prohibition (of alcohol) in the United States. (repealed in 1933)
- August 18, 1920: The Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is ratified granting women the right to vote.
- September 16, 1920: Wall Street bombing in the Financial District of Manhattan.
1Annual Report to the Superintendent of Education, State of Minnesota by the Superintendent of Schools of Stevens
County, Form 8-A, Section 1- Pupils, Teachers and Text Books.
2 Abel, J.F. Consolidation of Schools and Transportation of Pupils, Bulletin, No. 41. Department of
the Interior, Bureau of Education. 1923.
3 Normal Department advertisement. Morris Tribune. Sept. 10, 17, 24 and Oct 1, 1915.
4 Hanchu, Steven. The Kansas State Normal Years: 1863-1923. Emporia State Research Studies 49(1), 2013.
5 PBS.org. Only A Teacher Series: Teaching Timeline. PBS Learning Media. 2017
6 Busch, Edna-Mae. The History of Stevens County. Self-published, 1976.
7 Department of Commerce, Bureau of Census. Fourteenth Census of the United States: 1920-Population,
Rendsville Township, Stevens County, Minnesota. January 7-17, 1920.
8 “Consolidation is Approved.” Morris Tribune, October 14, 1960.
9 History of Consolidation, School District Consolidations-83rd Minnesota Legislature. house.leg.state.mn.us
10 Lessons to be Learned from a One-Room Schoolhouse. CBS News Sunday Morning. Jun. 1, 2014.