Saturday, August 30, 2014

Project preserves rural school history

By DOUG CARDER, Herald Senior Writer | 4/16/2014

A treasure trove was tucked away in a closet at the Franklin County Courthouse.

While they weren’t stacks of money, the reams and reams of paper did provide a wealth of information about the rural one- and two-room schoolhouses that populated Franklin County for more than 100 years, members of the Franklin County Historical Society said.

A treasure trove was tucked away in a closet at the Franklin County Courthouse.

While they weren’t stacks of money, the reams and reams of paper did provide a wealth of information about the rural one- and two-room schoolhouses that populated Franklin County for more than 100 years, members of the Franklin County Historical Society said.

The Kansas Humanities Council recently announced it had awarded the local historical society a $1,740 grant to help the group organize and archive the school records spanning from the 1870s though the 1960s, according to a humanities council news release.

The grant money will be used to purchase acid-free containers to store the records, as well as provide 100 hours of labor to hire someone to help with the work, Susan Geiss, the historical society’s project director for the arduous undertaking, said.

Geiss, who wrote the grant request for the project, has known of the records’ existence at the courthouse, 315 S. Main St., Ottawa, since the mid-1970s, she said.

“About 10 years ago, Franklin County gave [the historical society] all of the rural school records that evidently had been left in the county superintendent’s office,” Geiss, the historical society’s archivist, said.

A county superintendent oversaw the small schoolhouses during that bygone era of public education in rural areas.

“In 1968, the last of the rural schools closed and the records [from the superintendent’s office] were put in the courthouse in a closet,” Geiss said.

“I knew the records were there, because I went down to the courthouse in 1974 to work on my senior thesis [paper at the University of Kansas], and they showed me the closet. They said, ‘There’s the closet; have at it.’”

After the county donated the records to the historical society, the documents were moved to the Franklin County Records and Research Center, 1124 W. Seventh St., Ottawa, Geiss said.

Database search

Geiss is working to develop an elaborate database system that will allow people to search for relatives who might have attended one of the 101 rural schools that existed at various times during the one-room schoolhouse era.

“It’s been a project of mine to form a database that will help us pinpoint students,” Geiss said.

Geiss is no stranger to education, having taught in the Ottawa school district for 30 years as a history teacher for the middle school and high school before retiring in 2007, according to Herald archives.

Offering the example of a person who didn’t know when their relatives came to Franklin County, the rural school district database could be used to help determine when and where those relatives lived in the county.

“We could tell them, ‘We knew they were here by 1908 because here are the kids in the one-room school,’” Geiss said. “That’s information that you can’t always find in [U.S.] Census data.”

The county is rich in rural schoolhouse history, Geiss said.

Acorn School No. 74, a rural school built in 1900 in southwest Franklin County, is known to have had one of the first hot lunch programs in the county, according to the historical society’s website. In the early 1950s, teacher Irene Herron began preparing lunches cooked on an old pot-bellied stove, the historical society’s records indicate, with the menu often including rabbit the boys would bring in.

Sac Creek School No. 61, also built in southwest Franklin County, was one of three rural “banked” schools designed by renowned architect George P. Washburn, according to historical society records. The schools were planned with a bank of windows on one side to reduce glare.

The rural schoolhouse records primarily are reports teachers made to the superintendent, Geiss said.

“Mostly, they are reports from the one-room and two-room school teachers to superintendents,” she said. “Most are yearly reports that list all of the students on the rolls and grades for subjects and year in school. Some are end-of-the-year reports from teachers about how many volumes they had in the library, what the school needed — a new map or whatever.

“We have the ledger from the very first superintendent of schools, making notes as he rode around the county looking at schools in the 1860s and 1870s,” Geiss said. “I found a report about five kids dis-enrolled for one month for scarlet fever and then they all made it back.”

Bygone era

The size of the rural schools varied widely, Geiss said. If, for example, one family with five children decided to pick up stakes and move, it could have a huge effect on a school’s population that year, she said.

Some records also indicate how much teachers were getting paid, Geiss said.

“Some [of the correspondence from the county superintendent’s office in the early 1900s] asks teachers how much they were saving every month out of their paychecks, asks where they boarded and how much education they had — there are some great master thesis papers in these records,” Geiss said, laughing.

The one-room schools began to dwindle quickly in the 1940s and 1950s as transportation and roads improved, and the rural schools were gone by 1968 in the county, Geiss said.

Geiss estimated the project of cataloging and storing the school records in acid-free boxes should be completed in October.

“Some of the records are a hundred years old and are still in good shape,” Geiss said. “The acid-free boxes should keep them in good shape for a couple hundred more years.”

An open house will be scheduled when the project is finished so people can come in and see how the records are organized and how they can be used, Geiss said.

She used the example of Lynda Alderman, a current Ottawa school board member and president of the historical society’s board, who found information about one of her ancestors who had taught in a one-room school in the county.

“Lynda got to see what [the relative’s] handwriting looked like ... it is a bygone era that I think people will find interesting,” Geiss said. “We want the records to be much more accessible and much more usable. It’s not a lot of information that is going to change the world, but it’s information that a lot of families will find valuable.”

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