Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - March 28, 2008

Reading, writing and rigor mortis

Area schools were on Spring Break last week, but school was still in session for husband Art and me.

Or so it seemed!

After reading Rural Schools of Riley County, Mom, a one-room school teacher herself, was inspired to write a history of the schools - all 89 of them - of Morris County, where she grew up.

And we decided to help.

She began her search nearly two years ago and so far, she and friend Stan have generated about 100 pages. But although she obtained extensive histories for some of the schools, she has just bits and pieces of information for many of them.

So Art and I, being the history nuts that we are, decided to help fill in some of the blanks.

We set out for the Council Grove library last Tuesday, not sure exactly what we were looking for. We knew we wanted to try to find more school photos and, if possible, written histories of individual schools. Beyond that, we didn't know what we'd find.

We arrived at the library building - a grocery store in its previous life - at about 11 a.m. I briefly explained the project to the woman at the front desk. She said she didn't know anything about the history room and couldn't allow us to be back there by ourselves. But after making a couple of phone calls, she found a local man who was willing to show us what records were available.

Ken escorted us to the 10-foot by 10-foot room at the back of the library and began searching for materials related to schools. He quickly surveyed the bookshelves lining three walls. They were full of general reference books and family and church histories. He checked out stacks of three-ring notebooks piled on a table in the middle of the room and lined up on top of file cabinets. Cemetery records, marriage indices and miscellaneous information filled most of them. Then he rummaged around in the stuffed-to-the-gills file cabinets.

One file cabinet held the annual county reports for each of the county's 89 schools. We told Ken we would start with those records. He smiled, told us to have at it and left.

First, we made room for Art's laptop computer on the small table in the middle of the room. Art got out the first file - District #1, Upper Big John - and began going through the annual reports of each district school.

The reports listed student and teacher names, teacher salaries, financial information, the geographic location of the school, books and supplies and other statistics and were signed by the teacher or teachers, superintendent and board members.

While Art read the information - various names each school had, its location and its dates of operation - I entered it on the laptop. Art had brought along an 1887 map which showed the location of each of the schools so he compared the legal descriptions in the records with the dots on the map. Methodically, we went through the files, district by district.

The first hour was an adventure. It was fun to go back in history and imagine what the teachers and students might have looked like and how their school days went. Many school terms began in late September or early October and sometimes went only until March, for children were expected to help with planting and harvesting. Some of the schools were closed during World War II, but re-opened again until school consolidations closed them forever.

Of course District #31 - the Marion Hill School - was interesting to us personally since Mom, her older sister Edith and various cousins were students at that school.

But boredom was beginning to set in.

Most of the 89 schools opened sometime in the 1880s and closed in the late 1950s or early 1960s during the school consolidation phase. We calculated that, with 89 schools - each operating around 80 years - we would need to look through more than 7,000 annual reports!

On we schlogged, the tedium broken only by the occasional shrill ring tone of the phone or of me standing up and walking around to shake out the stiffness and clear my head.

For six hours we kept on until it was time for the library to close.

We had made it through 40 of the 89 files.

And two days later, hungry for more "fun," we polished off an additional 34 district files and five hours of our lives.

That still leaves 15 more districts to go!

And after that? Well Art has plans to drive through the county section by section to find where each of the 89 schools was located.

"Let's see," he said. "If we find one school every 10 minutes, that would be 890 minutes - or about 15 hours!"

He grinned.

I was not quite so amused.

"Then we can go to the Register of Deeds office and make a map of each district," he said.

I think I'll play hooky!

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