Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Aug. 24, 2012
Lost in the past
"Are you sure we aren't lost?" Mom asked.
Husband Art just smiled and kept driving. He headed southeast on Highway 57 and then turned onto Clark's Creek Road. He, Mom, Mom's friend Stan and I were on our way to Dwight for the town's 125th anniversary celebration.
Along the way, we noted how dry everything was. Acre after acre of shriveled brittle corn stalks stood in the fields. Streams and ponds were bone dry.
Then, "Hey, that pond looks pretty good," I said, finally seeing one with water in it.
"Look at that," Art said pointing.
It was a landmark we all recognized - the Marion Hill Lutheran Church. And the pond? It was on the farm where Mom grew up. Grandpa Nels had made it, and I had even fished with my Uncle Bud on it when I was a youngster.
The church was just across the road south from the farm. Mom, her parents Nels and Hulda, and her older sister Edith attended the church. Mom and Dad married there in 1946. My grandparents and great-grandmother Maria Carlberg are buried in the church cemetery.
We stopped to take pictures - as we do every time we're in the area - and then moved on.
Mom and Edith attended Marion Hill School close by, but I didn't recall asking before exactly where it was. This time I did.
"It would have been right about here," Art said, slowing the car.
"No, it was NOT here," Mom insisted firmly.
"Well, let's just check it out," he said, backing the vehicle to the beginning of the section line. He was familiar with where the old Morris County rural schools once stood because he recently made a map showing their locations. We had the map in the car.
Mom was exasperated. "You'd think I would know where the school was," she said. She and Edith had walked the three-quarters of a mile every day for eight years from their farm home, except when the weather was bad. Then Grandpa took them by buggy.
Art laughed. "Sometimes our memory can play tricks," he added. "Oops, I wasn't paying attention to the mileage."
So he backed up again and then proceeded forward slowly.
"One-tenth, two-tenths, three tenths ...," he said, reading the mileage from the car's odometer. I was sure Mom was fuming in the back seat.
"This is where it was," Mom said as we reached the .5 point.
"By golly, you're right," Art said. "You are right on the money."
From the road, a cistern cover and an unplanted section of the field were the only indications that a building had once stood there.
Art got out and walked around to see if he could see any other signs. He found some squared pieces of limestone that might have been from the foundation and bits of clay tile that may have been from a pipe that led to the cistern.
But with neither the time nor the permission to do an archaeological "dig," we went on to Dwight, just a few miles away. Mom attended high school there, graduating 70 years ago this past May.
We were too late for the parade, but made it in time to grab lunch at the Hometown Café. Then we walked the short distance to the Swartz School, now a museum. It was one of the 89 rural schoolhouses that once stood in Morris County, and Mom has wanted to see it because she has been working on a history of those schools.
Walking inside was like walking into the past. Opposite the entry was a blackboard, flanked by a portrait of George Washington on the left and a colored chalk drawing of the Kansas seal on the right. A recitation bench stood under the blackboard. The hardwood floor was in beautiful shape. In the left corner under a pull-down map of the United States was a teacher's desk, complete with an old bell, two school slates and a variety of books. Display cases held photos, books, albums and other memorabilia.
"Well, look at this young lady," Stan said chuckling as he held up a picture. "She looks like she wasn't very happy."
It was a 1930 photo of Marion Hill School students, and Mom, 6, was sitting cross-legged in the front row.
Stan was right. Mom looked like a typical kid who either didn't want her picture taken or didn't want to be in school or possibly both.
We all laughed.
While Mom and I looked at the picture, Art and Stan moved on.
"I don't know if I've ever seen a colored one," Stan said looking at the seal.
Next to it was a typed note.
"Edla, look at this," Art said, "This was done by your Uncle John."
Another family connection! Mom's Uncle John Carlberg had spent a few years in the Marion Hill community. He was an artist and was known for doing "chalk talks" at various school and church events. He was also a musician, making violins and organizing youth orchestras.
As we inspected the various items on display, a few people Mom knew came into the school: childhood friend Kenneth Morgan who had asked her to dance "way back when;" Sharon Haun, a woman whose family had lived to the east of the Marion Hill church; and Malcolm Strom, the man who was instrumental in saving the Swartz School and making it into a museum.
They chatted and laughed, reminiscing about this and that and remembering connections with people they had known.
Later, as we were heading back to Manhattan, I thought about Mom's question from when we were on the way to Dwight. No, we hadn't been lost on those quiet country roads. But when a bunch of people get together who are interested in how things used to be, well, getting lost in the past is a certainty.