Clay County rural school research goal is to make the buildings ‘talk’

Clay County rural school research goal is to make the buildings 'talk' Donna Gross and Fern Kaufman, at left, are working with students in the Vermillion High School American Heritage class on a research project about Clay County's rural schools. Pictured with them are, in back from left, Tim Brodersen, Natalie Tuetken, Lindsay Iverson and Tabitha Hubert, and in front, Sarah Mollet, Shane Manning and Stacy Miskimins.

by M. Jill Karolevitz Mention country school to someone who attended one and you�d better have time to sit and chat for awhile.

Country school students are often quick to release a flood of memories that result from their reading, writing and �rithmetic days � from pot-bellied stoves and sweeping compound, to one-on-one instruction, spelling bees, YCL and basket socials.

But apart from the students� recollections are the buildings that housed them � structures quickly disappearing from the rural landscape. Believing they are more than two-by-fours on a foundation, Fern Kaufman and Donna Gross of Vermillion have started a project that takes on a different character from the stories of country school students. Their aim is to rekindle memories of the school houses themselves and capture the changing heritage of Clay County�s early school structures before they are lost.

�Country school houses are a piece of history that is vanishing,� Gross said. �They are either falling apart, have been moved to be used as granaries or they�re gone completely. We hope to gather the stories of these buildings in Clay County � their location, architectural style, present condition and use, because buildings talk too.�

�We didn�t want to copy what others have done,� Kaufman added. �We wanted to do more than the ?people stories�.�

Kaufman and Gross started their research about a year ago.

�We started by visiting with a woman from Iowa � a former country school teacher � who had done a similar project,� Kaufman said. �It was delightful to hear her stories, and our ideas grew from there.�

�We thought about doing the whole state,� Gross added. �We had quite a vision at first. But we�ve now decided to start with Clay County and possibly add others in the region eventually.�

Researching country schools is a natural for Kaufman and Gross � both their mothers were rural school teachers and each attended a small school. Kaufman attended Hamlin #3 near Castlewood for eight years and Gross went to school in Garden City.

�It was actually a ?city school,� but I was a country kid and there were only seven kids in my class,� Gross said.

The connections Kaufman and Gross have had to education over the years also add to their interest. Kaufman served on the Vermillion School Board for 20 years and Gross was the district�s director of curriculum and an English teacher for 32 years.

In order to get present students involved in the past, Kaufman and Gross have enlisted the help of several Vermillion High School juniors who are enrolled in American Heritage class taught by Sharon Ross.

�The class combines studies in American literature and American history,� Gross said. �Each quarter the kids have to take on a special project, one that includes research, so we approached Sharon to see if any kids would be interested in helping us and if this project would fit into the curriculum of the class. She said yes.

�We want to give the students the opportunity to ?open up� the buildings and make them ?talk� as they do the research,� Gross continued. �In the end, the information they gather will be ours to use and their experience becomes a class project. It�s a school-community connection.�

Each student will �adopt� one Clay County school. Research will include seeking out county and township records, conducting interviews, going to the library, searching through newspaper records and taking pictures. They will look for the official name and the nickname of the school, its architectural style, original location, when it opened for classes and when it closed, significant events in its history, teachers� names, outstanding students, structural modifications and its present owner and use.

The history of country school houses is endless, according to Kaufman and Gross. Windows were strategically placed for the best lighting, some were built on stilts to make them easy to move if the student population shifted, barns were common to house the horses students rode to school, pot-bellied stoves were often the only source of heat and where chalk boards didn�t cover the walls, wainscoting did. These are the things Kaufman and Gross hope the students will find as they seek out the background of their adopted schools.

Once their research is complete, the students will then write descriptive narratives based on their research and prepare and give presentations to their peers, senior citizens groups, retired teachers or service clubs.

Kaufman and Gross have already done their own research since the inception of their project.

�We�ve had a good time driving around the country and we�ve found out that some of these schools ?talk� in the strangest ways,� Gross said. �When we mention what we�re doing, people get excited about it and start sharing their memories. The woman in Iowa told us that information would bubble up from many different sources � and we�re still looking for a lot a bubbles.�

In the end, Kaufman and Gross will archive the information and plans are to make it available to people who are interested in Clay County�s educational heritage. Compiling a book is a possibility.

�We�ve struggled with the idea of what the result will be,� Kaufman said. �We�re still working on the outcome and that�s a bit of a challenge. But it wouldn�t be any fun without challenge.�

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