Women’s Efforts Celebrate Clay County’s Country Schools

Women's Efforts Celebrate Clay County's Country Schools Donna Gross describes the architecture of a local one-room school during a program Wednesday, Nov. 18, in the VHS Library, titled "Celebrating the American Dream: A Century of Clay County Country Schools 1860s-1960s. by David Lias Independence #1. Greenfield #18. Lincoln #12. Fairview #6.

For people who grew up generations ago in Clay County, these names have a familiar ring.

They invoke a special passion of learning, a simpler time when one teacher was in charge of a single-room filled with all ages of students, and the only child left behind was one who dawdled while walking to school.

They are just a few of the dozens of country schools that, beginning in the late 1800s, one time dotted the landscape of Clay County.

Thanks to the efforts of Fern Kaufman, Donna Gross, Elizabeth Kerr and Sarah Hanson, the memories of a dozen of those schools have been preserved, through photographs and a brief written history.

"Vermillion has always been the city of education," Gross said. "We've always had, I think, some of the finest public and private schools in the state. And we have to have more students and more teachers per capita in the state than any other region."

Gross talked about the important role country schools played in the region for nearly a century during a special program held Nov. 18 in the Vermillion High School Library.

One wall of the library is adorned, appropriately, with several black and white photos of country schools.

The buildings are as unique as their names. No two designs are exactly alike. Most of the schools' service to county youngsters ended in the late 1960s, as school consolidation across South Dakota favored moving students to larger community schools.

Some schools have fallen victim to fire. Some are serving new roles: a guest house, a residence, an art studio, a community center.

Gross and Kaufman began the project of collecting information and taking photographs six years ago. Kaufman, unfortunately, couldn't participate in Wednesday's program. She underwent heart surgery that morning at Sioux Valley Hospital.

"The reports are she is doing very well," Gross said. "I'm feeling a little lonely, because Fern was a country school student. I was not � I went to town school, so Fern's heart was really in this."

Gross said it may be possible that she and Kaufman may have missed some schools as they gathered information for their history project. The identification of some buildings may also be wrong.

"There were a lot of conflicting pieces of data that we were consistently finding, so we want to be very honest up front about that," she said.

Gross said she and Kaufman had a great deal of fun traveling

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Clay County's back roads with Kaufman's sister, Elizabeth Kerr, who took the photos for the project.

"I just had such a great time," Kerr said. "Fern called and asked if I would like to be a part of this project, and I said 'by all means, it would bring back a lot of good memories.'"

Kerr stayed in Vermillion a week, traveling throughout the county with her sister and Gross. It wasn't an easy job � at times fences had to be crawled under and cattle had to be chased away.

Sarah Hanson took Kerr's developed film and created enlarged black and white prints of each school. She also matted and framed each photo.

Four years ago, Kaufman and Gross also enlisted the help of several Vermillion High School students who were enrolled in an American Heritage class taught by Sharon Ross.

Students gathered information by reviewing county and township records, conducting interviews and searching old newspapers at the library.

Retired USD professor Wayne Knutson travels the state sharing information he's gathered from his own research about the impact of country schools in South Dakota.

He congratulated Kaufman, Gross and others involved in the Clay County project.

"We've been encouraging the very thing you've been doing here, because it has to be, essentially, local," he said.

As settlers began pushing westward over a century ago, country schools became vital, he said. At one time, there were 200,000 one-room schools in the U.S., and 5,000 in South Dakota.

"By 1938, they were down to 3,000, by 1964, they were down to just a few hundred, and by 1970, they pretty well cut them out," Knutson said.

He points out the major contributions one-room country schools have made to society, both nationwide and statewide.

"One was to educate the populace," Knutson said. "In 1929, only 1 percent of South Dakota was considered illiterate. We are way beyond that now. We may not have been reading Shakespeare, but we knew how to add and subtract, and write and read.

The one-room school, he said, was the great melting pot of the westward movement. Churches kept their ethnic relationships.

"But all of the kids had to go to school," he said. "The one-room school played a terribly important part historically, not only in learning the three 'Rs,' but I think in the development of America."

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