Heritage edition celebrates local history of education

Baseball was a popular recess activity at Prairie Center #27. This photo taken in 1921 or 1922 features (back) Alvin Larson and Melvin Jaeger, and (front) Joe Mitchell, Oscar Jackson, Gerhard Stensaas and Herb Wigdahl. This photo appears in the CD compilation “Clay County Rural Schools Scrapbook,” provided by the Clay County Historical Society

We encourage our readers to find a quiet time to sit down so they may fully immerse themselves in the reading of the Plain Talk's special Heritage edition this week that celebrates the history of education in Clay County and in Vermillion.

The goal of this publication is to take a close look at how our local school system has evolved over the years. In the process, we have learned that the headlines of today concerning education in South Dakota have a familiar ring to them.

We are a state that has never been flush with cash. Our pioneers, like educators of today, faced daunting challenges. But they never let that stand in the way of offering a quality education to our area's youth.

That's what Marion Kryger, a retired Vermillion farmer, remembers the most about his eight years of attending Norway School #3, one of the many rural schools that one time dotted the landscape of Clay County.

"I've farmed my whole life after that, and my needs have been well met," he said. "Wouldn't it be great if people would just be satisfied with where they are and what they have, and strive to do better with what they have?"

People like Kryger, who value the lessons that can be learned by preserving history, also have provided a key service in the production of this week's Heritage edition by initially compiling much of the information and photos we've been able to share in this special publication.

The stories and photos we are able to share have been compiled by such writers as Herbert Schell, Kathleen Block, and past editors of the Plain Talk who, through the years, reported on the development of Vermillion's elementary and high school buildings, and introduced new terms to the community's vocabulary. Phrases like East Side, West Side, and eventually North Side.

We also had some wonderful one-on-one conversations with local people well versed to talk about the history of education in Clay County and Vermillion, for they have either researched that history, or lived it themselves. People like Fern Kaufman and Donna Gross, Margaret Bierle and Rosalie Hubert, Cleo Erickson and Kryger.

A project Kryger hopes to complete one day involves compiling a photographic record of every eighth grade graduation that occurred in Clay County during the area's rural school era. It's a project he's devoted his efforts to for the past decade.

The county's rural schools offered classes in grades first through eighth. When one completed the eighth grade, they took part in a graduation ceremony, but not at their individual school. Every eighth grader from every rural school gathered together in Vermillion to mark the milestone of ending their country school education to move on to classes the next fall at Vermillion High School.

"At this graduation, you get your diploma and they take your picture," Kryger said. The eighth graders of the entire county would all graduate at once, at a ceremony that was usually held in Vermillion."

He is following a process very similar to the one used in the production of this week's Heritage edition – lots of research.

"I think in some of the years, for example 1916-1917, I don't have a picture for those graduations," Kryger said. "I think there was a split graduation that year. I go to the archives at the library and look for the articles about the graduation. That's where I get the names.

"Once I get the names," he added, "I know somebody who will know somebody who will know somebody that I can get in contact with, and eventually I'll get a picture."

It's identifying the individuals in the photos that is Kryger's biggest challenge at the moment. A photo stream of the pictures he has collected may be viewed by logging on to www.flickr.com/photos/46877599@N08.

One is presented with Clay County eighth grade graduation photos dating from 1970 all the way back to 1896. The photos are in place. The challenge that remains is trying to identify the people in each picture.

Time has taken away many, and in some cases, all of the students featured in many of the older photos. Gone with them are their memories of not only those golden school days, but also the identity of their classmates.

That hasn't stopped Kryger's efforts, however. He's still vigilant, hoping to unearth some unseen nugget of information that will provide more complete information to the compilation of eighth grade graduation photos.

"Eighth grade graduations were a big deal," he said. "And one interesting part of this is I'm asking different people, 'What do you remember about your graduation?' Most of the guys say, 'Oh, it was hot,' or they don't really remember it. Nearly 60 to 70 percent of the women I've talked to say, 'I don't remember the day, but I remember the dress I wore.' Back in the past, a nice dress wasn't something you had a lot of. That's kind of interesting."

Kryger is still trying to track down eighth grade graduation photos for the years 1919 and 1923. "I've just been unable to find them," he said. "Maybe there wasn't a photo taken those years."

There were no photos in 1916 and 1917, he believes, either because of World War I, or because a split graduation was held in those years.

"There are also a few photos from the early 1900s that I don't have," Kryger said. "But I made every effort to get them that I can think of."

He hopes the Heritage edition's focus on the history of education in Clay County "will spark something.

"If I can do anything for anybody, that's what I want to do," Kryger said. "I can help them genealogy-wise, and maybe help them learn where a certain ancestor, like a grandfather, for instance, may have attended country school. People moved around a lot out of the farms, especially in the '30s.

"My birth family lived in a lot of different places in the county before I was born," he said. "They were busy working on the farm, and March was moving time. If you were moving to a different farm, you usually did it on the first of March."

Kryger jokes about his efforts to compile this valuable piece of history, and some of the challenges he still faces.

"I'm not aware of any other county that is doing this to this degree. I've told everybody that you've got to be a little bit Norwegian, and not very smart to even start this," he said with a laugh. "But, you know, it's part of giving back to a community where you have your roots. There are a lot of people that interested, and there are a lot of people that could care less. And that's being honest. But for those who care and really want to know, history is important."

Kryger still remembers how large Norway School #3 seemed to be during his very first day of first grade. He remembers the "recitation bench" at the front of the classroom, where members of each individual class would sit together to receive their daily lessons from their teacher. He remembers the furnace that the teacher kept burning all winter long in the building's basement, and how everyone brought their own lunch to school.

And he remembers a unique camaraderie shared among every student at Norway School #3.

"We all looked out for one another," Kryger said. "I think there was the normal amount of teasing that would go on between kids, but I don't remember any fighting. It seemed like all of the kids always got along with everybody else."

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