It has been more than half a century since the last one-room schoolhouse closed in Nodaway County, an event that irrevocably turned the page on a long and, for a dwindling number of gray-haired former students, warmly remembered chapter of the American story.
For over 150 years, the little country school was one of the dominant symbols of a nation that, in many ways, no longer exists: a land more rural than urban, more animal than machine, more Main Street than Wall Street, more unified than divided.
Whether the passing of that era has turned out to be a good thing or a bad one, a group of local citizens has been working over the past year to make sure that, at least as far as history is concerned, the heritage of the one-room schoolhouse is not forgotten.
Using a $10,000 grant obtained through the Gladys Rickard Charitable Trust, the group, led by Margaret Kelley, Phyllis Schimming and Lorna From, has been working with residents from all 15 Nodaway County townships to erect signs at the spots where more than 200 former country and town schools were once located.
The committee has identified 210 sites in all, and a number of the metal signs are already in place. From said most of these schools operated from the late 1800s into the 1950s — the last is believed to have closed in 1960 — when better roads and a declining rural population led to the present era of consolidated school districts.
The idea of marking the locations grew out of numerous inquiries about the fate of various rural schools fielded by volunteer staffers at the Nodaway County Historical Society Museum.
Enough people were asking such questions, that Kelley, who is active in the society, invited several people to join a committee that as been working since February to flag locations and consult with landowners.
If 200 schools sounds like a lot, it is. But the number appears more reasonable in context. Most of these schools were built when residents of the state's fifth-largest county in terms of geographical area traveled exclusively by foot, horseback, mule and wagon over often-muddy dirt roads. There is, after all, a reason why folks still use the phrase "country mile" as a metaphor for any lengthy distance.
The goal in those days, From said, was to build enough schools so that no student had to walk more than two miles to school one way — a heavy task for a 6- or 7-year-old child. On the other hand, childhood obesity wasn't much of a concern.
Also, at a time when many farms comprised between only 40 and 160 acres, a square mile might contain eight or ten homesteads, essentially a small community. So the schools were natural places to hold church services, political meetings, dances and potluck suppers.
Page 2 of 2 - "They were the hub," said From, who did not attend a one-room school herself, but who remembers "country kids" who did before joining her at what is now North Nodaway High School in Hopkins.
Many of the old schools only offered classes through the eighth grade, From said. After that a lot of young people either went to work on the family farm or boarded in the nearest town with family members or friends so they could attend high school.
"Sometimes there were some really cute boys" who came in from the surrounding countryside, she fondly recalled.
From said a surprising number of the old schoolhouses are still standing, having been used over the years for everything from hay sheds to community centers. At least three have been built onto and renovated as family homes. The school in Elmo in the northwestern part of the county is long gone, though the surrounding property serves as a city park.
But most one-room schools live on only in memory, and in not so very many years even that will disappear. Which is why From, Kelley, Schimming and others believe it is important to mark the sites in some permanent way.
"A dream has been realized through this project," From said.