Generations of Americans were educated in the familiar one- and two-room country schools that once dotted the Great Plains. Though some remain, due to budgetary challenges and shrinking rural populations, the rural school is fast fading from the Nebraska landscape. Ruth Ann Steele of rural Brown County, Neb., through persistence and amateur archaeological expeditions, works to preserve not only the country school where her husband and children attended but all of the schools that have ever existed in Brown County.
With an eager look in her eyes and a Brown County plat map in her hand, Ruth Ann Steele navigates as her husband Darrel steers their blue Chevy truck along an intermittent Sand Hills trail. No, they’re not lost, but they are on a quest, and a monumental one at that.
In the 1990s a rural school near the Steele home closed. Their children had attended the school, as had Mr. Steele. Saddened but inspired by the school’s closing, Ruth Ann began to document the schools of Brown County’s past. Not just the familiar one-room schoolhouse of their children’s youth—no, all of the schools that have ever existed in Brown County.
On this day the Steele’s are seeking out several school sites that they’ve never seen. Antiquated maps give them a roundabout idea of where a school is, or more likely where it once was. But to step foot on these remote sites requires permission from landowners and assistance from people that remember where buildings that are now long gone once stood.
Ruth Ann says that the oldest Brown County schools she can verify date back to 1880, based on schools marked on a map of the same year. Those frontier schools actually predate the forming of Brown County in 1883. They are long gone now. Since then, roads have been moved or simply abandoned to be reclaimed by sunflowers and sand. Schools that once set by roads are now nothing but crumbling foundations in someone’s pasture, and some have left no noticeable trace at all. It is these situations that necessitate the help of “someone in the know.”
The Steele’s have a 9:00 a.m. appointment to meet Glenna Abbott at a predetermined fork in the sand road. Abbott has knowledge of remote parts of Brown County and knows where several schoolhouses once stood. With her help, the Steele’s hope to document the sites with photographs and, with some luck, recover an artifact from each former school.
The logistics of finding these resting places of our state’s history involves sifting through old file cabinets and boxes of documents in county offices or making phone calls to people who might hold a tidbit of important information. One call often leads to several others.
A pair of binoculars, a cooler containing lunch and several maps are loaded into Glenna’s vehicle, since four-wheel drive will be needed to reach some of their destinations. After barely getting up to speed, Glenna stops her truck.
“See that tree right there?” she says as she points to a twisted old cedar. “That’s where the school was.”
Ruth Ann takes some notes about District 56, also known as Sunnyside, and photographs the site. Although they have permission, a ditch full of swampy water prevents them from searching for artifacts. The building itself was moved to a ranch and lives on today as a machine shop.
As schools closed, the buildings were often moved across the hills to again serve as schools elsewhere. Where buildings once stood, often all that remains are glass shards, broken bits of chimney bricks or perhaps foundation stones. Some schools were moved so often that they had no foundation, rather they rested on skids and, when necessary, they could be relocated by attaching teams of horses to the structure.
On the way to the next school, the trio conversed about the blooming of certain wildflowers and how the area was again in need of a good rain. A mule deer doe stopped feeding at the sight of the truck and escaped into the cattail fringe of a nearby lake.
District 76, otherwise known as Paramount School, was the next destination. This building still stands, and Darrel picked up a piece of plaster from the floor—a tangible remnant of the school that will be tagged, bagged and preserved, no matter what eventually happens to the decaying building. Darrel says, “The roof doesn’t look very good—once the roof goes, the rest of the building won’t be far behind.”
The old school’s piano is still inside, and Darrel played a few notes as barn swallows circled around the room as if in protest of the performance.
Darrel is a good sport about tagging along on these outings, but it is Ruth Ann that is the real force behind the project to preserve the old schools. “She tries to get me lost,” Darrel jokingly said in reference to Ruth Ann’s frequent expeditions across the undulating Sand Hills landscape.
She recently spent seven months in the Brown County Courthouse basement in Ainsworth copying school and census records from early 1883 to the present. Darrel’s sister, Mary Scheer, helped as well. The basement is cold, even more so with the air conditioner running. Steele said of the experience, “We took sack lunches and never left until evening, and we froze all summer.”
The Steeles are active in the Brown County Historical Society. Area residents Carol Larson, Faith Mapps and Grace Hatley have helped with the copying of records and their conversion from brittle, yellowing papers to modern digital files.
Word has spread about her efforts, and Ruth Ann occasionally receives an item in the mail that completes a link in the county history. She has been given items from people settling the affairs of deceased relatives. She is appreciative of these bequests and says, “All too often they throw the stuff out without realizing its significance to our history.”
Last fall she received a phone call from a gentleman that found an old book in an even older barn. It was the 1952 District 44 treasurer’s logbook, and it is now part of her historical collection. The caller also offered to take the Steeles to the remote western Brown County site where the school once stood. A relative of the man was a student teacher in the rural school, and Ruth Ann is eagerly awaiting the arrival of drier, warmer weather so they can visit the area.
Entry to another site involved negotiating several gates and maneuvering around fallen trees, old wire and a blowout. Glenna hopped out to open a gate and quipped, “It’s Sand Hills law that you close the gates behind you.” The truck rounded a shelterbelt, and a large blue lake was revealed. Near the shore sits the combined foundations of two schools—Districts 56 and 33—which had been moved to and joined here near the east edge of Hager Lake.
One section of the foundation is long and narrow, the other almost square. They surveyed the area and discussed which segment was larger. This was the third setting for District 33 as a school.
Near the end of the four-hour, forty-four mile trek, Glenna slowed her truck and pointed to a windmill.
“There was a school here,” she said.
Ruth Ann’s map verified that it was the second site of District 33. A small piece of concrete, possibly part of a foundation, was retrieved for her collection.
Abbott left the Steeles at their truck, graciously refused Ruth Ann’s attempt to reimburse her for gasoline and bid them farewell. The Steeles ate sandwiches and cantaloupe in the cab of the Chevy before continuing the expedition.
The Steeles stopped briefly at the former Buffalo Flats School District 17. This beautiful brick school educated its last class in 2007. The building was located northwest of Long Pine but has since been destroyed so that the small parcel of land where it sat can be used as farm ground.
Some former schools live on, having been remodeled for other uses. The Steeles head south and drive through Ainsworth to see a few of these buildings.
“That garage there was a school,” Ruth Ann says. A few blocks away she points out a new home that was once a rural school building. Old District 30 is now someone’s kitchen.
The former District 51 was moved and last served as lodging for a hired hand. It sits in a hay meadow and is visible from a remote hilltop. District 43 is smaller than most living rooms. The door is gone, but the original slate blackboard is rumored to still be inside. Several miles away, the country school where Ruth Ann once taught now sits empty.
The remnants of District 12 lay in the backyard of a ranch home. Darrel had not been to the area in 40 years. A phone call had been made in advance, and Jessica Smith was waiting to escort the Steeles. The land has been in the family for over 100 years, and Jessica’s great grandmother taught in the school. All that remains of the building are a few foundation stones that have almost been completely covered by earth. Darrel located a small piece of weathered foundation, and Jessica tells him to take as much of it as he wants. He chuckles and assures her that one piece will do.
After a conversation about growing up in the Sand Hills and a few photos of the site, the Steeles thank Jessica and depart with their artifact. The District 53 building that Darrel attended is only a mile from his home, and it houses many historical items. The Steeles provide all of the financial support and labor toward its upkeep and preservation.
Darrel attended this school through the eighth grade and says there was no kindergarten at this school when he was a boy. This building is one of only a few that sits where it was originally built. The first District 53 was a sod school that sat nearby.
The school closed in 1993 and contains items spanning the life of the school. On one shelf there is a handheld slate and on a desk is an early Apple computer. The items represent the bookends of time for the school from beginning to end. Darrel, seemingly with a jealous tone, says, “That merry-go-round wasn’t here when I went to this school and neither was the basketball hoop.”
With the exception of a few years serving in the military, Darrel has lived his entire life in the house where he lives now. Over the years, Darrel’s parents boarded many of the school’s teachers in what is now Ruth Ann’s small sewing room. The teachers were grateful to find quarters so close to the school, and the Steeles were thankful for a little extra money. After completing the eighth grade at District 53, Darrel attended high school in Ainsworth.
For many former students who attended those classic one-room school houses, those buildings are gone. Others are simply piles of rotting wood. A few persist as garages, hog barns, sheds or homes. And fewer still have been preserved as they were when the schoolmistress rang the bell for the final time.
Ruth Ann’s dining room table is usually covered with books and historical documents. A nearby shelf holds over 65 binders of accumulated information. Of this monumental project she says, “I have had a lot of help, good help. I have a wonderful family. The kids help, and Darrel is very patient. I am sure he would like to throw me and all this mess out at times.”
Nobody can dispute the fact that these small schools turned out highly educated children. Despite the fact that the teacher was often far outnumbered by the students, they usually became tight knit families of sorts. Economics has led to the demise of these foundation stones of America; this part of our history is now all but gone.
The residents of Brown County, Neb., are fortunate in that even if their old schools have been mostly erased, they can still connect with them through the hard work and perseverance of Ruth Ann Steele. We should all be so lucky.
Ruth Ann Steele has documented most of the school districts of Brown County through old documents, photographs and artifacts. Anyone with information, stories or artifacts can contact her at HC 65 Box 129, Ainsworth, NE 69210-9433.
As of May 2007, all of Brown County’s rural schools had been closed.