Thursday, October 11, 2012

Isaac Builds a School House

Emerson School House, Dist. 33, Stafford County, Kansas

The earliest school in Isaac's community was a soddy, but on New Year's Eve at the close of 1884, neighbors met prior to the bond election to discuss the style and dimensions of a new wooden school house.  On January 3, 1885, Isaac recorded in his journal:  "Great election day voting $500. Bonds district 33 Stafford Co., Kansas for School bonds."  Although women would not have the vote in general elections for many years to come, the Kansas state constitution had given women the right to vote in school elections, and apparently they exercised that right enthusiastically in support of the new Emerson school.
The school board retained contractor David Carnahan to construct the building, and he hired Will Goodwin and Isaac Werner to help him, but it was not until October 13th that Isaac wrote:  "...came round by new school house, Carnahan foundation nearly bricked up, & few loads of lumber on ground, soon all to be got this week & house to go up next week."  During the following days, Isaac recorded his labor at the school house, and on the last day of October, he wrote:  "[E]ve up with wagon to school house got tool chest...," taking some of the leftover building materials in partial payment from Carnahan.  Two weeks later he wrote, "...settled with Carnahan being very near square," and on December 6, 1885, he wrote with satisfaction:  "Yesterday school house building accepted by directors of Carnahan pleased with the job etc.  school to commence to-morrow."  During the remaining years of Isaac's life he attended many community meetings in that building, and he often went there alone to make needed repairs, or as he said, keep it "tidy."  The above picture of the school house Isaac helped build was taken in the early 1900s several years after Isaac's death, showing a neglect of repairs to the siding of which Isaac would have surely disapproved!
The stucco-finished Emerson School House, Dist. 33, Stafford, Co. 

A few years after that picture was taken, the wooden structure that Isaac helped build was replaced by a larger, stucco-finished school with a basement.  My father's older siblings may have attended the wooden school, but my father began school in the newer building.  He is the little boy sitting next to the steps with his chin resting on his hands.  The girl sitting next to him is his cousin, Lucille M. Hall, who bequeathed Isaac's journal to the museum bearing her name, and both she and my father are descendants of George Hall, Isaac's friend.  (My father and Lucille were born only a few days apart, and they were great buddies during childhood and remained close as adults.)
Public school education was a high priority for early settlers, and when farmers began to organize during the hard years of the 1880s and 1890s, education remained a core issue of the populist movement.  One of the books Isaac read during this time was written by Ignatius L. Donnally, a U.S. Congressman from Minnesota and a leader in the populist movement.  Caesar's Column is a novel set in the future, which depicts class warfare between the extremely wealthy and the workers they have reduced to inhuman conditions.  Donnally's book imagines what could happen if the trends of the Gilded Age, with a growing economic gap between the wealthy capitalists, bankers, and industralists and the factory workers, miners, and farmers of the working classes, were allowed to continue. 
In his book, Donnelly depicts the disadvantages of educating the nation's children in separate schools, with children of the wealthy, professional, and managerial classes abandoning public schools.  In the novel, a group of educated survivors escape the cataclysmic class war and establish a utopian community dedicated to avoiding the old world's mistakes.  One of the fictional founders of that utopia describes their education system with these words:
"We abolish all private schools, except the higher institutions and colleges.  We believe it to be essential to the peace and safety of the commonwealth that the children of all the people, rich and poor, should, during the period of growth, associate together.  In this way, race, sectarian and caste prejudices are obliterated, and the whole community grow up together as brethren.  Otherwise, in a generation or two, we shall have the people split up into hostile factions, fenced in by doctrinal bigotries, suspicious of one another, and antogonizing one another in politics, business and everything else." 
Caesar's Column was published in 1890.
Ralph center front right, Lucille behind, & Arthur Beck behind her

 Although Isaac was a bachelor without children of his own, be believed in the importance of supporting education.  Even after the school was built, if Isaac noticed something in need of repair, he fixed it.  For Isaac, public school tax dollars were an investment in our nation's future, unrelated to having children in school.  His efforts built a school for many children who attended Emerson District 33 School, including my own father and the ancestors of countless others.  He did not expect reimbursement for his volunteer repair jobs or the books from his own collection that he donated.  He acted from the belief that communities are better served by educated citizens, and he supported the school with his taxes, his private acts of repair, and his donated books.

Remember:  You can enlarge the images by clicking on them.


The Blog Fodder said...

Love the pictures. I attended a white, wooden one-room rural school for seven grades and have a group picture from 1954, more than 50 years after your first picture.

Caesar's Column could have been written yesterday. He certainly had a clear vision of how the future would turn out and of the impact of private schools.

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

I find it so interesting that many of the issues the populists confronted are so closely related to political issues today. The political cartoons are still relevant, and many quotes from "Caesar's Column" are valid arguments for today's issues. I think that is what makes telling Isaac's story so enjoyable to readers today...I hope.

Anonymous said...

It was a difficult time on the farm during the period of this post. Farmers pulled their plows and drills through their fields hoping, just hoping, for enough rain to have a "stand" some weeks later from their newly planted seeds. Then they had to continue with the uncertainty of more rain and eventually good yields...and then fair prices when they sold. They believed in good schools staffed with good teachers,learning the Three R's...Reading, W(R)iting, and A(R)ithmetic. Adding to the basics was science and technology to become better farmers of the land...and always hoping that their children received a better education than they had received. It worked..... because today a single Kansas farmer can feed 128 individuals! That's progress through education!!!