Enthusiasts Find Iowa Country Schools Special
Submitted by Ron Slechta- Publisher, Slechta Publictions, Kalona, IA
A record number of schoolhouse enthusiasts from six states and Australia attending the 15th annual One Room Country School Conference in Kalona found the area one-room schools both special and unique.
“This was our best conference we have ever had for a variety of reasons,” said Bill Sherman, organizer of the October conference. There were 99 in attendance at the Friday all day session held in the Amish Quilt Gallery at the Kalona Historical Society Visitors Center. On Saturday, 65 toured area country schools and ended up with a home cooked meal at Salina Bontrager home near Joetown.
Sherman cited several reasons other than the large attendance why the Kalona venue was so significant and successful:
•Middleburg Amish one-room country school. This is the oldest continuous running school in the state of Iowa. It was opened in 1860. Teachers Silas Bontrager and Elmer Beachy offered a commentary on how current day Amish schools operate 170 days a year including field trips. They gave a unique insight into how the Amish schools operate. Like other students, Amish students must take the Iowa Basic Skills test each year. Results show students are below state averages in lower grades as they are just learning English, but the upper grades test above averages for those students taking the tests. Teachers noted there are 34 students at Middleburg.
Historian Mike Zahs, who spoke to the group Friday evening, gave a brief history of the historic Middleburg School and the community of Middleburg which was the halfway point on the stage coach route between Iowa City and Washington. The arrival of the railroad resulted in the end of the community of Middleburg, but not the school, which was moved to its present location in 1876 so it would be more centrally located. It was part of the Mid-Prairie School District until 1970.
•Fairview School, located on James Ave. north of 560th Street, was a Mid-Prairie School District school for the New Order Amish community, according to Ed Miller who was the Mid-Prairie principal in charge in 1980.
Mary Swander, a professor at Iowa State University and Iowa’s Poet Laureate, purchased the old school in mid 1990’s, and has converted it into her weekend and summer retreat. Swander invited the group into her neatly decorated home and autographed copies of her most recent book.
Swander related that people who attended Fairview pitch a tent in the yard to hold reunions each summer. She enjoys hearing their stories.
•Friendship School (formerly East Lincoln) an Amish one-room school, located on 520th Street west of Hazelwood Avenue, has 24 students. Teachers Lenora Miller and Rhoda Beachy answered questions by the group of how they handle and teach students. Sherman noted this was a classic country school with large windows on one side and few windows on the opposite of the room to avoid too much cross lighting. Sherman noted that it is also unique in that the room can be divided by a pull curtain, an unusual design feature. The curtain is used to divide the lower grades (kindergarten to 4th grade) and upper grades (5th to 8th grades).
•Washington Twp. Central High School was the township high school for those attending one-room country schools. It was recently purchased by the Amish community and will be renovated to use as a school as the Amish community grows in that area.
Sherman related that the Central High School building, the Central Elementary School building (now a private home) and the Mid-Prairie Washington Township school is a very unique complex of schools still standing in Iowa. The former Central Elementary is also noted for having the largest belfry and school bell in Iowa. The only other similar set of buildings is in Clay County north of Spencer, and those buildings may be destroyed to convert the grounds into farmland. Ed Miller, a former principal at Washington Twp. School, noted that the school was built by families living in the area and when they voted to join the Mid-Prairie School District Amish students attended the school, but school officials decided not to continue that arrangement.
During the brief stop at Lower Mennonite Church many on the tour viewed the historic Amish marker on the grounds of the church.
The tour group drove through the Mennonite School grounds where they learned about that school. Next stop was at the Methodist Church in Joetown. The town was originally called Amish, but was later named Joetown after a minister whose first name was Joe.
From Joetown the group meandered through the countryside past Brush School before stopping at Salina Bontrager’s home for a delicious and filling meal.
Sherman noted it was significant that attendees were able to view the 25-inch diameter Iowa Quarter carved by Chuck Hining of Swisher, a former industrial arts teacher in Cedar Rapids schools. The quarter is carved out of Iowa red oak from Iowa County. The model for the country school on the quarter was from a Grant Wood painting of a school that was on the land where the Eastern Iowa Airport is now located.
Sherman admitted to overbooking the program Friday, which include a variety of experts on country schools.
Local speakers included Michael Zahs, whose appearance was funded by Humanities Iowa Speakers Bureau and Dwight Seegmiller, CEO of Hills Bank & Trust Co, spoke on “Why Country School Preservation Matters.”
Ed Miller, a former country school teacher and principal, Lois Gugel (former country school teacher including Central Elementary and currently Mennonite Museum Library Archivist) and Timothy Bender, a junior at Iowa Mennonite School were lead off speakers.
Sherman paid special thanks to Nancy Roth, Kalona Historical Village director, for hosting the event and making many of the arrangements for the program including a lunch and evening meal at the Visitor’s Center.
He also gave a special thanks to Ed Miller and Lois Gugel for making the arrangements for the Saturday morning countryside tour including the school bus for many in the tour.
Mark Dewalt of Winthrop College, Rock Hill, SC, said he was glad to he a part this year’s conference and pointed out that Bill Sherman is the main mover behind preservation of the history of one-room country schools.
Sherman said there are approximately 60 one-room schools now in use in Iowa, mostly operated by Amish and Mennonite groups. Seven of the Amish schools are public schools operated by Wapsie Valley and Jesup school districts in Buchanan County.
Dale and Joan Prouty, Hudson Falls, NY, invited the group to attend the 2015 National Country School Association of America annual conference at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, NY, June 14th-17th, 2015.
Sherman invited the group to the 16th Annual Iowa Country School Conference in Boone next year.