1930's One-Room Schoolhouse: A Colorado Plains Memory
Little Schoolhouse on the Plains
Sunrise Club School at a Glance
Established: Built in 1936 or before, the schoolhouse was part of an extension by the WPA. The women of the local Sunrise Club had heavy involvement once the building was present. It closed when local school systems were consolidated. The exact date seems unsure, but I believe this must have been in the early 1940's.
Average Number of Students Per Year: Uncertain--but always a small number.
Fond Memories: The school year lasted 9 months, and included an end-of-year picnic complete with store-bought ice cream brought in on dry ice. The ingredients were similar to Rocky Road . . . and were out-of-this world delicious!
Community Entertainments: Plays, musical evenings, pie socials, potluck suppers, card parties, farm sales with potluck meals, rabbit hunts, softball teams.
The Grounds in 2008
My Particular Interest in This Landmark
I grew up on a working farm in Northeastern Colorado, within two miles of the schoolhouse featured here.
My grandfather's father had homesteaded the land which my family still farms, at about the turn of the century. Grandpa Henry's older sister Bessie attended this local schoolhouse (or more likely the one previous, which I tell of). My Great Aunt Bessie, it is said, was compelled to beat coyotes off with sticks while walking on her way to school.
Also, my grandmother, who married Grandpa Henry, grew up on the Red Lion Road not far from this schoolhouse. The Red Lion Road is 9 miles from it as the crow flies.
So the place and all its memories are dear to my heart.
Not the First Schoolhouse
The Sunrise Club Schoolhouse was not the first to be located in this part of Sedgwick County. A previous school of uncertain date served the community until the early- to mid-1930's.
This other school building was not destroyed, but can still be seen where it serves as part of a barn belonging to the Price family. The outline of the building can plainly be seen on the front of the barn, which was built around it. Two wings and a haymow were added over and around it, and "Sunrise Ranch" is painted on the face of the barn. Emray Price is responsible for preserving it in this manner.
Emray is related to two of the women who helped me with this article. He was Miss Helen's father, and is related to Lucy Price through marriage.
This is a one-room schoolhouse, where all grades were taught in one room by a single teacher. There is a small porch or cloakroom on the west.
The shed on the back (or east) is part of a basement. This basement was used for cooking, pie socials, card parties, dances, plays, and the like. There was a large oilcloth curtain for a stage, which rolled up for performances. This curtain can be seen at a local museum, to which it was donated.
There were two stoves in the building. A potbelly stove provided heat in the main room, while a cookstove was available in the basement.
Present Day Damages (2019)
Because there is no way to protect it, the building has been repeatedly vandalized. Both stoves (one source says three?) were stolen, as was a plaque which had been attached to a corner of the building, stating how it was established, and by whom. It is assumed this was stolen because of its copper or brass content. Efforts were made to find those responsible, but nothing ever came of it. No one who has a right to know can prove where the plaque or the stoves are.
At some point someone made an attempt to jimmy the door, which now cannot be opened properly. It remains locked. For this reason, I am unable at this time to provide photographs of the interior, even with access to the keys.
There is currently no official custodian, though Lorraine Green fulfilled this capacity for many years.
Teachers and Teaching
Miss Helen and Miss Lorraine, who provided most of the information for this story, both told me about their teachers, and of their schooldays. Helen first attended the previous schoolhouse which was made into a barn.
Teachers Well Remembered
The first teacher at the Sunrise Club School was Lyla Munson, who started before Miss Helen attended. Then came Florence Nelson, who taught when Helen started. Mrs. Louise Fullen came last, and is remembered as having kept the position until the school closed.
Miss Lorraine added that a Miss Minerva(?) taught for first 7 years of her time there. I am not sure where Minerva fits into this line-up, or if I have bungled the information, and she meant Fullen. However, this woman lived in a house which was three stories tall, and drove to pick up the kids sometimes.
Conversely, Mrs. Fullen had a trailer that was parked in Joe Jonasak’s yard, who lived catty corner from the school.
There were no proper tests or certificates required to teach here. Mrs. Fullen might have had a certificate, but Helen doesn’t know for sure. The other two women didn’t have anything but common knowledge. Judging by the pupils whom they educated, it seems they did very well.
Methods and Classes
The older students also helped teach the younger, and corrected papers for them.
In third grade Helen was the only one in her grade, but took classes with the two boys behind her, sharing books and teaching slots.
The older students often worked with those who were younger while the teacher held recitations, helped other students with their work, or oversaw arithmetic drills on the blackboard.
Races were held to see who could add or multiply the fastest, and younger students improved their reading by reading aloud to those who were older.
Discipline was usually not a problem. Kids knew they had to behave! Your folks told you that if you got in trouble at school, you’d get in trouble at home. Once in a while, problems arose when students got to giggling together while they were supposed to be studying--but being called down was the only measure needed to restore order.
Students always said the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag every morning. There were no Bible readings, as were sometimes popular in pioneer and homesteading districts.
For science, no experiments were done. Most scientific knowledge was gained from reading books.
Helen liked all school subjects! She had no favorites, as they were equal.
At one time, mothers of students cooked meals in the basement on a cookstove, so the kids would have hot meals. But this became too much for those involved, and sadly had to be given up.
As trees as fuel are scarce in this area, I am guessing corncobs may have been the fuel of choice. These were widely used as cooking fuel, and my Grandma Inez used them to cook meals in her home in the 1940's. Perhaps coal was used at the school.
An Eversharp Pencil
Miss Helen always went to a certain older student, Ellen Gueck, to have her papers corrected. Miss Ellen had an eversharp pencil--and that was so neat! For sure Helen wanted one!
For Those Arithmetic Races!
Similar Local Classes and Schools
Socials and Plays
Miss Lorraine tells of the nice basement with a stage area, which had a roll-down oilcloth divider instead of a curtain.
A once-a-month play, music gathering complete with recitations and dress-up, or other type of social was held here. Potluck suppers and pie socials were common.
Lorraine recalls her mother doing a reading or skit in which she dressed up as a black woman whose son had stolen a watermelon. The son was soundly remonstrated.
Memorization of plays and songs was held in high esteem, and there were many recitations.
Music was, of course, important, and performing a song was a popular way of contributing.
Dances were held here. I think it's a shame that dancing as a rural custom has gone out of favor in this area, and country dance bands are almost extinct. It seems that taking time to socialize this way benefited the community in a way we of a younger generation can know nothing of.
Card parties were held, as well, and were immensely popular. Women brought food--coffee and cakes or pies, which were served after the card parties. In those days the ladies always made pies.
Children sometimes fell asleep on the floor while their parents laughed and talked, or played cards.
Card parties were a regular part of socializing for many families.
For some folks I know, Rummy, Pitch, Pinochle, and Bridge are still important social events, and are a part of every family get-together.
Lorraine described waking up at card parties, in which the folks played until late, and the kids were told to go to sleep. Sometimes, the children wouldn't remember how they got there, they had slept so deeply due to exercise and fresh air.
Memories Which Stick
Helen tells how there was a swingset down in the yard. One day two boys came to school with a snake which they had caught on their way. They walked from their home southward on a cow trail road, about 1 1/2 miles. Upon arriving, they threw the snake at the girls on the swingset. It stuck on the chain holding the swing. A girl fell out, screaming, and to this day Helen is petrified of snakes.
Another day, a girl went out to the outhouse (privy or bathroom), and met a skunk in there. Helen did not say she got sprayed, but we can assume that both the skunk and student had a surprise!
Helen and her brother Clem rode horseback to school. There was a barn on the grounds. The horses spent all day in the barn, and really got on the go on the two miles home. There was no stopping those horses.
If it was storming very badly, the parents might come and get Helen and Clem in a vehicle. At these times, the horses would be turned loose to make their own way home, which they always did quickly.
Softball and Other Games
As mentioned, there were many opportunities for socialization and pleasant times.
At school and at other times, hide'n'seek remained a popular game amongst the children.
Softball was popular with some of their parents. Grandma Inez' father played softball (or perhaps baseball?), about which he was quite enthusiastic.
I feel sure it was a huge relief to be able to let loose after a weeks' worth of farming and struggling.
There are still local softball and baseball teams.
A Local Team
The Dirty Thirties
The schoolhouse was only a part of life in the 1930's for these students. Many challenges faced them and their families, which cannot be forgotten.
When I have asked older folk for their childhood memories, the same themes are spoken of again and again. One of these is farming. Most of our families came here to farm, and it is all we truly know.
Farming on the Great Plains has never been easy; the Homesteading Act was almost a hoax, since much of this land cannot be profitably farmed without irrigation. There are good reasons why the Plains Tribes frequently moved camp, and never became agriculturalists.
The drought conditions and the politics of the 1930's made farming that much harder. Many people lost their livelihoods, no matter how much effort they put into surviving.
The stories people have shared with me of their efforts to survive are important, and because I respect them, I pass them on to you, however melancholy or disagreeable they may be. Please respect them with me.
Farming and Homesteading
Rabbit Hunts; Coyotes
Jack rabbit hunting became an important part of community life, as there were so many of these hares that they destroyed crops, ruining people's livelihoods. The solution was to thin the population in any way possible.
People would walk the fields and shoot the rabbits, and later sell them. They were put on rail cars to Denver, Colorado, and were sometimes used to provide meat for soup kitchens.
This was the reality of the 1930's.
Since cash was scarce, and for many families buying ammunition was out of the question, more brutal methods of hunting were often employed.
People worked together to build a backdrop like on a baseball field, then chased and drove the rabbits together. Clubs were used to kill them.
Ethics and the Eco System
As cruel as this seems, it is certain it was a necessary evil to ensure people could continue to live and farm in this area. Some of the rabbit population would undoubtedly have starved to death in the coming winter, or been snapped up by coyotes. Even now, I have seen cottontail rabbits and jack rabbits consume literally tons of hay in a winter, which had been set aside to feed cattle. They still have a tendency to over breed their support system, leading to disease and starvation, though moderate hunting is encouraged.
Lest you think the local coyotes were getting fat, consider the plight of a student who walked to the schoolhouse every day. My grandfather grew up within two miles of the school. I here repeat how his oldest sister, Bessie, was compelled to carry a stick with which to beat off the coyotes. They were bold, and apparently desperate.
Had these problems been yours to deal with, and the fate of your family hung on you, what do you believe you would have done?
While in many places, Kye-YOTE-ee is considered a correct pronunciation, people out here often say the word KYE-yote.
During the 1930s, many people lost their farms, and sales were common. These sales were treated as social events by neighbors, albeit busy socials. Women in attendance baked as many as six fruit pies apiece for the potluck meal which was usually included. (Custard pies could not be depended on in the heat of summer, and were not often made.)
Lorraine tells how when the Donaldsons quit farming, Esther Amstead (sp.) had ice left over in her ice box, and wanted to use it to make ice cream. The local women went home for ingredients, returning with milk, cream, eggs, and vanilla, and made the ice cream in one or more hand-cranked freezers. When it was announced to others at the sale that ice cream was available, the sale stopped cold. Everyone enjoyed ice cream instead.
As they were in so much of the United States during the 1930's, hobos were a frequent part of life for Lorraine and her family. She recalls her mother giving out sandwiches to men who came through the area. They weren't allowed in the house, but could get a meal in the yard. A post which was visible from the road was painted with a mark that acted as a secret code to those in need, so they knew which farms were friendly.
Lorraine said they once saw evidence of someone sleeping in their chicken house with a brooder. There was a man-size impression in the straw near the heater.
The neighborhood became fairly sure that a hobo was staying in the schoolhouse during the same time period. Apparently nothing much was disturbed, and he moved on.
Hobo is a contraction of the phrase, "hoe boy". These "boys" were travelling workers used on farms for seasonal work. They took their own tools with them such as hoes, forks, spades and so on. As these men were transient, the word gradually came to mean a homeless, traveling man.
Preservation Efforts for Schoolhouse--2019
What is being done to preserve this structure and its heritage? At the moment, precious little.
The Sunrise Club desires to move the building to the nearby town of Julesburg, Colorado, which is the Sedgwick County seat, and which also has a museum where certain items from the schoolhouse are displayed. But the schoolhouse won't be able to be moved under a bridge en route to Julesburg, and traffic would need to be stopped in both directions in order to take an alternate route. Moving the building has proved too expensive, and no funds have been raised. Finding a place to put the building, if it ever reached Julesburg, has also proved problematic. Due to deterioration, it is uncertain now whether it could be moved without destroying it.
Meanwhile, the slates, or blackboards, were gotten by the Sedgwick school. The roll-down divider used on the stage is housed in the Sedgwick County Museum in Julesburg (aka The Depot, I believe).
The schoolhouse stills belongs to the Sunrise Club. It was originally on Price land, and is still private.
Modern Small Schoolhouses
Such small country schools are not entirely a thing of the past.
In 2000, I attended Bible college with a girl from South Dakota who had attended a similar small schoolhouse for much of her childhood. This was a school on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation, and came complete with social tensions, as my friend was a blonde of German heritage.
Apparently the teaching was not so engaging as in the days of the women who contributed to this article. Mirranda tells of listening to lectures and being so bored that she became an expert at paper folding, making shapes, or nothing at all.
At recess, she and certain others who were "in the know" found and ate wild onions which grew around the schoolhouse. There were squabbles over these onions, and finding them was considered a treat.
Mirranda went on to raise a large family, whom she homeschools. She is very intelligent, and learned a great deal about life and people in and out of school.
Sources and Information
My information for this article comes from three very special ladies, who either went to school in this schoolhouse, or have had a long history in the county of Sedgwick, and have had a part in preserving and caring for the building.
Many thanks to Lorraine Green, Lucy Price, and Helen Obermier for your gracious cooperation and the very pleasant times we spent talking of the schoolhouse and your lives. I enjoyed chatting, and the opportunity to do this project with you.
If there are any inaccuracies or misunderstandings in this article, the fault is entirely mine, and the blame does not go to any of these ladies. Each did their best to clearly answer my questions and curiosities. If anyone notices any mistakes, or has corrections to make, please drop me a comment so I can address the problem. It will probably take me more than one try to get this right, so please be patient. As more information turns up, I will definitely include it.
I will also provide further photos of the schoolhouse and its memorabilia as I am able, as well as links to the proper museum to which objects have been donated. I am unable at this time to do any more on this project.
About Miss Lorraine Green
Lorraine and Dewey were married for almost 60 years.
They farmed in Sedgwick for all of my childhood and beyond, being my nearest neighbors at a mile away.
Lorraine is kind, upbeat, and generous. She and Dewey gave me sweet memories of occasional evenings spent at their house socializing, and of many kind acts in the community.
About Miss Lucy Price
Lucy was married to Jerry Price for 62 years. They were wed in 1957.
She has lived in Sedgwick County since then, ranching and running a local cafe. The restaurant is renowned for serving bison burgers. The American bison are raised on the ranch, and are a long-established herd. The barn of which the original schoolhouse is a part is located on the Price Ranch.
Lucy lived just over three miles from my childhood home, and about a mile from the schoolhouse.
She is a particularly compassionate, sensible lady, and a dear neighbor.
The "Buffalo" Herd
About Miss Helen Obermier
Miss Helen was born in 1930.
She attended the Sunrise Club Schoolhouse from about 1936 until it closed.
She helps operate a small local museum located in Julesburg, Colorado, where certain reminders of the schoolhouse are stored.
The Sunrise Club
Helen's mother was one of the original members of the Sunrise Club, which was started in 1936. At that time the dues were 10 cents a month. Some of the ladies of the community still have a Sunrise Club. Dues are still 10 cents!
Do you think you would like going to a one room school?
Julesburg Museum Containing Scool House Memorabilia
© 2019 Joilene Rasmussen