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Bill Sherman Shares History/Recollections About Country Schools in Iowa

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Humanities speaker presents ‘Iowa Country School Memories’

By Keri Bugenhagen
News Editor / TPD

    CRESCO – As part of the adult programming at Cresco Public Library, Des Moines resident Bill Sherman, a member of the Humanities Iowa Speakers Bureau, was invited to present “Iowa Country School Memories,” which was held at the Cresco United Methodist Church last Thursday evening. Sherman has spent more than 35 years as a publications/public relations specialist for the Iowa State Education Association and is the author of “Iowa’s Country Schools: Landmarks of Learning,” published in 1998. Now retired, he conducts research, writes and speaks about country schools, and is also involved in country school preservation.
    The library program was made possible through a grant from Iowa Humanities, an affiliate of the nonprofit National Endowment for the Humanities, according to library staff member Carmen Buss.
    Seats were filled for the presentation, and many area residents who attended had also once attended or taught at a country schoolhouse. Sherman told the audience they have a “leg up” on him since he never attended such a school himself, explaining that he became interested in the topic after working on another book titled “Tributes to Iowa Teachers,” published in 1996.
    “We asked citizens across the state to talk about a teacher that had a positive impact on their life,” Sherman said. “Three of the people who wrote essays for that book wrote about their experiences going to a one-room school, and that triggered a question in my mind—well, I wonder how many one-room schools are left in Iowa.”
    Thus, nearly 15 years ago—and armed with his newfound interest—Sherman headed to the State Historical Society of Iowa to find out just how many schoolhouses were left standing. However, he says when he got there, he found relatively little information aside from a few reminiscing teachers or students who had written about their individual experiences in a schoolhouse.
    “So, I decided, well, let’s try and do another book,” said Sherman, adding that he quickly realized he couldn’t take on the massive endeavor alone. “We started sending out questionnaires, trying to find people from each county in Iowa.”
    The questionnaire asked Iowa residents to indicate their knowledge of one-room schoolhouses that were still standing, including how the buildings were being used at the time. “We asked them, would you do some research in your county and tell us about the buildings?” Sherman said, adding that he wasn’t completely sure people would be motivated to conduct that kind of research. Nonetheless, the people of Iowa pulled through and two years later the book was published.
    Now, 12 years later, Sherman says nobody has produced a written work quite like this one. “This is really the first and most comprehensive statewide survey done about country schooling in Iowa,” he said.
    Sherman says through the project, he was able to determine how former one-room schoolhouses were being used across the state of Iowa. “One of the things we learned was that there were 3,000 buildings standing in Iowa that had been used, at one time, as country schools,” he said. “The most common way those schools had been recycled is into some type of residence—converted into a home, or in some cases, two schools put together to create a new home. A lot of the buildings had been converted into farm buildings.”
    Of course, many of the schoolhouses were in a state of deterioration and plenty had been torn down, according to Sherman. Still, he says numerous buildings were saved, as well. “[People] didn’t want their schools torn down, so they’d move [the buildings] onto a farmstead and use them as a storage buildings or perhaps a garage—various purposes,” he said.
    Sherman says he discovered some pleasant news through the project—that efforts were underway to preserve about 160 schoolhouses, to turn them into various types of museum facilities. “For the past 10 years, that effort has been accelerated,” he said. “Now, Iowa has about 200 country school museums—more than any other state in the nation.”
    During the program, Sherman spoke about area native Norman Borlaug, 1970 Nobel Peace Prize winner. “We can’t come to Cresco without talking about Norman Borlaug, and most of you know more about him than I do,” he said. “But I think maybe you are aware that Dr. Borlaug started his education in a one-room school near Protivin. That school has been preserved as a museum—the farmstead, the whole complex is being developed into a very nice historic sight.”
    Sherman says while he was putting the project together, he learned a bit about Dr. Borlaug’s educational background. “[Dr. Borlaug] had a fond memory of his experiences in going to a country school. One of the things he talked about was his experiences with other immigrant children at the school he attended,” said Sherman, explaining that the humanitarian talked about the communication problems that would occur within the schoolhouse due to the language barrier.     “[Dr. Borlaug] felt he learned a great deal from having an opportunity to be in a room with children of varying backgrounds, and that experience served him well as he went to earn his Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota, becoming one of the greatest humanitarians that has ever lived.”
    “I think we can all take pride in the fact that one of the country school graduates in Iowa was Norman Borlaug, and the contributions that he made, he attributed to—at least in part—his experiences of going to a country school,” said Sherman.
    Notably, Sherman says there are still nearly 60 one-room schoolhouses—enrolling more than 1,000 students—operated in the state of Iowa to this day. “So, we can say that Iowa had country schools [beginning in] 1830 and will have [country schools] into the foreseeable future,” he said. “Most of the one-room schools operating today in Iowa are private schools operated by Amish and Mennonite groups, but there are seven one-room schools operated by Wapsie Valley and Jesup for Amish children.”
    Sherman says these seven schools receive state aid for the children who attend; teachers are hired and buildings are also maintained. However, Amish elders determine the curriculum. “One of the things is [school officials] don’t want any form of technology used in the schools—no computers,” said Sherman. “The teachers who teach in these schools do have a computer at school, but it’s covered during the school day and the teacher can only use it when the children have gone.”
    Therefore, Sherman says Iowa currently has a dual system of public and private one-room schoolhouses that isn’t seen in any other state in the country.
    While one-room schools are no longer the dominant form of educational delivery in this day and age, Sherman says they were for over a 100-year-span in history. “In fact, we can say that the one-room school was really the backbone of the educational delivery system in Iowa from the 1840s, when Iowa became a state, through the 1940s,” he said.
    Locally, the Howard County Historical Society maintains a one-room schoolhouse at the fairgrounds and each year during the Mighty Howard County Fair,  a spelling bee is held there for area children, according to one resident at the presentation. “I think that’s a wonderful way to help people relive some of their [childhood] memories and experiences and to help children have some idea of what it was like to be in a one room school,” said Sherman, adding that many of the refurbished school houses in Iowa hold reenactment programs where children can spend an entire day at the school, experiencing historical curriculums first-hand. “I would encourage you to maybe investigate that possibility.”
    In addition, Sherman says Casandra Leff, editor of the Riceville Recorder, is compiling an updated history of the one-room schools in the Riceville area, which sits on the Howard/Mitchell County line. “This young woman has written something like 37 articles about one-room schools—some in Howard County, some in Mitchell County and she hopes to have that series of articles published in booklet form,” said Sherman. “So, this part of the state has done a very good job of writing and describing the history of one-room schools. We’ve had about 10 counties in Iowa that have done some type of county history, but Howard and Mitchell counties were one of the first comprehensive histories that I’m aware of, so the people who have worked on that deserve a pat on the back.”
    Toward the end of the presentation, Postville resident Vada Guyer—who says she one day intends to write her own book about country school days—stepped to the front of the room to share with the audience some vintage textbooks that were used in one-room schoolhouses, including a “Dick and Jane” book, a couple of songbooks and “Onto Good Writing”—prompting Sherman and attending residents to discuss what a shame it is that nowadays, curriculum has steered away from good penmanship due to advances in technology.
    Guyer also talked about the Vernon Springs No. 6 School reunion that is held in the basement of Immanuel Lutheran Church of Cresco every two years. “This is the two-year term again, so [the reunion is] set for the second Sunday in September,” she said, adding that there is usually a potluck and a special program. However, Guyer says she is currently looking into entertainment ideas and invites input from area residents. She can be reached at 563-864-3101.

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This resource is supported by the Institute of Museum and Library Services under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act as administered by State Library of Iowa.