Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Little school on the prairie July 8, 2013

The former Little Prairie School District 15 country schoolhouse near Dundas in rural Rice County Minnesota.

AS THE STORY GOES, and I’ve no reason to believe it’s been embellished, the teacher kept the students inside for recess one afternoon because of coyotes roaming the school grounds.

True story from the one-room Chimney Butte School, rural St. Anthony, North Dakota, in the early 1960s.

Scrape the mud from your shoes on the metal scraper, left, before stepping inside the Little Prairie school.

This tale, which I suppose does not make it a tale if it’s the truth, flits through my mind every time I step inside a country school, like that at Little Prairie. My husband, one of the Chimney Butte students sheltered from the ranging coyotes, and I came across the 1885 Little Prairie School District 15 country school as we traveled the back roads between Faribault and Dundas.

We’ve previously driven Rice County roads 8 and 77 through the heart of Little Prairie. But I’d only noticed then the historic Little Prairie United Methodist Church and not the old schoolhouse kitty-corner across the tar road.

As I always do, I tried the schoolhouse doors, hoping to get inside, knowing they would be locked. So I cupped my hands around my eyes to reduce the glare and peeked inside the windows, then lifted my camera and shot a few photos.

I’ve never seen or ridden a merry-go-round like this one in the Little Prairie school yard. It gently swayed up and down as we circled.

And then, as we spun on the merry-go-round, we noticed the car parked by the church and the man sitting on a bench outside with his back to us. We contemplated that he might be the pastor, a man with a key. Randy even went so far as to suggest that he likely was waiting between appointments to counsel couples engaged to be married.

A blackboard, with pertinent historical info about the school.

Eventually the man spotted us, crossed the road and we were in. Pastor Gordon, as he introduced himself, wasn’t leaving us outside for the coyotes, not that we saw any lurking in the vicinity. And, yes, he said, he was between pre-marriage counseling sessions.

Like us, Pastor Gordon Deuel did not grow up in Rice County. Like me, he’s from southwestern Minnesota, except farther west than me, from the prairie town of Hendricks on the Minnesota-South Dakota border. He feels at home here, where he’s pastored Little Prairie for seven years.

I tell you this because he cannot recite the detailed history of the Little Prairie School as a local would. But he possesses, like Randy and me, a deep appreciation for the preservation and history of old buildings such as country schoolhouses and churches.

A back and side view of the school, surrounded mostly by cornfields.

Just that morning his congregation had planned to gather in the school yard for a worship service and community potluck picnic. But the heavy dew moved the event into the church. The school is opened several times a year for public touring and occasionally for solo stops like ours or group tours by former students.

Looking to the front and one side of the school.

We came away from our chat with a realization that the people of Little Prairie care deeply for their little country schoolhouse. Although owned by the church, the school is really a community project embraced by those who live around Little Prairie and/or attend the Methodist church and also by members of the local Full-O-Pep 4-H Club, Pastor Gordon informs us. They form the informal “Schoolhouse Committee” which maintains the building and property.

Pastor Gordon remembers how several terminally ill individuals from the Northfield and Faribault areas wanted to give back to the community. So, for a small fee, they were hired to paint the exterior of the school.

Many old books were lined precisely on a table behind the teacher’s desk.

Such care for country schools is shown likewise at the 1881 District 20 Millersburg School to the north and west near Millersburg. There members of the Christdala Preservation Association have converted the one-room country school into a museum. Randy and I discovered it two years ago, during the annual association meeting and worship service at Christdala Evangelical Swedish Lutheran Church just down Rice County Road 1.

Minnesota photographer Doug Ohman, in his Minnesota Byways series book Schoolhouses of Minnesota, features “120 color photographs that illuminate the simple, often abandoned, sometimes refurbished, and nearly vanishing Minnesota pioneer and early schoolhouses.”

That’s Little Prairie School on the cover of Doug Ohman’s book.

Gracing the cover of that volume—Little Prairie School District #15.

The school entry, with a place to hang coats, right, and a sink to wash up, left.

Another view of that same entry with the water fountain to the left of the sink.

The school treasurer’s bookkeeping register from 1929.

If only I’d had time to peruse all the wonderful old books inside this school.

Looking toward the back of the school.

An old shed, I think the outhouse; I did not peer inside.

FYI: These images were shot last summer when my husband and I stopped at the school while on a Sunday afternoon drive.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


23 Responses to “Little school on the prairie”

  1. Beth Ann Says:

    My mom went to a one room school house and they still hold reunions yearly–she has not been able to make it to one for a few years but it is a pretty incredible part of history to be able to say you were a part of one!!! Great photo shoot!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I would expect those who attended these one-room schools share a bond stronger than students at a “regular” school. To hold yearly reunions is quite impressive.

      (See you soon!)

  2. Tom and DeLores Johnson Says:

    I went to a country school just like this until the 8th grade when I went to town school. I have many good memories
    about those times.
    Every morning we gathered outside to raise the flag and
    say the Pledge of Allegiance. There were bookshelves in the back of the room for the library. I remember the
    good feeling I had when I could “check out” my first book
    to take home to read to my parents & my grandpa who
    lived with us. I still love to read.
    At one time there were 17 students in the school and 12 of us were first cousins!


    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Twelve of you were first cousins. Wow. What fun that must have been. And what sweet memories you have.

      I love to read, too, and I attribute that partially to teachers who, every day after lunch, read chapters from books like Tom Sawyer, Black Beauty, the Little House series, etc.

      We also said the Pledge of Allegiance every morning.

      Fond memories, indeed.

  3. Love to see an old school house in working order – loving your captures – have to check out that book:) Thanks so much for sharing – Happy Monday!

  4. Jackie Says:

    Sweet post Audrey, loved seeing all the photo’s, inside and out! The old one room school house still sit’s next to the new school building I attended in the country (outside of Rochester), it’s now used for the “town hall” . I own the book you featured, “School houses of Minnesota” 🙂

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      So glad to hear that the old schoolhouse was not torn down and is still being used. It seems quite common to reuse them as town halls.

  5. hotlyspiced Says:

    It’s just gorgeous, Audrey and I’m so glad it’s still standing and is being so well looked after. It would be such a shame to tear it down as there’s so much important history here. It’s the most darling little school house but compared with today’s schools just so Spartan and tiny yet situated in the most beautiful countryside. I’m very glad to have seen it xx

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I am always delighted to see these old schoolhouses preserved. Locals obviously put a lot of work and care into preserving this one.

  6. McGuffy Ann Says:

    I enjoyed this very much. I would love to visit this place. I have always been a fan of America’s pioneer days and way of life, including schooling. Some of me ancestors were one room school house teachers in the South. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Hi Audrey, I enjoyed your story and pictures here, I went to a one room school between Ellendale & Hope, Dist. 36 changed to Dist, 2108. Never got any pictures here but here’s a story I wrote on Facebook on one of my Sunday stories I write every week. Hope you enjoy.

    I was watching TPT last night and a gentleman was telling Don Shelby about his life back on the farm and 1 room school house and it brought back a flood of memories and end of innocence.

    I grew up on a 80 acre farm, didn’t have much for livestock, a few chickens. One year we raised a calf we named “Rosie”, which I took out of the barn every morning down to a small partial filled swamp full of grazing grass and back to the barn at night. when it came time to butcher and eat poor Rosie, we couldn’t. Rosie became a pet to all of us, I can’t remember what we did with the meat but I know we couldn’t eat poor Rosie.

    I went to a one room school house with a water fountain in the front entry we had to fill every morning from water two of us gathered in a tin pail where we walked up a long driveway next to the school. Was a little bit cold in the winter. The water got a little icy in the unheated entry.

    Inside the door was a little refrigerator we kept our sandwich’s we brought to school and the glass milk bottles somebody dropped off weekly. We had to shake the milk bottles real well because the cream would fill the top 1/3 of the bottles.

    Our 3 rows of desk was kept warm by a big old oil heater that was hot by the heater and cool towards the front of the classroom.

    I remember a big old portrait of George Washington in between the huge windows on the north wall, the blackboard with ABC’s on top covering the east front of the room. A table on the front left side was our classroom, two or three of us with the teacher learning our lessons. On the right side another table we would sit at during recess in the winter if it was too cold or we didn’t want to venture out we would read, listen to a little portable record player, ( I always like playing “How much is that doggie in the window”), reading a book or things like putting lincoln logs together on Lincoln’s birthday.

    Mrs. Julia Thompson our gentle, robust 65ish teacher taught us during my first 6 years, teaching all 8 grades, 2 or 3 kids to a grade. She was firm but fair. One time after she asked me to stop talking to my cousin in back of me a few times in one day she put me in the back library a (4′ x 3′) room and write “I will not talk” a thousand times. Being probably in the 2nd grade I got to 99 then 100, then 101 to 109 then 1000. I proudly handed her my paper and she smiled brightly and didn’t say a thing. At the end of the day she took me to the side and gave me a arithmetic lesson on how 1000 doesn’t come after 109. She didn’t have to tell this kid twice, she also didn’t make me finish writing to a 1000. 😉

    Another time while causing somewhat of a rucus she put me in the same library to settle down, be quiet and think about it. I was suppose to face the back wall, (the first time out I guess). I turned around to see if she was looking……Mr. Larson, she boomed, I can see you and I’m watching you…… Another lesson well learned.

    I loved country school, I felt I learned a lot with just two of us in a class as we had her undivided attention. We started out with the Pledge of Allegiance, sang a patriotic song, had class, recess on an acre of land, more class, lunch hour, class, recess and more class.

    Things were simple, had a pole with chains with handles we could swing around, maybe 3 or 4 of us at a time. Played ball, never did hit the ball over the fence that had horses on the other side like the bigger kids could do. Had two outdoor toilets, a boys on the north, the girls on the south. I can still smell the big oak tree towering over the boys toilet. We would play anti i over, girls on one side of the school, boys on the other, throw the ball over the roof and and run with the ball in the back of our bodies, to the other side and tag somebody until there was nobody left.

    Funny how we lived without a playground full of equipment, classrooms, indoor toilets, gyms, sports and all the electronic gadgets. I don’t think I’m worse for the wear. Our yearly program was usually Christmas time when we would put on a little skit in front of the blackboard while parents sat in the back of the room on fold up chairs. My biggest theatric line was “I’ll just act nonchalant”. Wow I was on my way to stardom, only there wasn’t an agent to see me.

    Mrs. Thompson with her infectious grin with her gold tooth gleaming brightly taught us respect and grace. She gave us a foundation to go headlong into the turbulent 60’s and the end of innocence.

    Oh BTW I walked up hill though wind, blizzards, and storms both ways through the years, when my folks didn’t pick me up or the school bus from Ellendale didn’t stop and pick me up as I was (by coincidence) walking about a quarter mile from school. Guess I did ride my old bike when the weather permitted.

    They were wonderful times and am grateful for the experience, I wish I had school pictures, but have good memories. Have a gentle day everyone.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Milo, thanks for sharing your wonderful memories of attending a one-room country school. There is much to ponder in your words about a simpler time in life. Much. What wonderful memories you have. I especially like that Mrs. Thompson taught you “respect and grace.” That shows in the type of person you are.

  8. Moore Says:

    Im a college student in Northfield and for the past four years have been visiting a wonderful woman in her 90s who was a teacher in the Little Prairie School House for two years, I believe during WWII or the years right after. She likes to tell me how she always made sure the students learned about art history in addition to their normal classes. Im so glad the building is still standing and I can’t wait to share these photos with her. Is there anyone I can get in touch with to get a tour myself? Thank you!

  9. Nan Hoyston Says:

    I’ve only seen this school from the outside. Thanks for those great pictures.

    My mother attended and her older sister and brother attended this school and grew up on a family farm relatively nearby. Mom attended from 1930 – 1937, completing the first 8 grades in 7 years. She tells the story of coming back after Christmas her 1st grade year and suddenly being in 2nd grade. In one room school houses teachers ( and the older kids) could teach the students at the level in which they were ready. Her name was Audrey Swartwoudt and is now 92 and lives in Seattle, WA.

    She and her family also attended Little Prarie Church across the street, not because they were particularly Methodist, but because it was the closest church to their farm by horse and buggy and Grandma liked he music there.

    Nice little trip down memory lane for me. Thanks!!

    • Nan, I am glad I could take you down memory lane with these photos. Thank you for sharing your family’s connection to the school and church. I laughed at the “not being particularly Methodist” part of your comment. Your grandma sounds like a wonderful woman.

  10. Gunny Says:

    Went to a two class-room, two story school house in Shertz, Texas

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