Fleming, Bruce

by Jim Hitch, Editor and Publisher of the Ottawa Herald, 1987

There was a time, in the late 1800s, when country schools sprouted across the landscape like dandelions.

Franklin County was no exception.  Schools often were known by nicknames such as “Hard Pan,” “Crazy Ridge,” and “Monkey Den,” and while most of those old schools no longer exist, Bruce Fleming, 430 Beech, hopes to preserve their memories.

A product himself of the old Silver Lake School west of Ottawa, Fleming retired from the city utilities department, after 41 years, in 1986.  He was visiting the Old Depot Museum a couple of years ago when he noticed that there wasn’t much information available on early day schools in Franklin County.

He made a mental note at the time to do something about it.  Then, last winter, I had a hernia operation and I was just kind of looking for something to do.  So, in January, he began in earnest to search out pictures and whatever history was available of each of the county’s one and two-rom schools.

It develops that there were approximately 90 such schools and he has visited the sites of nearly every one.  “I’ve got about 50 pictures so far,” he reports.  “I’ve got most of the northern part of the county done.  Mostly I need pictures from the southern half of the county.”

He is having copies of the pictures made at the Kansas Historical Society and hopes to put them all on display at the Old Depot Museum.  Copies also will be available at the Kansas Historical Society in Topeka.

In addition, Fleming is making the pictures and historical information available to The Ottawa Herald, which will publish them in a weekly feature, entitled “The Three R’s” beginning next Thursday.

According to Fleming, schools were organized across the northern part of the county, from east to west.  “The Santa Fe Trail, being close, had to be instrumental,” he surmised.

In the beginning, classes often were taught in private homes.  Most of the early school buildings were constructed in the 1870s, and construction costs ranged from $500 to $2,000.  The school board, typically, consisted of a director, a clerk, and a treasurer.

Today’s teachers would blanch at the prospect of teaching eight grades, but Fleming said there were some advantages.  “Probably the biggest advantage of the country schools was the help you received from the upper classmates and from watching them perform at the recitation bench and blackboard.  When the enrollments were large, the students would help grade papers.”

Most students lived within two miles of school.  Most walked, though a few rode horses.  “For some, the distance could be shortened by cutting across fields.  If the creeks were up, we had to go around the long way,” Fleming recalled.

Olive Staadt, who lives at Ottawa Retirement Village, remembers that children “started off to school about 8:30 in the morning.  What we termed the half-hour bell was ringing to let us know wh had just a half hour to get to school.  The bell was rung again at five minutes before nine, warning the pupils to cease loitering along the way.

“In late October and November the sound of the ears of corn hitting against the bangboards of the wagon could be heard, or perhaps you would hear the sound of rattling wagon wheels as some farmer made his way to the cornfield.”

Fleming also remembers the sound of farmers sawing wood or buckets banging from slopping hogs.  “On cold clear mornings, you also could hear the school bells from adjoining schools, about three miles away, and the old steam engines on the railroad were also a common sound to many.”

So, beginning next Thursday, watch for “The Three R’s.”  Most of the information will be provided–from old ledgers and other books, and from memory–by former pupils of the many rural schools.  It will be a fun trip down memory lane.








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