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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Working to save one-room schools

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Old school is new school, at least when it comes to preserving Iowa's history. No less than 80 of Iowa's 99 counties have at least one old one-room school that's been turned into a museum - including the Elk Center Schoolhouse in Storm Lake, one of the last of nearly 100 one-room schools built in Buena Vista County from 1885 to the early 1900s.

Interest in the remaining schools continues to grow.

"You talk to someone who went to a one-room school and their eyes just light up," says Margaret Wieting, executive director of the Johnson County Historical Society. "They think they had such a special education."

So, come Oct. 5 and 6, folks who have this penchant for preservation planned to converge on Coralville for the Iowa Historical Preservation Alliance's "The Future of Country School Preservation & Programming" conference.

"What's good about the conference is you get a variety of people who are passionate about preserving old schools," Wieting says.

"It's very interesting to share," she adds, knowing firsthand how the restoration of a school requires a dedicated volunteer community willing to put in long hours.

That's the story behind the 1876 Coralville Schoolhouse Museum, which will be visited by conference attendees.

"It's really a treasure," Wieting says. "It's one of only three in the state that's a two-room, two-story school."

Built in 1876, the brick school housed students until 1948, when Coralville Central opened. It re-opened in 1951-52 while an addition was built onto the new school. It fell into disrepair as storage and a teen center until the historical society signed a long-term lease in the 1970s. Work continues to this day, with landscaping by master gardeners and the proposed addition of a park between the school and new parking lot.

The school's main level has been restored as an 1876-1882 classroom, replete with a pot-bellied stove, an elevated podium for the teacher's desk and blackboards with proverbs above them - "Honesty is the best policy" and "Be kind and courteous."

The second level is being furnished as an early 1940s classroom with pull-down maps, the alphabet in the cursive Palmer method handwriting across the front and those unmistakable hanging lights from the tall ceiling.

When completed, this will be a rare school preserving two separate eras.

One-room schools, however, were the norm. A century ago Iowa had 12,000 of them, located one every two miles.

But their closings by the 1960s threatened extinction as they were razed, used for storage or converted into other uses. By 1998, a survey showed that 2,900 of them were still standing and more than 100 had become museums.

"We want to become a repository of one-room schools," Wieting says. "We're collecting oral histories, books, pictures, anything from one-room schools."

Before the school buildings - and the people who attended them - are gone.

* Editor's note: The Elk Center School in Storm Lake is operated by the county historical society. It is open for tours during the summer and by appointment. The museum is so completely outfitted in circa-1900 style that area schoolchildren each spring attend a day of classes there, sunbonnets, overalls and all.

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