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Rural teachers from 1-room schools recall what life was like

Rural school teachers from years gone by gave a presentation Thursday, July 28, at the CTC Center in Pillager about their roles in educating children in one-room schools. The retired teachers discussed what their school days were like and how children learned back then.

People stand together and speak after a history presentation
Retired rural school teacher Ruth Johnson Boldan, center, exits the CTC Center in Pillager on Thursday, July 28, 2022, after taking part in a panel discussion about education and one-room schools that taught multiple grades.
Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch
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PILLAGER — Teaching has never been easy. Teaching in years past, however, presented numerous challenges without today’s modern conveniences and facilities.

Students and teachers likely take current amenities such as indoor plumbing and central heating for granted. Rural one-room schools of days gone by, however, made do with what they had: using pages torn from a Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog for toilet paper, for example.

Retired school teachers shared what their day looked like and what education was like in one-room schools in Cass County at a Thursday, July 28, presentation at the CTC Center in Pillager, which was sponsored by Sylvan Township and Pillager School Community Education.

The first public school in Cass County was established in Gull River, only open a short time as the city did not last long, Dave Johnson said at the event.

Dave Johnson stands at a podium on stage at the CTC Center in Pillager on Thursday, July 28, 2022, while his aunt and retired rural school teacher Ruth Johnson Boldan sits at a nearby table during a panel discussion about education.
Dave Johnson, left, and his aunt Ruth Johnson Boldan participate in a panel discussion Thursday, July 28, 2022, with other retired rural school teachers at the CTC Center in Pillager.
Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

“In 1889, all of Cass County was designated as one school district,” said Johnson, who led the four-teacher panel discussion in the school district’s performing arts center.

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The second school in Cass County was a log structure built in Pillager.

“Crescent School, located in Poplar Township, which by the way is near Leader, was the last one-room public school in Cass County and it closed in 1969,” Johnson said.

There were more than 700 one-room schools in Minnesota as late as 1965, according to Johnson.

Ruth Johnson Boldan taught a quarter of a century in “country schools” and was one of the panelists. She is also Johnson’s aunt.

“We didn't think we could go to high school because there were no buses,” Boldan said of her childhood. “With a country school, you had to have a school that the child doesn't have to walk any more than a mile and a half, and so most of them walked.”

After passing her eighth grade state board exams, Boldan said the Staples schools sent out buses so children could attend school.

Information in the form of written words about rural schools in Cass County is on display on a table outside the CTC Center auditorium in Pillager during the Thursday, July 28, 2022, panel discussion about education.
Information about rural schools in Cass County is on display on a table outside the CTC Center auditorium in Pillager during the Thursday, July 28, 2022, panel discussion about education sponsored by Sylvan Township and Pillager School Community Education.
Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

“It didn't have a heater in it but we really appreciated the ride,” Boldan told the attentive audience of mostly seniors. “And we had to pay for our own ride.”

Boldan was born in the country north of Leader and had two brothers and a sister. She attended Crescent and Poplar rural schools in her youth.

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“Our principal came into (an) assembly and she said the teachers' training department in Pine River has got openings. I made it up there in nothing flat,” Boldan said. “I was 17 when I got my teachers' training. I started there in 1941 — Dec. 7, the bombing of Pearl Harbor.”

Boldan said she arrived at school by 8 a.m. as a teacher, with the school day starting at 9 a.m. There was a 15-minute morning recess and an hour recess at noon, except in the coldest part of the winter when it was limited to 30 minutes, and school was let out at 3:30 p.m.

“The country schools — you did what you could with what you had,” Boldan said of the limited instruction she received as a teacher in terms of child psychology or school supplies. “I don't have any regrets except I wish had been a little smarter, a little quicker.”

Boldan had 28 students her first year as a teacher in Osakis — first through eighth grade and spring kindergarten, she recalled.

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“The children back then learned from each other and from their books,” Boldan said. “Today, I have the feeling that children must be taught. There's a difference … there’s a difference.”

Boldan said she had no disciplinary problems when she was a rural teacher in a one-room school teaching multiple grades.

“You moved from one to another. And in the meantime, these little kids sat at their desks … and they learned from each other,” she said. “The little kids had a preview because they listened in on the older kids — history and geography — so it was familiar to them when they got that far.”

Boldan, who is in her 90s today, earned a master’s degree later in life when she was 56 years old because she believed in the power of education.

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“I got better and better and more relaxed as the years went by because of all these tricks that you learn about discipline. I learned not to squeal when I opened my desk drawer and there was a snake in it,” Boldan said to much laughter from the audience. “Kids will be kids.”

A rural teacher’s responsibilities in a one-room school often included janitorial duties, such as making sure the school was heated with wood contracted from nearby farmers.

“You had to wash the toilet seat every month — even in the winter,” Boldan said to a chuckling audience. “I would wash them on Friday night. And then Monday morning, I'd get there and thaw it and chip the ice off.”

The three other teachers on the discussion panel echoed Boldan’s sentiment that rural schools were more like family, which they believed was more favorable than today’s education system.

“They supported their school. The school was a part of their lives,” Boldan said of parents back then. “We've lost a lot of things when we went into town and consolidated. We lost that collectiveness of the community.”

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com . Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchFL .

I cover arts and entertainment, and write feature stories, for the Brainerd Dispatch newspaper. As a professional journalist with years of experience, I have won awards for my fact-based reporting. And my articles have also appeared in other publications, including USA Today. 📰
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