ACADEMY, S.D. — Astride a cow pasture and a dirt road roller coasting west toward the Missouri River, a singular white schoolhouse with a lighthouse-like tower stands sentinel on a gentle slope of prairie.

The town, a scattering of homes, with a wind-whipped MAGA flag and an old pickup, is Academy, South Dakota -- so-named for the old schoolhouse that from 1893 to the early 1930s educated hundreds, if not thousands of country children.

Rev. Lewis E. Camfield, a descendant of the transcendentalist writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, moved to Dakota Territory in the 1880s after a principalship at a school in Plankinton, South Dakota. Roving around Charles Mix County to raise money for Black children in the South, a local man asked him if he could do something similar for the children of the region.

By 1893, Ward Academy -- so-named after Joseph Ward, the president of Yankton College -- was established. An early review by the state superintendent of education found that the school "a unique environment favorable for habits of work, freedom from temptation, and from interference with study."

Warren Hall sits on the former campus of the Ward Academy in Academy, South Dakota, as viewed on Tuesday, November 2, 2021.
Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service
Warren Hall sits on the former campus of the Ward Academy in Academy, South Dakota, as viewed on Tuesday, November 2, 2021. Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service

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The school held ties to the Congregational Church, which also undergirded Yankton College. But the premise was wholly agrarian: 17 miles from the railroad, with a "blooded stock" (i.e. cattle) on the premise, and opportunities for students to "work the grounds" to pay off studies.

A cost of $110 paid room and board, tuition, "room washing," and "incidentals." The curriculum didn't swerve far from today's classes, either, with seven teachers leading "classical and scientific" courses, including art and music classes.

For nearly four decades, the school churned out educators who'd matriculate to regional colleges in Huron or Yankton or beyond. Enrollment hit a high of 148 in 1911, when the new three-story Warren Hall was built for $20,000.

But two decades later, by 1931 the place was over. According to an article by James C. Schaap, the school went belly-up in the Dust Bowl. Soon, records show the county ran a so-called "poor farm," or home for indigent persons, on site.

In 2011, South Dakota Magazine reported a heartwarming Christmas story during the early 1930s. A young girl named Carol, who lived with her single-mom, came to live at the former school during the Great Depression. Her mother worked as a seamstress, and once the farm's matron, Hilda McKnight, pulled a blue chiffon scarf from a "missionary barrel" and gifted the scarf to Carol.

That year for Christmas, Carol gifted the only thing she had -- that blue chiffon scarf -- back to Hilda.

That memory, and so many more, have now moved on from the former academy in Academy, which now sits alone just off of Highway 50 south of the Bijou Hills, almost an afterthought as people hurry to the interstate.