Green Hill School Building in District 120 was built in 1885, in Buffalo County, Nebraska, by a contractor and used for 85 years. (Photo taken in 1980 by Phyllis Grundy of the Country School Legacy Project / UNK Country School Legacy Archive)

In 1891, Ernest McIntosh attended a public country school in rural Madison County, Nebraska. West Emerick School, built in 1879, was located on the north bank of Battle Creek, about one mile west of a mercantile store and blacksmith in Emerick. 

Battle Creek usually sat dry, except when it rained. And in the early part of June, 1891, it rained hard. The rain came down for several days, and on June 16th, the creek began to flood.

Little Ernest McIntosh was in school that day. He recounted this day in a short personal essay he wrote in June of 1936. 

“Although I was a very small boy and it was a long time ago, forty-five years ago the 16th of this month, the things that took place that day come to my mind vividly,” he wrote. “I can yet imagine myself standing at the window of that little schoolhouse and looking out upon that whirling mass of water.”

This essay is part of a special archive at the University of Nebraska Kearney (UNK) called “Country School Legacy: Humanities on the Frontier”. The collection helps preserve a regional project conducted in 1980 and funded by the Mountain Plains Library Association and the National Endowment for the Humanities. 

The project, which spanned eight states in the Plains and the West, aimed to document the physical conditions of the remaining country school buildings, as well as oral histories from former teachers.

For years, only physical copies of the project materials were available to the public. This meant you needed to travel to the UNK library and its archive to access this history. Not to mention, the cassette tapes used to record the oral histories were aging, which risked losing some of these stories altogether.

That was until Laurinda Weisse, who uses they/she pronouns, became the UNK University archivist in 2014. With their graduate degree in archives and records management and preservation of information, Weisse came to UNK with a passion to document and preserve history. Weisse wanted to help other people connect with these stories, whether it be for research or for pleasure. 

Weisse began to set up the UNK’s digital repository, OpenSPACES@UNK, which makes digital versions of the university’s archives and special collection materials available for free online. 

“It doesn’t do us any good if we’re the only ones who can find [these materials],” Weisse told the Daily Yonder.

One of Weisse’s priorities when writing collection policies for the repository was maintaining a focus on the history of education. After all, UNK was originally a school for teacher training. 

a person with short auburn hair wearing a black and red plaid shirt poses with their fist resting under their chin
Laurinda Weisse, University of Nebraska at Kearny Archivist and Digital Repository Manager. (Photo by Anthony Weisse)

This priority led Weisse to the Country School Legacy collection and to Ernest McIntosh essay on the Emerick flood. It was the matter-of-fact storytelling that drew Weisse’s attention to the story.

“Fred Miles, Bert Homan, father of the present county superintendent, and myself were about the same size. We got in one corner to talk things over, went into a huddle so to speak. Of course, we thought the house was going to float off before very long if the water should keep raising.”

“There was an attic in the house and Bert or I proposed we all get up there, but Fred decided against this as he said if it should tip over we would drown for sure. We then agreed to try to get to Bert’s home which was one-half mile east.”

Extinct Education: Nebraska’s Rural School Past

In June 2023, 132 years after the Emerick Flood, Weisse gave a presentation on the history of Nebraska’s country schools at the Kearny Public Library called “Extinct Education: Nebraska’s Rural School Past”. The presentation focused on the decline of country schools and one-room schoolhouses in Nebraska. 

Nebraska’s countryside boasted about 7,000 one-room schoolhouses in 1917. By 1984, only 666 school districts offered only elementary education. This phenomenon represents an increasingly urban and automobile-centric America. Instead of walking a half-mile to school each day, children now travel for tens of miles in vehicles and buses. 

Nebraska wasn’t alone, either. In 1919, there were 190,000 rural schools across the country. In 2005, there were fewer than 400 left, NPR reported

Weisse’s presentation also features many of the primary sources found in the Country School Legacy collection to promote the university’s repository. One of the materials highlighted was McIntosh’s essay.

“The details of the story were certainly one of the first things that shaped what I wanted to talk about when I was pulling together materials for the project,” they said. 

As the three young boys feared for their lives on that rainy June day, they quietly slipped out the door of the schoolhouse and into the waters.

“The water at that time was about waist deep. We didn’t get far going east as the water got deeper. We then decided to go north. Up until this time we all had hold of hand.”

“We did not get far north until we ran into a channel that was over our heads. We were all thrown down and floundered aroun for what seemed to be a long time. I finally got on my feet and Fred and Bert were on the south or opposite side of the channel. They called to me and said they could not cross to where I was, and would have to go the other way.”

“I remember distinctly Fred waving his hand and saying, ‘Good-by Ern’. His body was found about a mile from there some time later after the water had gone down. Bert managed to keep his head above water and drifted with the stream until he came close to a windmill and he caught onto it and climbed to the top and stayed there until help came.”

Weisse’s presentation highlighted many different hazards that came with living on the Great Plains. From floods, to wildfires, to blizzards, to snakes, many tragic stories centered around the schoolhouse, and residents’ heroic attempts to save the lives of schoolchildren. 

Much of this history was captured and preserved by local newspapers, another cultural hub of rural communities that’s been on the decline.

Built in 1857, Combs School is the oldest standing school house in Nebraska. It is currently maintained by the Dakota County Historical Society. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

“Most folks tend to disregard the plains. We don’t have quite as deep of a history of white settlement as the east coast,” Weisse said. “There are ways that the plains states have a giant impact on U.S. history, but it’s the smaller stories and the human scale that really draws me into local history. Every town has at least one big story, even though it might not seem big to everyone.”

The Country School Legacy collection doesn’t just document rural tragedies. Studying the collection also provides an intimate look into rural life, Weisse said.

In the era of country schools, Nebraskan communities were legally obligated to construct public school buildings. This was one of the few public buildings that communities were required to have, and thus become central to how people in those communities interacted, Weisse said.

“These schools really served a crucial role in the community as a whole,” they said. “They’re not just a nexus for the education of children, but they’re also serving as grange halls, gathering places, as churches, as the hub of communities.”

Everyone in the community interacted with the country school building and held the institution in high esteem. “A lot of the folks who attended — even if they didn’t graduate from high school, because that wasn’t necessarily the goal — still really appreciated being able to have what education they could.”

Community-Driven Purpose

While the country school was established as a central hub during their boom in the late 1800s, they continued to serve this purpose as rural schools were consolidated throughout the 20th century. 

As members of the Country School Legacy project traveled across the countryside to learn more about the history of country schools in the 1980s, they also recorded contemporary oral histories from teachers and students at the remaining rural schools.

Looking back at these oral histories from the 1980s, Weisse said they found it interesting to study the ways that teachers and schools were able to localize lessons, to help young students grasp otherwise generic, and often urban-centric lessons.

One of these oral histories comes from Terry, a thirteen-year-old student who attended a schoolhouse about three-fourths miles away from the Niobrara River. 

Terry’s class went on a field-trip to the Niobrara River to learn about pollution. She talked about how her class found all kinds of pollution around the river.

“We thought of all the ways that pollution hurts the country all around us,” she said. “We saw some trash coming down the river. Then we looked at some of the fish that live around there.”

Then, the class ate lunch. One of Terry’s classmates threw an orange peel into the river. Her classmate said it wouldn’t hurt anything, but her teacher was scolded for polluting the river. The student chased the peel down the river and snatched it out from the water.

“We [found] out that if everybody put their trash in the river, there would be any more river for us to go to,” Terry said.

Weisse was particularly interested in how these lessons and schools were rooted in their local, rural surroundings.

“[A small school] leads to some obvious trade offs, because you’re not going to have the depth of specialization that you can get in larger schools,” they said. “But you have, instead, this really embedded, local focus that has its own appeal and benefits. 

Learning Local Lessons of the Past

Weisse said that one of the most important reasons for preserving historical materials, especially oral histories, is that society won’t have a chance to collect historical experiences forever. Many of the former teachers and students of Nebraska’s country schools have already passed away, they said.

Even if the stories they’re telling aren’t flashy or entertaining, “there’s still something important about listening to a person talk about their own personal experiences,” Weisse said.

While the collection and preservation of local stories is important, Weisse’s true passion is finding ways to disseminate this history.

One source of sharing is through the university’s teacher training programs.

“We do sporadically work with our teacher education students to put together lessons on local history for their communities,” Weisse said.

Since many future teachers do not major in history, they don’t often have experience with primary sources, Weisse said. 

“[The collection] gives them an opportunity to dig into our materials in a way they might not have before,” they said. “The delight and the wonder as they get to dig through these materials is great because they’ll be able to share that with their classes.”

a black and white photograph taken for the country school legacy collections shows a middle-aged-man standing on the stoop of a small rural schoolhouse with white wood panelling
Ernest Grundy stands in front of Liberty Hill School. Built in 1884, in Buffalo County by a contractor the building was used for 96 years and was still in session when Phyllis Grundy of the Country School Legacy Project took record of the school in 1980. (Source: UNK Country School Legacy Collection)

Weisse and their colleagues are also working to create an accessible collection of materials that teachers can easily adapt to their own classrooms.

They look forward to seeing how sharing local history will impact Nebraska students, schools, and communities. 

For families who have lived in these small communities for generations and even for families who are new to town, Weisse hopes that the archive can turn potentially “boring” into an interesting lesson about local lore. 

“It’s great to see students connect with materials because they know where this stuff took place,” Weisse said. “If you can tie [lessons] into their lived experiences, it can really provide a window into reevaluating what they think about history as a whole.”

Working with local history can also help build community. Hearing oral histories in the classroom may provide an impetus for students to ask elders what their lives have been like, sparking additional conversation, interpersonal connection, and learning.

Nebraska and many other states continue to face waves of school consolidation. Weisse said that looking at these histories and personal stories can potentially influence how a community views their local public school. It can provide context to debates about consolidating or protecting local schools. 

While there are certainly some towns that are already working on recentering schools in their community, Weisse said they hope that the Country School Legacy collection can help inform and inspire other communities to reconsider the role of their local public school.

“There’s no reason that schools couldn’t be brought back around to serve as a more central social hub in the community,” they said.

The Fate of Ernest McIntosh

After Ernest waved goodbye to Fred and Bert, he managed to climb onto a straw stack and stayed there until his family or their hired hand would arrive to rescue him. 

Back at the schoolhouse, his teacher tried to get the rest of the students to higher ground. At this time the water had continued to rise. As the group attempted their escape, the smaller children weren’t able to wade through the rushing water. His teacher and some of his older classmates were having trouble keeping the young ones from floating off.

“They then saw the utter uselessness of trying to get away from the schoolhouse and started back. The older boys worked like troopers and were getting them back to the school house when a little girl, Mary Cox, started to float off. Bert Hamlin, who was the only child of a widow woman, started after her. He was to [sic] late, they both floated away. Their bodies were found later.”

Members of the community were at odds.

“At the time there was considerable argument pro and con, and some criticism of the teacher and her pupils for leaving the building.”

After a lifetime of reflection, Ernest warns readers not to judge his teacher’s decision too quickly.

“Of course, that was true, the way it turned out, that it would have been better to have stayed. But standing in that little old shell of a building that day with that flood lashing it, I still think it would be a hard question for anyone to decide.”

Judging the past may not change history, but exposure to Ernest’s story and the other materials in UNK’s Country School collection is still important.

From community development, to flood survival, to cultural appreciation, learning about the rich history of Nebraska’s country schools can provide teachers and students with a more complete understanding of the past and present, so that they can better orient their future goals.

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