By 1971, all those rural school kids were integrated into the ‘town schools’

By Kim Pederson
Baby Boom Columnist
Special Correspondent

“Like Drinking Water through a Fire Hose”

That’s how some country school kids describe their transition to school in town in the late ’60s and ’70s. 

From one room to many rooms. From one teacher to seven teachers. Bells ringing all day. Highly organized gym classes, like military camps, compared to recess—and half as much fun. 

Given the choice, many would never have left country school. But the state decided otherwise, and by 1971 all country schools in Minnesota closed. 

Experiences range from exciting to terrifying. The difference seems to have boiled down to one kid. One hand in kindness. 

“I went to the east school, or District 17, later called District 1386. Our class size topped out at three,” reflected Marv Pederson. “Kids learned from other kids, and everyone played together at recess. We played softball and kickball, and in the winter we tobogganed down what seemed like a mountain behind the school. We built snow forts and had snowball fights.” 

Four of his five siblings attended District 1386.

Pederson comes from a long line of District 1386 students, including his mother, Delores Bengtson Pederson, who attended along with four siblings.

 “There were four or five kids in my class. My first teacher was LaVerne Haarstrick,” said Delores Pederson. “We packed our lunch in those days. Kids packed everything from summer sausage and cheese sandwiches to lard and molasses sandwiches. Parents did their best, but money was short for many.” 

Reading, the Palmer Method of handwriting, arithmetic, science, and history were taught by one teacher to all grades. Blackboards were gathering points for group learning. Each grade sat quietly or studied while another grade had class. 

Phyllis Nelson Rossow also attended District 1386. 

“By the time I attended, it was a very modern school for the times. An oil-burning furnace replaced the old coal-burning furnace. The kitchen was in the basement with a fold-down window where kids would line up to get their food.” 

The basement also served as a makeshift gym if the weather was bad. 

“We played dodgeball and other games. I remember there was a record player, and we would dance,” said Rossow. 

Students shared cleanup duties. 

“Someone swept the basement and cleaned the girl’s and boy’s bathrooms. Our library consisted of a few shelves of books in the back, and that always needed tidying by the end of the day,” recalled Rossow. Cleaning blackboard erasers and getting milk were popular chores. 

Meanwhile, District 1537, west of town, served kids who lived in Erhard and families to the west.

 “We always joked that we had to leave town to go to country school,” said Eugene Ouren of Erhard. “Alice Nelson from Rothsay taught all classes and all subjects. Joyce Uhlig was our cook, and the meals were delicious,” he said. “The biggest to-do was when a skunk ran under the bathroom, and Uncle Jim came and shot it.”

 As one would expect, a cluster of little faces hugged the window like baby birds to get a glimpse of Uncle Jim putting a clothespin on his nose before fetching the very dead critter, saving it from a future show and tell. 

Integrating into town school took some getting used to, “but we blended in pretty well. I remember Paul Dalluge and Blake Mellon befriending me right away. That made a big difference,” said Ouren.

Jerry Pederson from District 1386 recalled a similar experience. “I went to town school in the seventh grade,” said Pederson. “We knew everyone in our country school and their parents. Getting on a big bus and walking into the high school from a one-room schoolhouse was terrifying.” Pederson recalls how one kid made all the difference. “Jeff Johnson befriended me and that’s when everything changed for the better.”

Many kids who lived in the country already attended town school and had experienced what country school kids had yet to learn. Kids raised in town had different routines. Country kids might play a game of horse but not organized basketball. Town kids could participate in high school sports and walk home. Country kids needed a ride, and sports often interfered with milking the cows. Country kids biked miles to a neighbor’s house to play kick the can. Town kids walked out their front door. 

Town kids took scheduled naps. Country kids napped when they fell over. When kindergarten teacher Mrs. Haarstick (yes, the same Mrs. Haarstick who taught Delores Pederson in country school more than 20 years before) announced it was “nap time,” all the kids grabbed their blankets or rugs and laid down in orderly fashion on the classroom floor. It reminded me of cows laying down to nap, all facing the same direction. Farm kids knew that when one cow decided to stop and graze, others following would also stop. Because they were all coming from the same direction, they’d lay down facing the same direction. But most of us knew nothing about napping and wanted little to do with it. After a few “Miss Hanson, lie down on your rug and be quiet,” which grew more stern with every bob of my head, I reckoned there were some boot lickers in my midst, and I best learn how to conform.

But this new brand of country school kids transitioning to town school seemed like a posse to be reckoned with. I am not saying country school kids were rough or mean, but they seemed faster, stronger, fiercely independent, and seemingly ran in packs. They were viewed with great reverence. Like you might if you met Daniel Boone, Tom Sawyer, Calamity Jane, or Emilia Earhart. 

To the credit of all country schoolteachers everywhere, most kids transitioning into town school were well prepared academically. “Making the transition academically was very easy. But gym class was another story,” said Rossow. Most country school transplants share a common rock-my-world moment. Gym showers. Naked. Never-seen-anyone-naked-before gym showers. “It just didn’t seem right” was a common theme among gym shower newbies. It still doesn’t. 

The library might seem innocent enough, but it was a scary place for a country school kid coming from a few shelves of books on a wall to a room dedicated to nothing else. Rossow, an avid reader and great student, said, “The library scared me to death. I stayed out of there at all costs.” Boomers will remember trying to learn the Dewey Decimal system to find a badly needed research book. Now, kids just use Google. And we all fully appreciated the fact that the library belonged to Miss Serkland. Full stop. 

Today, every kid is staring down their own fire hose in one way or another. 

To the students of PRHS, be that one kid who reaches out to the new kid. You might just make a lifelong friend. And be forever remembered by someone for it.