Riverside School has a new home
Look past the gaping open space in the front wall and imagine the sounds of chalk on slate, the whispers of children, and the smell of a wood fire in a black iron stove. Ignore the falling plaster and picture the children, hidden from the eyes of the teacher, carving their initials into the clapboards facing a hard wood forest behind their school. See beyond the peeling paint and understand the pride of ownership of the people of School District Number 5 when they organized, purchased books, hired teachers, attended school programs, and watched their children learn and grow in the small, one room school on County Road F.
Every township had its school districts, every school district had its school, and thousands of children over the years walked, rode horses, and hitched rides to the district school. Teachers walked, too, or may have been lucky enough to own a horse and carriage. Eventually cars managed the rutted roads and then roads went from dirt to gravel to asphalt and, one by one, the rural schools closed, sending their district children to larger, merged districts with bigger, newer schools with bus routes and lunch programs.
Education in a one room school was personal. The school often filled other purposes for the district. Town hall business, church services, social events were often held in the schools. Whole families of children walked together to school, sat in the same room, and may have gone to church with the teacher’s family on Sunday. In many ways, the school was the center of orbit for district families. On Arbor Day the children dressed in old clothes and cleaned the school yard. On May Day they hung May baskets on the doors of district homes. No one wanted to miss the Christmas program.
The Marquette County Historical Society’s dream of having a one-room school house on its grounds in Westfield became reality last Friday when the Buffalo Township District Number 5 Riverside School building was moved from County Trunk O to Westfield. The small school building moved slowly on a trailer pulled by mover Mike Bednarek and escorted by members of the Marquette County Historical Society and Marquette County Sherriff’s department. It crossed the Fox River and made a lumbering turn onto F, cruising slowly past its original location south of John Muir Park. It travelled the path of students and teachers who walked to the school each day during the school year.
At top speeds of 15 to 20 miles per hour, the clapboard covered school approached the wooden railroad bridge on 10th road, giving up a small piece of siding which was picked up by its escort. Around the corner onto County Road D, it turned past the graves of some of its students in Underhill Cemetery and continued on, rocking gently on its wheeled bed.
Red and blue lights flashing, the front squad car led it over the Packwaukee causeway, turning the heads of anglers and bringing diners at the Chat and Chew to the windows. Following the curves in the road, sitting firmly behind the pulling pickup, Riverside crossed traffic on Highway 23 and continued on. Drivers politely steered their cars off to the side and craned their necks, smiling, watching the building move past them out of history and into its future.
A tank truck at the Brakebush entrance backed up into the drive to let the school pass. A line of vehicles grew behind the procession as the small school took up the width of the road, but no horns blared, no cars peeled onto side roads. In a row, flashing lights, school, flashing lights, and curious, patient drivers eventually leaving the road onto arteries that promised quicker passage.
Onto the streets of Westfield with careful, painstaking care to maneuver under overhead wires, a small chunk of horse hair plaster fallen from the school walls the only evidence of its journey over the roads. Through downtown, more heads turning, an elderly gentleman, leaning on his cane, waving and smiling as the school moved past. Westfield police joined the procession, lights flashing, helping stop traffic as the little school turned one corner, then another and then paused on Lawrence Street, taking in its new home, sizing up the Nelson Cochrane house, sucking in its sides to fit down the drive.
Slowly, slowly, the school was shifted onto the drive, catching on red cedar branches, its movers and helpers, all gathering to measure, point, walk the possible paths to its home, and finally choosing another more promising route. The concrete landing pad stood ready and the school hovered over it, moving this way, then that like a wide bottomed lady ready to plant herself on a stool. One more look, one more measure, and in went the cross hatch sections of rails that will hold her up until her base is laid and her setting secure.
There she is, proud and pretty. No worse the wear for her trip, but longing for a redo. If you look past the missing windows into the shadows of the past you’ll feel the energy of the children shuffling their feet, wiggling in the wooden desks. If you can see beyond the hole in the roof, you’ll find the rhythm of settler’s lives and hear the sounds of early morning on the farm. Milk bucket hung, lunch bucket in hand, step by step down the country road to the promise of books and learning and friendships and leaving your initials on the back wall of the school. Marquette County Historical Society is preserving a piece of county history when reading writing and arithmetic were taught in little one room schools that dotted the landscape with big American dreams.