ROLLAG, Minnesota — On calm, wintery days in the 1950s, Bruce Bang used cross-country skis to get to the Woodland School, a one-room schoolhouse nestled between towering oak trees and rolling hills. On bone-chilling days, neighbors drove him the three miles, and his grandfather picked him up.
To this day, Bang and other alumni from the Woodland School, the first rural school to open and the last to close in Clay County, gather at the site the weekend before Labor Day and in time for the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion to reminisce and share stories. They talk about keeping cocoa warm atop the furnace, or the times the boys would ring the school bell, now gone because it was stolen, to trick the older girls into returning to class.
Nearly 180 years after it was built, the old schoolhouse is vying for a spot on the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places. Steve Martens, an architect and retired North Dakota State University professor, was hired through grant money by the Minnesota Historical Society to evaluate the schoolhouse for the recognition.
“And that’s not always an easy argument to make,” said Martens, sitting in the teacher’s chair in front of chalkboards that were used to teach more than 300 students.
“But that’s how the stories are kept alive, and the community still takes pride and care of the building,” Martens said.
First opened as a log house in 1872, the building was remodeled into its current state in 1896. The schoolhouse, which held grades 1-8 in the same room, closed in 1961. Doris Severson, the final teacher, stopped the electric clock as the last pupil left, exactly at 3:18 and 57 seconds, and the hands haven’t moved in 60 years.
Bang remembered his teacher reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” books to the class on a regular basis.
“I was interested in those books. We didn’t have modern conveniences that the town kids had, and I don’t know if it was better education, it was just different,” Bang said.
Although the age of students varied, teachers grouped two different grades together, “and over the two years, everybody got what they were supposed to get,” Bang said.
After the lunch hour, students huddled back into the classroom to find blackboard assignments, and the teacher would start instructing lower grades first while the older students worked on their worksheets, he said.
“In the spring, we used to start to play softball as soon as we could. Sometimes, in the fall, we would play football, and it was a rough game; we really didn’t know the rules. The woods back there, we would go build tents and play in the woods,” Bang said.
The schoolhouse survived a worldwide pandemic, World War I, the Great Depression, World War II and the Korean War. Inside, maps date from the 1930s. Wooden desks, rubbed smooth by hundreds of young hands, have remained mostly unmoved. The word “war” was chiseled into one of the desks; names and initials like Rox, Rxen, Noel and Roland into another.
In those days, teachers didn’t just instruct arithmetic, reading, writing and social studies, they also had to be knowledgeable in art and music. A massive Segerstrom piano, some ivory keys chipped away, still stands against the old furnace, which at some point replaced the original wood stove, Martens said.
Martens said the schoolhouse is important as it is intertwined with area culture and heritage.
“It made the formation of this community possible,” Martens said, adding that every year, thousands of people come to attend the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion, which is about a city block away.
“The school was also built during the time of change, between draft animals and the use of steam,” said Martens, who is the president of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. “I’m making the argument that this is an old building, and it’s trying to tell its story. It’s an important story, and we need to listen when old buildings and landscapes tell us who they are today.”
The building is cared for by alumni and the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County, said Lisa Vedaa, collections manager for the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County.
On Tuesday, Oct. 12, Martens will present his research on the old schoolhouse over Zoom. The lecture will begin at 6:40 p.m. and will also be available over Facebook Live at the "A History of Woodland School" Facebook page.