Harriet Kussman died July 7, 2014, shortly after observing her 106th birthday May 23.
She was 90 when the story below was published as a feature.
It is about the passing of an era in education that only my peers — grandparents and great-grandparents — experienced firsthand.
Consolidation of schools in Wisconsin — local schools, serving a local area and governed by a local board merging into districts — had been accomplished by 1960.
The one- and two-room schools became town halls, homes or other uses.
Garfield School was one of the last to close.
By 1964, when I started for The Post-Crescent in Waupaca County, consolidation had been completed in New London, Clintonville and Hortonville.
Bear Creek, which later became part of the Clintonville district, had its own high school and elementary school.
Readfield and Sugar Bush schools were constructed to accomplish consolidation in those areas of the New London district. In addition, elementary students attended McKinley and Lincoln.
The Triangle School, which was at Cross Road and State 15, is now at Historic Village at New London’s Memorial Park.
The following was published in 1998.
Youngsters all gathered in a single room to learn their reading and writing and arithmetic, from first grade to high school, sharing one teacher.
They learned together and they learned individually. They learned to help one another and they learned the rules.
Rural Wisconsin once had a plentiful supply of one-room schools, but today they are history, replaced by large modern houses of education where specialists teach different grades or different subjects.
But as grand and specialized and high-tech as today’s schools might be, education in yesterday’s one-room schools was not inferior. It was different, but not inferior.
Some of those who were attending Garfield School when it closed in the spring of 1959 think that in many ways they might have gotten a superior education.
Harriet Kussman, 90, of rural Amherst Junction, was Garfield School’s last teacher. For those in the sixth grade, she was the only teacher they had ever known.
At its close, Garfield, located between Nelsonville and Rosholt, was a six-grade school. A couple of years earlier the seventh- and eighth-graders had been sent to the Rosholt Elementary School where they could be exposed to extracurricular activities such as band, that were not available in the tiny school.
But Kussman and some of her pupils believe the one-room setting was conducive to learning and to developing a whole person.
“I don’t believe I would be where I am today,” said Richard Hawley, an employment relations manager at Sentry Insurance, Stevens Point, when thinking about what would have happened if he had attended a larger school. “I got a good education but I also developed as a person. Being with a variety of people instead of one age group was an advantage, I believe. You had friends from a broad age group.”
Diane Karch Milanowski, another pupil in the class of ‘59, said, “You learned from each other. Older children would help the younger children. If you missed something one year, you would pick it up the next year.”
“I think it was an extended family atmosphere,” said Roger Krogwold, a public health veterinarian and retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel. In many ways it was because the siblings in a family such as the Krogwolds might all be in the school at the same time.
Krogwold said there were six children in the first grade when he started but only two remained in the class six years later when the school closed. “We were all neighbors and grew up together,” he said.
Her former students said Kussman made learning fun and stirred interests in them they have used throughout their lives.
“She was a very caring person,” said Janet Krogwold Wilhelm.
Kussman spent many years in one-room schools, first as a pupil in Green Lake County, where she was raised, and later as a teacher in that area.
“I went to the county normal school (preparatory schools for teachers) my junior and senior years of high school,” Kussman said. “I got hired to teach when a teacher got married. Women weren’t allowed to teach then when they got married.”
Kussman eventually earned her bachelor’s degree at the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh. The path she followed was common at that time.
When she got married, she left the teaching profession.
“I did not teach for 10 years,” she said. “But my husband, Otto, got undulant fever and we had to get rid of the cows. A friend, Hazel Krogwold, said there was an opening at the Garfield School and I got the job.” That was in 1951.
Kussman said much of the teaching was by the seat of the pants. “You kept a couple pages ahead of what you were teaching,” she said. “We used the textbooks, but there was a lot of practical learning.”
While students did not have computers and television was still in its infancy, schools were equipped with radios and the state radio network had many programs geared to education.
“Radio School on the Air” was one of the popular programs teachers use, Kussman said. “We could tune in for art, literature, music.”
Kussman also would at times teach the children French, making her a pioneer in that field.
Kussman thinks that students probably read better today than when she was teaching despite all the rhetoric to the contrary.
“I don’t know how the children learned to read. Some came to school already reading and others were there a year or more and all of a sudden they began to read. I think the exposure to reading throughout the day helped. Yes, we did spend a lot on phonics,” she said.
Kussman believes that youngsters in her day were better spellers and had better handwriting. “We spent a lot of time on penmanship. Today a lot of youngsters print and it is slower and it still is barely legible.”
She also believes that youngsters 40 years ago were better rounded in reading because of the books they used after the initial Dick and Jane books. “The reading texts included great literature, fables, poetry and exposed the children to many things,” she said. “The readers (texts) at the end of my teaching career different.”
Kussman retired while teaching a two-class setting in Amherst.
Roger Krogwold recalls that the children took active roles in keeping the school running. They performed duties like carrying water, raising the flag and cleaning erasers.
“The teacher was involved in everything, too, including the recreation and recess,” he said.
Kussman and several of her former pupils remembered an incident in early spring that could not happen today.
“The boys were out playing in the snow,” she said. “When they came in from recess they were all soaked from head to foot and there was no way that they could be in school the rest of the day in those wet clothes.
“I sent the girls out of the room, we took down the curtains and I had all the boys remove the wet clothes and wrap the curtains around themselves. The furnace was in the basement and there was a large grate in the middle of the classroom. We took a ladder and the brooms and hung the clothes over the grating to dry.”
“We love playing king of the mountain,” Roger Krogwold said. “It was one day we all remember.”
Hawley says he goes to the Rosholt Community Fair during the Labor Day weekend to visit his old school.
“The school is part of the history exhibition at the fairgrounds,” Hawley said. “There is a book with ‘Dick Hawley’ scrawled in it. I look for that book every time I visit because it is an important part of my life. That school meant a lot to me and to a lot of other people.”