Schooled by the country

Published 9:30 am Monday, December 15, 2008

Tracy Christensen remembers listening to her mother and her mother’s sisters reminisce about their experiences as teachers in country schools in Freeborn County.

While Christensen never had the opportunity to attend a country school herself, the stories she heard made a lasting impression.

So Christensen set to work documenting the location of all the 141 one-room schools that existed in Freeborn County, as well as finding as much additional information about students and teachers as possible.

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“It’s something I felt someone should do,” Christensen said of the research.

The result is the recently published “The History of Freeborn County Schools,” a 198-page book that includes a county map with all the schools located as well as many pictures.

Christensen said she’s been working on the book since the early 1980s. It was “on the back burner” for a time, she added.

“But at age 86, I probably won’t be writing many more books,” she said.

It’s impossible to list all the references used in compiling the book; much of the information came from Freeborn County history books dated 1882 and 1911, Christensen said. Additional information was gained from numerous interviews, old newspaper clippings, old photographs and documents.

“I spent a lot of time in the courthouse checking things out,” she said.

According to her research, the first country schoolhouse in Freeborn County was erected in Shell Rock Township and completed on Aug. 18, 1857. In the same year, the county commissioners organized 16 school districts. More districts were added in the following years and by 1859 there were 45 districts operating. In 1865, the schools were placed under a county superintendent and a new numbering system took place. In 1911, there were 133 organized districts in the county. Albert Lea and Alden were high schools; Glenville, Hartland, Geneva and Freeborn were grade schools, each with four teachers. All other schools were one-room schoolhouses with an enrollment of 10 to 20 students.

In later years, Minnesota legislators decided that no child should be required to walk more than two miles to school. Several districts were added at that time.

According to Christensen, consolidation of districts began in 1947 and continued until the 1950s.

In the early days, country schoolteachers were responsible for more than teaching students, Christensen wrote. They boarded with a neighboring family, often carried water to school, needed to build a fire in the winter to keep the schoolhouse warm, and were responsible for other housekeeping duties.

Christensen said she learned a lot while working on the book. For example, the state always had a recommendation for how school buildings should be built in any given year. Consequently, she can tell about when a school was built just by looking at it, she said.

Christensen said she had in mind for a number of years that she’d have the book printed at JensPrint in Manchester. She added she was pleased with how things turned out.

“The biggest challenge was to get the names and pictures to match,” Christensen said.

Paul Jensen of JensPrint said many of the old pictures included in the book were deteriorating. “Some were just plain old, but with our scanner we were able to enhance them and make them bigger or smaller,” Jensen said.

Christensen said she knew she wanted large, bold print so people wouldn’t have any trouble reading it.

“We strove to have it look straightforward,” Jensen said. “To organize it and have it well-presented was the challenge.”

Jensen said JensPrint has gotten some good feedback on the book so far. He added he’s glad Christensen took on the project because the subject matter touches so many people’s lives.

“It’s very personable and makes a great gift item,” he said. “A lot of people look at it and say, ‘I know that guy. He lived down the road from me.’”

Christensen said her children were also very helpful in the project and sent numerous e-mails with their input.

Christensen is a lifelong resident of Freeborn County. She is the daughter of Frank Buchanan from Gordonsville and Verian (Snyder) Buchanan from Freeborn. They were descendants of early settlers in Freeborn County.

Tracy Buchanan and Marvin E. Christensen were married on Aug. 7, 1940, and had five children, Dennis, Loren, Lowell, Lynette and Joyce. They farmed the Snyder homestead two miles north of Freeborn until 1993 and moved to Freeborn in 1996. They now reside at Hidden Creek Estates and Bancroft Creek Estates.

Tracy Christensen helped to compile the 1988 Freeborn County Heritage Book and has traced and verified her family history for 13 generations.