Open house showcases school’s renovation

By Stephen Cameron

Riley County Historical Society volunteers have done a spectacular job of restoring the old Rocky Ford School — as evidenced by an informative and even joyous open house that lured a surprisingly large crowd on Saturday afternoon.

But turning up on a sunny April day, with the building now easily accessible, and plenty of available parking near the corner of Tuttle Creek Blvd. and Barnes Road, well…

It isn’t quite the same.

“Of course we’re proud of the work and restorations,” said Doug Tippin, chair of the Rocky Ford Committee, “but to be honest, I went to a rural school like this outside Clay Center in late 1940s, and it’s tough to recapture the feel of what those days were really like.

“With this schoolhouse, we’re not talking about the middle of the 20th century when I was in school — we have to imagine day-to-day life way back in the 1880s.

“It was a different world.”

Indeed, Tippin and fellow historical society member Rosalie Thompson began to giggle when the subject of the school’s outhouses came up.

There is a nice, clean wooden facility in use today (courtesy of the historical society, and complete with a Sears catalogue for reading material), but the bare concrete foundations of two original outhouses remain — 70 yards from the schoolhouse door.

It came up that such a distance might have been no fun at all in a blustery Kansas winter, although Tippin pointed out that the empty space behind the building did have a use.

“In the colder months, the kids could play ‘Fox and Geese,’ ” he said, referring to a game somewhat like “tag”—only with circles drawn in the snowdrifts. “But using the outhouse, now, I think they probably got their jobs done pretty quickly.”

That would be testing enough — as would taking turns around the lone coal furnace inside as the school’s only source of heat — but what about the missing years?

School records indicate that the outhouses were completed in 1903, but classes were taught at Rocky Ford beginning in 1885.


“I’m afraid to ask,” admitted committee member Rosalie Thompson, who also attended a rural school in the area.

“Maybe just available trees,” offered Tippin with a laugh. “Going to school was pretty rough in a lot of ways,” he added, turning serious.

“Some of the boys could only attend in the winter, because they had

to help with planting in the spring and harvest in the fall. Quite a few were 18 or 19 years old – almost the same age as the teachers.”

Ah, yes…the teachers.

The men and women who struggled to educate the youth of northern Riley County during Rocky Ford’s 64 years of service (1885-1949) weren’t exactly on a gravy train.

An original list of “Rules for Teachers” remains posted just inside the front door, and even allowing for a different age, it seems almost shocking.

For one thing, it states quite boldly that women teachers will be dismissed for marrying or if they “engage in unseemly behavior.”

In other words, dating.

Men were working in paradise, by comparison.

They were allowed “one evening each week for courting, or two evenings per week if they go to church regularly.”

Needless to say, that pretty much ruled out teachers courting other teachers. The women would be fired for such a transgression.

“With these rural schools scattered around the county, it was

considered a great job to be in this close-in area,” Thompson said, “because it was nearer Manhattan – so the teachers could find somebody to date at the university and get married.”

The Board of Education brooked no unsavory characters in those days, either. A slacker could, for instance, fall afoul of Rule No. 8:

“Any teacher who smokes, uses liquor in any form, frequents pool or public halls, or gets shaved in a barber shop will give good reason to suspect his worth, intention, integrity and honesty.”

It does seem almost humorous to look back at such strict commandments – there was another set for students – and feel as though this couldn’t be any kind of education as people know it today.

But sitting awhile in that classroom on Saturday, visitors who cared to let their minds drift could imagine a lot of similar memories – the blackboard in front that said, “Good morning, students,” the desks that aren’t much different than the ones used today, those pictures of

Presidents Washington and Lincoln at the front of the room, even the map-holder above the blackboard.

“A lot of these things are original,” Tippin said. “The map-holder, the furnace, even the merry-go-round out in front. We’ve tried to keep the feeling, if not the parts of the building that just wore away.

“I believe you can look around, then close your eyes and picture those children from another time in our history, right here in this school.”

No, they didn’t have indoor plumbing. No, they didn’t get electricity until after World War II. No, they didn’t have running water.

“There’s still no running water,” Thompson pointed out, “unless you’re running when you carry it in.”

And yet, despite it all, teachers worked back-breaking hours – they got a 25-cent per week raise after five years “for performing labor faithfully.”

Students braved the uncertain and often wicked Midwestern weather, walks up to a couple of miles and then endless chores at home just to get an education.

“Sometimes, when we’ve been working on restoring something,”

Tippin said, “I find myself stopping to look around…and I just marvel at how important school must have been, even back in the day when nothing was easy.

“One reason we want to keep showing off this building is to remind everyone – now that we have so many tools to make education so much simpler – that it wasn’t always that way.”

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