A few months ago the world seemed relatively normal. Kids would run and play on public playgrounds, stores were open without restriction, there wasn’t a shortage of toilet paper, hamburger or anything else that really affected our daily lives.
Sometimes I like to sit back and reflect on what appeared to be much simpler times — the 1800s and 1900s when my ancestors came to Brown County to establish families, homes and businesses.
It’s ironic that we are now facing what many of my family’s ancestors faced in the late 18th and early 19th centuries with outbreaks of influenza, Spanish flu, measles, scarlet fever and other many illnesses that we felt confident would never haunt us again. Then came COVID-19.
It was during these days of so-called normalcy this past spring that I took a step back in time with a visit to Baker School in central Brown County — one of only a handful of one-room schoolhouses that still stands to this day.
The school district No. 62 was organized on April 15, 1873, which is around the time the original school building was built. Originally a three-room building, Baker School was later made into a two-room building.
The building was abandoned after school consolidation in the mid-1960s and then became a residence for many years until about 12 years ago when the Yaussi family bought the old schoolhouse adjacent across the street west of their farm.
Now it sits empty, except for the many stories the walls have to tell.
I found the connection to the Yaussi family very interesting, to say the least, as my grandmother’s grandfather was Gottlieb Yaussi, a respected farmer and landowner in Brown County. Gottlieb had come from Switzerland in 1867 at the age of 15, along with his mother and brothers. His father had been murdered in their home country. Gottlieb established himself in Brown County and returned to Switzerland for his sweetheart, Mary, then came back to settle at a farm north of Baker, which was located on Kestrel Road, just north of the rounded junction of Kestrel and 170th, or Baker Road as the locals know it.
Gottlieb and Mary, who had attended culinary school and was a fabulous cook according to Pat Yaussi, had five children, Martha, Arthur, Selma, Bertha and Grant. Bertha eventually became the head of the Hiawatha Academy. Selma married Artie Harvey and they had four children, one of whom was my grandmother, Lois Aldine Rudder.
The mid-19th century comes full circle to 2020 and a Gottlieb Yaussi ancestor exploring the roots of a schoolhouse in the community he helped to build, a community that had several merchants, dozens of homes, a railroad depot, bank and much more.
“The schoolhouse is one of the last little pieces of Baker,” said Pat Yaussi, who married Donnie Yaussi. “… the schoolhouse and our home.”
Lynn Allen, director/curator of the Brown County Historical Society, accompanied my daughter and I on our trip to meet with Yaussi and Maryln Pederson Wenger, who was a student there in the late 1940s. Maryln married Gilbert Wenger, who attended another one-room schoolhouse located a couple miles down the road.
Allen, who has conducted much research on the old schoolhouses in Brown County, said that at one time there were 82 located within the county. They were spaced out throughout the county only a few miles between each other as many children walked to school back in the early days or relied on horses and wagons.
Wenger said she lived a mile and a half away growing up. This was her first time back in the school since her last day of eighth grade in 1951. She talked about the days of living four miles from a person and not even knowing them. Her husband grew up four miles away and she never knew him during their school days, as he attended a Powhattan school.
“Dad brought us to school, but we walked much of the time,” she said, remembering bringing a sack lunch daily. “I remember walking home after school a lot. We walked to the corner together and then separated. One girl rode a horse named Dewey.”
Wenger also reminisced about the once-booming railroad town. The children would walk to the corner grocery store for ice cream after a long day in the classroom.
“Sometimes the ice cream would just sit on top and it wouldn’t fill the cone,” she said with a laugh.
Allen suggested that maybe the grocery store owner was a little careful with the ice cream due to the failing economy in the 1940s. This also was the time the Rock Island Railroad failed and some of the traffic stopped traveling through Baker, leading to tough economic times for this small Brown County community.
As we entered the building, Yaussi and Wenger pointed out aspects from the past. Yaussi said her children attended there and she drove a makeshift school bus in the late 1950s and early 1960s, more like a pickup truck with panels installed in the back, called a “panel bus.”
The original Baker School was built in the mid-1800s and abandoned in 1938. A year later, the new school — the building that currently stands — was built and remained a school through the 1964 academic year. At that time, students were dispersed to either the Horton or Hiawatha school districts. Yaussi said that 170th Road, or Baker Road, pretty much divided the district equally so those living on the north side of the road attended Hiawatha schools and those living on the south attended Horton schools.
It was obvious the building had been a residence for many years, but so much of the old school was still apparent. Walking in one was met with two bathrooms on each side of the main door, one for boys and one for girls. The bathrooms were a reminder of the later days at Baker School, Wenger said, also remembering outhouses at one time.
A long wall split the building and Wenger said older children were on one end and younger children were on the other. So essentially while it was just a small building it was more of a “two-room” schoolhouse. Yaussi said recesses and noon for lunch was when all the kids were together in the later years. However, Yaussi said when her son, Arthur, attended there was just one teacher.
At one time, in very yearly years, there were three sections. The door in the middle opened up at one time to allow for one great room. Each section had its own library and those rooms were still very evident. There were still marks on the floor where a stage once had been for school plays or where the teacher’s desk was located. While termites had gotten into a few sections of the building, it was still remarkably in fair condition, especially after a little more than a decade sitting empty. The basement was still in good condition as well, and here or there was a glimpse into the Baker School past, such as an old rotary phone and a small chalkboard and old boiler and furnace area. Wenger said parents took turns coming to stoke the coals to get the building heated by the time the kids came. The basement also served as the community storm shelter and a place where many of the children learned how to skate. The building also had a full kitchen and the dividing door opened so all the children could eat together.
In 1929, the stock market began to fall, the railroad started to suffer and small communities like Baker either thrived or they starved. In this case, Baker starved out and over the next two to three decades it turned into a ghost town.
“That was the year Don’s dad, Arthur, and his mother, Anna, got married,” Pat Yaussi said. “At the time there were many lumber companies around, many stories. But people just picked up and some left their houses as is, full of belongings and everything.”
Baker, one of just many ghost towns in the area, stories told and lost, some remembered.
Reflecting back, comparing the 1800s and 1900s to 2020, are we really so different? Despite our modern world that depends so much upon technology and social interaction, it seems that 2020 has taken a step back into the past as our society has taken up many more simpler ways of life in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Right about now, a one-room schoolhouse looks pretty darn inviting.
Horton City Administrator John Calhoon reported to the Horton City Commission at its July 20 meeting that 10 businesses had filed applications for assistance from the CARES Act under the Community Development Block Grant Program.
The city was awarded $117,000 for economic development and $35,000 for meal plans. The grants are under review for eligibility by a governmental assistance services representative, then the commission will determine how to disburse the grant money.
In other business, Calhoon announced that there is still blue-green algae present at Mission Lake and that warning signs have been posted. Calhoon also requested and was approved to purchase two police vehicles from the Kickapoo Tribal Police Force due to mechanical problems with two of the department’s current vehicles. The commission also voted to reinstate late fees on utility bills since the emergency order had been lifted, along with voting to prepare a quitclaim deed to Mission Village and authorize the mayor to sign.
Randy Mayfield informed the commission that the fire department made $3,399.12 after expenses from the pancake feed over the Fourth of July weekend.
A local insurance office is giving back to the Hiawatha Community Hospital this week, as Ryan Meininger State Farm took advantage of a corporate grant to feed hospital staff on Tuesday afternoon.
Meininger, along with employees, family and representatives from Sage Restoration, gathered outside of the hospital with bagged lunches of pulled pork, chips, dessert and bottled water to hand to hospital staffers as they took their lunch breaks, as well as delivering lunches to the Brown County Sherriff’s Office.
“We had the opportunity to provide some recognition to local organizations that have provided excellent service to our community during the pandemic,” Meininger said. “We know there are so many groups and businesses that deserve credit for their work, but we chose the hospital this time around because we want to make sure they know how much their sacrifices have been appreciated.”
The group provided more than 200 lunches to hospital staff between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.
The Brown County Commission met July 20, and the group heard from County Emergency Manager Don Pounds with the initial suggestions from the SPARK committee. The group approved the purchase of two thermal scanners for USD 415, one coming in at $170,300 and the other at $144,600. Also approved was $9,975.39 to reimburse the county for unbudgeted expenses related to COVID-19.
The commission also approved two sealed bids for properties on the tax sale. A total bid of $2,400 was approved from Brian and Miranda Larabee for 1014 Utah Street in Hiawatha, while a bid of $2,000 was approved from Phillip R. Folsom for 307 State St. in Robinson. Both bids included back taxes and fees.
In other business, the commission voted to approve the July 15 payroll report at a total of $161,693.70, as well as bid for $6,000 with an annual fee of $1,000 for STAR Programming bookkeeping, and to continue to employment of Mary Oswald for another month to conduct health screenings at district court. The commission also voted to approve the 2021 budget for publication.
The Hiawatha City Commission met via Zoom July 20, and with no comments for the public hearing, members voted to approve the 2021 budget. The newly adopted budget satisfies the commission’s promise to decrease the mill levy by 6 total mills, from 53.012 to 47.012 with a hike in assessed valuation that comes in just under 4%.
In other business, the commission approved raising the fee for record requests, approved a change order to the Citywide Sales Tax Street Project, agreed to waive property tax and special assessments for the remaining properties on the tax sale and agreed to a contract for propane with AgPartners.
The commission also approved the consent agenda, which included utility refunds of $963.62 and a payment to BG Consultants in the amount of $807.
The commission voted on submitted volunteer fire department applicants, as well. The group voted to approve the application of Matthew Hicks, but the application of John Merchant, Jr. was declined after the call for a motion was not answered and died on the floor.