July 26, 2023 at 8:00 a.m.
Updated July 26, 2023 at 8:00 a.m.
For some, visiting the little red schoolhouse in Sauk Centre during Sinclair Lewis Days was a look back into the past. For others, including Glen Jenc, the visits were a treasure trove of memories from their own education in that same building.
“It’s just so different than what the world is today,” Jenc said.
Jenc grew up on a farm about a half-mile from the schoolhouse, located in Raymond Township at the time, so he would walk to school. When the school day was over, other farming parents – Jenc’s included – would pick up their children from school so they could be home sooner to help with chores. Jenc could drive a tractor with a baler before he even started school, although he would need help with the clutch.
Jenc’s grandfather, who was born in the late 1880s, was an alumnus of the schoolhouse, and when Jenc himself went there, most of the other students were his relatives.
“When people got married, they got married to the next-door neighbor because you never got any farther away,” Jenc said.
He attended the little red schoolhouse from about 1961-68. His kindergarten year was not very long. At the time, kindergarten was about six weeks in the spring and was held Monday-Wednesday-Friday. Jenc was the only one in his grade for seven of the eight years he attended.
“One guy flunked, so I had him in my class, and he ended up flunking again, so I went from behind him to ahead of him,” Jenc said. “That’s how they did things back then. … I’ll remind him of it once in a while.”
Students brought their lunches in pails, and mothers would occasionally pack more than enough so the student could share with someone who did not have anything. In the winter, when the school’s stove was running, students also brought foil or a pan so the lunch could be heated on the stovetop.
Jenc’s favorite subject was spelling, which was good for when he competed in spelling bees, although the eighth graders would always win.
With outhouses instead of bathrooms, students had to hold up one or two fingers to signal what kind of break they needed – and so the teacher would know how long they would be gone. If the student was gone for too long, they would have to write sentences on the chalkboard as punishment. One time, Jenc had to write sentences after he deliberately rolled off the low end of the teeter-totter so the other person came crashing down.
“If you did something wrong, that was your punishment,” Jenc said. “You always had to do it during recess; that really hurt because you couldn’t get out.”
The schoolhouse lot had cornfields on two sides, including where the outhouses were. Jenc remembers one incident when someone tried to take advantage of this and brought stolen cigarettes.
“A bunch of us went out there and stood in the first couple of rows – because the stuff was pretty tall – and we were all trying a cigarette for the first time ever,” Jenc said. “The teacher caught us, and we all had to write sentences. … You would always try to get away with what you could behind the teacher’s back.”
For sanctioned entertainment, the students would play baseball at the ball diamond, practicing for when they would play against other schools once a year. Another sport was called Auntie-Auntie-I-Over, and it involved dividing into two teams who would stand on either side of the schoolhouse and try to throw a softball over the roof. If the ball made it over the building and the other team caught it, three from the catching team ran around the schoolhouse to try tagging three from the other team, recruiting them for their team, and the game would end when one side ran out of members. The teachers did not mind the ball getting thrown on the roof, except for one time a window was broken because a younger student could not throw the ball high enough.
School happened all year, rain or shine – or snow. Once, a classmate of Jenc’s was not in school the morning of a bad snowstorm.
“She left her place … and rather than go on the road, she cut across the field and got lost,” Jenc said. “It wasn’t very far, but it was that bad of a storm. … The teacher said, ‘Somebody go out and look,’ and we went outside and couldn’t see anything. All of a sudden, here she comes. She should’ve been dead there, but somebody saw her and grabbed her. That’s the way it was back then; there were no phones or things like that.”
Jenc had four teachers while at the schoolhouse: Bessie Veeder from 1961-63, Helen Scott from 1963-66, Phyllis Imsdahl from 1966-67 and Esther Knutson from 1967-68. Those were the last four teachers the school had. As rural districts were consolidating during the 1960s and 1970s, the residents of District 92 voted to close the schoolhouse in 1969.
After eighth grade, Jenc and other students in ninth-grade country schools went to Sauk Centre High School, or “town school,” as they called it.
“What a shock that was, going from being the only one in my grade to going where there was 192 of us,” Jenc said.
After the schoolhouse was moved to Sauk Centre in 1972, Jenc visited it once before it was moved again to its current location in Jaycee Park in 2021. Then, he heard about the schoolhouse being cleaned and open to visitors for Sinclair Lewis Days this year. He visited it on both of the days, July 13-14, and reunited with some of his classmates.
Having seen the cleaned schoolhouse, Jenc knows it does not have its attached woodshed at the back, and he is fairly certain the desks are facing the wrong way.
“They used to face the door when you walked in, and the teacher was right there, and then the stove was in the back,” Jenc said. “The stove was always behind us. Someone told me they moved that around after I left; I just don’t remember that. I don’t know why they would’ve, because the teacher would’ve been right by the stove, and that thing got hot.”
Otherwise, the schoolhouse is about the same as Jenc remembers it.
“I saw a lot of books are in there yet,” Jenc said. “Besides the encyclopedias and stuff, there were storybooks in there, all original. I started looking at the books, just reading the titles like, ‘Oh yeah, I remember that one.’”