THE LITTLE RED SCHOOLHOUSE

One-room schools formed the foundation of the Wisconsin rural education system for nearly 100 years, from the time the state was founded in 1848 to the Baby Boom of the late 1940s.

For many of those years, especially in the early 20th century, educators and their supporters argued that rural students in the one-room schools were being deprived of the same educational opportunities available to students in village and city schools.

The Progressives argued the answer was to merge smaller rural districts and, if necessary, to bus students to larger schools with better facilities, better teachers and broader tax bases.

Opponents of consolidation, or rural integration, did not want to lose local control of their schools, were fine with the education their children received and feared a broader education would lead them off the farm, did not want their children on long bus rides in bad weather on bad roads, and did not believe state officials’ claims that taxes would not increase.

This photo reportedly shows Pleasant Valley School, northwest corner of the intersection of state Highways 23 and 73, and Pye Alley, date unknown. My mother, Joey (Novak) Bartel, grew up on the adjacent farm and attended and taught at the school.

Legislators tried to address the concerns of both sides with significant new laws in 1939, 1945 and 1947 and extension of incentives such as state transportation aids.

Consolidation of the schools in the Princeton area began in the 1940s with a state mandate to merge adjacent districts with less than $100,000 valuation, gained momentum when Princeton’s first bus – operated by the Lichtenberg Brothers – began transporting students from rural schools in 1947, peaked with formation of the newly reorganized Joint School District No. 2 of the towns of Princeton, St. Marie, Mecan, Neshkoro and city of Princeton in 1949, withstood a court challenge after voters overwhelmingly rejected the consolidation a year later, and culminated with a Wisconsin Supreme Court decision in 1952 upholding the integrated district.

The Green Lake County School Committee’s focus by then had turned to consolidating high school districts.

The map and chart below listing the rural schools that populated the “greater Princeton” area in the 19th and early 20th centuries remains a work in progress. (You can adjust size with the percentage at top of each pdf and use the slider on the right side to move up and down.) The school locations are based on township maps from 1875, 1901, 1914, 1918 and 1923; “The School Quarterly” published by the Green Lake County superintendent of schools office in the 1930s and 1940s; newspaper articles from the Princeton Republic and Princeton Times-Republic; and Facebook discussions.

There are still questions to be answered. I cannot explain, for example, why the attachment of the Big Bend district to the Morse district ordered in 1940 did not occur for at least two years. I also question whether the Huckleberry school moved and became the White River Lock school or was sold between 1914 and 1918. And I was unable to get any information from the Marquette Historical Society on the Town of Mecan districts.

I have been told respected local historian Laverne Marshall wrote an extensive piece about the one-room schools in the 1980s, but I have not been able to locate that article. If anyone has a copy, please let me know.

Plus, I would like to gather more photos of the old one-room schools for Vol. II of my history of Princeton.

Thanks to Mike Hopkins for production work on the map for this post.

As always, please let me know if you have corrections, suggestions or questions.

Thank you for caring and reading about local history.

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