The former Mount Tom school was moved to 114 N. Fulton Street in Princeton and converted into a house.

Here’s an unexpected and interesting addition to the “In Search of St. Marie” series – the history of School District No. 5 and the Mount Tom schoolhouse that was located on County Road CC in the Town of St. Marie from 1913-1947.

We have a wealth of knowledge about the district thanks to records preserved by Edmund J. Kuharske, Mount Tom school district clerk from 1947-1951, and passed on to his daughter, Mary (Kuharske) Nennig, when he passed in 1982.

After Mary saw my recent post featuring a map of the area’s one-room schoolhouses, she went to the attic of her home in rural Princeton and retrieved a box of materials regarding the Mount Tom school. She shared the collection with me last week.

The Mount Tom school property abuts the Kuharske farm. Mary was told by her parents that the teacher resided in their home, in a side bedroom, during the early years of the school.

The Kuharske trove includes the district check book (“School Orders”) and two bound, hardcover books: “Dist. Records,” which includes the school board’s meeting minutes, income/expense lists, and forms such as sample teacher contracts, and the “Union School Register,” which includes a directory of parents and students, grades, attendance, and syllabuses of classes from 1932-1942.

Routine business matters at the district’s annual meetings, as documented in “Dist. Records,” included electing a board member (three members, three-year terms), deciding the length of the school year (eight or nine months), approving the levy, awarding the bid to provide cord wood for the school, authorizing repairs, and appointing a book committee, later termed “book inspectors.” (The inspectors rejected the district’s textbooks one term.) Occasionally other issues were brought to the meeting. The board in 1917, for example, voted not to serve hot lunches.

I smiled when the early clerks noted the minutes were “red and excepted as red,” but that’s just the copy editor in me.

Enrollment averaged about ten students per term from 1932-1942. The “School Register” reveals 11 students enrolled in September 1932: Gordon Knaack (age 5), Floyd Harke, Lawrence Hoppa and Clifford Briske (6), Walter Wargula and Agnes Dahlke (7), Andrew Dahlke (10), Susan Bednarek (11), Jacke Kozlowski (13) and Lucille Zuehls (14).

The largest enrollment I found was the term from Sept. 17, 1934, to January 15, 1935, when 16 students were listed in the register: Deloris Harke and Dorothy Hoppa (6), Floyd Harke and Lawrence Hoppa (8), Walter Wargula, Norman Dehn, Agnes Dahlke and Alex Darnick (9) Laura Hoppa (10), Evelyn Dehn, Andrew Dahlke, Leonard Kozlowski, Josephine Hoppa and Lorraine Prachel (12), Susan Bednarek and Florian Darnick (13).

Students enrolled at Mount Tom during its final term from May 1941 to September 1942, when average attendance was about five students per day, were Joseph Hoppa and Bernard Perr (6), Richard Perr (7), Mary Ann Hoppa and Betty Jean Freimark (8), Phillip Hoppa and Adeline Perr (10), Victor Freimark (11), George Perr (12) and Evelyn Perr (13).

The annual school levy, meanwhile, averaged about $400 from 1913-1919, about $575 during the 1920s, about $240 during the Depression era 1930s, and about $500 in the 1940s.

The following men served on the school board between 1913 and 1951: Gust Schram, William Prachel, Paul Kelm, Will Reetz, Fred Knaack, Henry Zuehls, Albert Prachel, Victor Knaack, Art Reetz, Adam Bednarek, Carl Prachel, Luther Knaack, Bernie Kozlowski, Peter Marchinek Sr. and Ervin Wolter.

The schoolhouse

The “Dist. Records” book preserved by Edmund J. Kuharske begins with minutes from a special meeting held on May 31, 1913. It’s an important meeting. The electors will decide whether to build a new school.

According to the minutes, District 5 clerk Gust Schram read a letter from the state school inspector stating, “the old schoolhouse was unfit for further use and, therefore, was condemned.”

(I do not know when the original Mount Tom school was built. There is no school shown on County Road CC on a map from 1878 that includes other schools in the township. The school is shown on a 1901 map.)

The 1913 minutes indicate after some argument among the taxpayers, George Kelley, Green Lake County superintendent of schools, explained why a new building was needed and how the district could accomplish it. He displayed plans for a 24- by 30-foot building.

District 5 residents voted to tear down the old schoolhouse and use the salvageable lumber in the construction of a new building. The final resolution passed before the meeting adjourned instructed the school board to “go at it and start the new building as soon as they can.”

The board – William Prachel (clerk), Paul Kelm (director) and Will Reetz (treasurer) – did just that. They paid Schram $2.25 per day to paint the new schoolhouse and built a 12-by-16 woodshed. Prachel was the low bidder ($4.90 per cord) to provide the wood. Classes resumed in September in the new school. Teacher Elma Berger was paid $40 per month.

Teachers who followed Berger were Gania Miak (last name spelled three ways in records), Ida Weber, Agnes Sullivan, Clara Sobralske, Clara Kieck, Edna Knaack, Eva Hardell, Arthur Zuehls, Mabel Kopplin, Arnold Wiese, Milan Diebert, Nan Bednarek and finally Reinetta Kiepe, who earned $85 per month until the end of the 1942 term.

Transportation costs replaced the teacher in the budget beginning in 1943. Esther Anderson was paid $72 per month for “bus fair,” according to the records. Others paid to provide transportation over the next four years included Ervin Walter, Peter Marchinek Sr. and D.H. Fordham before the Lichtenberg Bros. purchased a bus in 1947 and began transporting students to the Princeton school.

At the annual meeting in July 1947, when Kuharske was elected clerk, District 5 electors voted to sell the Mount Tom school and equipment.

Lyle Priske purchased the schoolhouse in August for $1,100, moved it to Fulton Street in Princeton and converted it to a house.

Other buyers at the District No. 5 sale and their treasures included Peter Marchinek Sr., swing, $1; Nan Smazenski, table and chairs, $5; Elmer Prachel, swing and frame, $3; Carl Prachel, chairs and bookcase, $6; Edmund Kuharske, desk and seat, $10; John Sterk, toilet, $15; Big Island School, stove, $15; Lutheran Church, black board, $10; Peter Marchinek Sr., woodshed, $10; Princeton Motors, clock, $5; Clarence Messerschmidt, photograph, $4. (I am surprised there was no mention of a bell.)

School consolidation                                                                                                                       

The material that intrigued me the most was Edmund’s collection of letters from attorneys representing District 5 and the other rural districts opposed to the consolidation plan approved by the Green Lake County School Committee in 1949 that attached them to Princeton. Because he was clerk, Kuharske was named individually in the court records.

Edmund J. Kuharske, left, served as clerk of the Mount Tom school district from 1947-1951. He is shown with his wife, Margaret, and nephew, Ken.

Here is a brief explanation of school consolidation, which likely will take me two or three chapters to examine in Volume II of my history of Princeton:

State legislators passed laws in 1939, 1947 and 1949 that encouraged and then pushed the one-room school districts to consolidate in an attempt to improve the quality of rural education.

The first phase took effect in the Princeton area in the early 1940s when districts with less than $100,000 were attached to neighboring districts. The Big Bend district was dissolved and attached to Morse. Fox River and Pleasant Grove were dissolved and attached to Sullivan. White River Lock and Mount Tom were attached to Oak Grove but did not dissolve.

In 1949, the Green Lake County School Committee voted to attach six rural districts, including Mount Tom, to the Princeton district. When opponents filed petitions for a referendum on the consolidation on July 20, 1950, Princeton noted that they had been filed too late, but the circuit judge allowed the referendum to be held. After voters rejected the consolidation, 481-406, Princeton filed suit saying the referendum was illegal. The circuit court disagreed, and Princeton appealed to the state Supreme Court.

The question hinged on the phrase “one school year.” Petitions for the referendum needed to be filed within 30 days after the newly consolidated district had completed one school year.

Classes ended on June 2, 1950. Therefore, the deadline was July 2, Princeton’s lawyers argued.

The rural school districts’ lawyers argued a school budget year ran from July 1 to June 30. The deadline was July 30, they said.

The Supreme Court sided with Princeton. The petitions had been filed 18 days after the deadline.

The St. Marie districts continued to operate until the legal challenges to consolidation were exhausted in 1951.

I found a letter from Edward H. Mevis, well-known banker and longtime member of Princeton’s school board, to Kuharske dated Oct. 29, 1948, that probably summarized the frustrations of many board members across Wisconsin during the consolidation era: “These school matters are getting more and more involved, and I am about ready to quit the whole business. The powers that be make one law in the morning, and then change it in the afternoon. A statement we make today seems to be all wrong before the pen gets dry on the signature of a law.”

In July 1952, after the Supreme Court refused to re-hear the Princeton case, attorney Emery Paul, of Markesan, reminded Kuharske and other rural officials named in the lawsuit, “Unfortunately, when one is not successful in litigation, the successful party gets a judgment for costs. In the school case these costs amounted to $245.29 in the Supreme Court and $139.64 in Circuit Court, making a total of $384.93.  … You will probably save yourselves trouble by making payment.”

The final letter in the collection made me chuckle. Attorney Paul in March 1959, eight years after the Supreme Court ruling, asked for meeting with Kuharske or other former board members involved in the case. “We have not been paid for our services and the balance of our expenses and disbursements, so our only recourse was to file suit against the Princeton district,” he wrote.

Paul enclosed a self-addressed, stamped (4 cents) envelope for Kuharske’s reply.

It was never sent.

Edmund J. Kuharske

The Kuharske collection

Kuharske also saved bond certificates for district treasurers, blank annual meeting notice forms, tax levy reporting forms, instructional booklets published by the state on school heating and ventilation and maintaining school floors and ceilings, a copy of “The Rural School Messenger” published by the Wisconsin Rural Schools Association, a copy of “Handbook for School Officials” published in 1950 by the State Department of Public Instruction, copies of the official referendum ballot, and a copy of the Sept. 7, 1950 edition of the Princeton Times-Republic with information about the referendum.

Mary said the materials someday will be passed on to the Princeton Historical Society to share with generations to come. Thanks to people like Mary and her father, we learn more about our past every day.

Please let me know if you have any corrections or information to share.

As always, thank you for reading and caring about local history.

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