From a photograph by Solomon D. Butcher of four daughters of rancher Joseph M. Chrisman, at their sod house in Custer County, Nebraska. From left to right, Harriet, Elizabeth, Lucie, and Ruth. Photographed in 1886.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Remembering Pony Lake School

All In The Family... Another Trip Down Memory Lane... Life in The Nebraska Sandhills...



I was much surprised a few days ago to read in the news about a tiny rural school where I taught in the early 1970's. In an AP article titled, "Small schools fading away with rural populations", the following was reported:

BASSETT, Neb. (AP) -- Twenty-five miles off the main highway, deep in a cradle of sand dunes bound together by prairie grass, a one-lane ribbon of asphalt southeast of town ends abruptly at a barbed-wire fence.

Cattle roam on one side, and on the other sits a school that's in danger of becoming a relic in this wide-open, north-central Nebraska region that is among the most sparsely populated in the country...

... [F]ive children comprise the total student body at the 120-year-old Pony Lake School.

Source (includes a photo of Pony Lake School)
Another source
As Nebraska's rural population has dropped over the last few decades, the number and size of rural schools have decreased proportionately. Pony Lake School's enrollment has dropped from 23 students in 1988 to only 5 today. Still, Nebraska is exceeded only by Montana in the number of country schools still serving rural families today.

The AP article includes the following statistics for the United States: "About 24,000 one-room schools existed in 1959; 840 in 1984. [Neenah] Ellis estimates 300 remain." ( Neenah Ellis is an independent documentary producer, writer and editor who previously worked for NPR's "All Things Considered" for ten years. She has spent a year researching country schools.)

I'm sorry to hear that Pony Lake School may have reached the final chapter of its history. However, in the article, the superintendent of the Rock County schools sounds committed to keeping Pony Lake School open as long as there are two or more students in the district. I hope his commitment does not waver, because it would be a hardship for the families of Pony Lake if their community school closed.

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When I came to Pony Lake School, it had recently consolidated with the Sybrant School, an even more remote district, and built a new two-room schoolhouse. My first year there (1971-72 school year) was the first year in the new facility. I had about 10 students in my room during the two years that I taught grades K-4. During my third year there, I taught grades 5-8, and because of a dip in enrollment, I had 6 or 7 students.

We had several families with children who were landowners (permanent residents) in the district, but the enrollment fluctuated as hired hands came and went at nearby ranches. If the hired hands had families, they went to school at Pony Lake School. If they didn't have school age children, our enrollment dropped.

Pony Lake School sits in the middle of a broad expanse of hay meadows at the end of the "one-lane ribbon of asphalt" mentioned in the quotation above. That asphalt road is known in Rock County as the "WPA Road" because it was built by Depression-era work crews. (Note the haystacks in the background of the photos below.)

I drove about 25 miles out in the country and 25 miles back each day when I taught there. I had an apartment in Bassett, the county seat. In the winter, we had school on many days when the roads were terrible, but we were always mindful of the weather and if it seemed that wind-driven snow or new snow might make the roads truly impassable, we dismissed school and went home. No one wanted to be snowed in at the schoolhouse, even though we did keep cans of soup there for such an emergency.

Pony Lake School, south of Newport, NE, about 1973

Recess at Pony Lake School, January 1972


Related post:
Ghosts of Christmas Past (11) in which I write a little about Christmas programs at Pony Lake School from the perspective of the teacher.

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4 comments:

the.chronicler said...

Wow! That's amazing. Good story.

Mark said...

It's hard for us more Eastern folk to realize how far apart things are as you go further west. Last September my wife and I went to Yellowstone NP. On the way back through Wyoming we were followed by two big yellow school buses for many miles. I thought they must have been going to a game or something, but when one turned off I realized they were just dropping the kids off after school.

Theresa said...

I wonder if the school district has considered advertising the school and town as a place for families to move from difficult urban areas. I've read about towns advertising for families by offering a free house or free land - I think in Kansas?

Here's a link to the only one-room school house left in Minnesota. It's near the Canadian border and the teacher and students get to school by snowmobile!

Link: http://www.yahooey.com/angleschool/

Genevieve said...

Mark, you are right about the distances. Truly, there are places in northern Nebraska (and certainly in Montana as well --probably even more so!) that are the middle of nowhere.

Theresa, they would have to pitch a tent to live on the shores of Pony Lake! It isn't a town at all, not even a village. The name Pony Lake refers only to the community -- the school and the ranches within perhaps a 10 mile radius. Thanks for the link to Minnesota's one-room school. I will check it out.

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CONTENTMENT: Keep your heart free from hate, your mind from worry, live simply, expect little, give much, sing often, pray always, forget self, think of others and their feelings, fill your heart with love, scatter sunshine. These are the tried links in the golden chain of contentment.
(Author unknown)

IT IS STILL BEST to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasure; and to be cheerful and have courage when things go wrong.
(Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1867-1957)

Thanks for reading.