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'The School Lady' documents North Dakota's one-room schools

Kathy Holtan Wilner stands in front of an old one-room schoolhouse Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, near Bowdon, N.D. She documented hundreds of such buildings across the state. John Hageman / Forum News Service1 / 3
Kathy Holtan Wilner stands in an old one-room schoolhouse Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, near Bowdon, N.D. She documented hundreds of such buildings across the state. John Hageman / Forum News Service 2 / 3
Kathy Holtan Wilner stands in an old one-room schoolhouse Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, near Bowdon, N.D. She documented hundreds of such buildings across the state. John Hageman / Forum News Service3 / 3

NEAR BOWDON, N.D.—Kathy Holtan Wilner is known as "The School Lady."

It's a nickname that's well-earned. Over the past several years, she embarked on a quest to find one-room schoolhouses where countless North Dakotans were educated. Using atlases, public records and the help of strangers, she documented roughly 500 of them.

"We found them everywhere," Wilner said. "I could tell you stories for hours. Pick a school."

Wilner's efforts were recognized last month with an award from the State Historical Society, which helped fund her expedition. The agency keeps forms she prepared noting the buildings' age, location and architectural features in the caverns beneath the Heritage Center. The information helps historians determine a building's importance and answer questions from the public about what became of a certain school, said Lorna Meidinger, architectural historian for the State Historical Society.

Wilner said her interest in documenting schools grew naturally from her work researching her own family's history. She attended a conference in 2009 that included a session on recording schoolhouses, and she soon struck out on her own.

"It preserves a piece of history that's disappearing from the state of North Dakota," she said. "Once that school is gone, the story of the school itself is gone."

Wilner holds a familial connection a Washburn-area school that she worked to list on the National Register of Historic Places in 2010. Her great grandfather donated the land it sits on, she said, and her grandfather attended the school.

Constructed in 1885, four years before North Dakota became a state, the school "is an example of one-room schools built all over North Dakota," Wilner wrote. Although that building remains in good shape, she said most have fallen into disrepair over the years.

Sitting at the kitchen table at her home in rural Wells County, Wilner rattled off tales from her journeys across the state. She learned how to get past barbed wire fences and wood ticks. She never had car trouble, but finding a gas station in remote parts of the state was "interesting."

Wilner said she learned about the importance of education to the early settlers and the transformation of the school system with the introduction of better transportation options.

"In a township, which measures six by six miles, there were usually three or four schools because you couldn't go very far to go to school," she said.

By the early 1900s, there were more than 200,000 one-room schools nationwide, according to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The buildings also held a variety of community meetings, weddings and worship services.

But their numbers have dwindled over the years. A North Dakota Department of Public Instruction spokesman pointed to five "one-room school districts" listed in its school finance publication.

David Borlaug, president of the Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation, which provided a grant to Wilner, said the schools are "part of our cultural heritage."

"Anyone who grew up in North Dakota tends to have a connection to the land one way or the other, either through agriculture or the country schools," he said.

Danielle Stuckle, outreach coordinator with the State Historical Society, said Wilner's work would have taken agency staff years to do because they're "pulled in so many different directions" for other projects. Wilner received the agency's Heritage Profile Honor Award last month.

But that doesn't mean she's done with schools.

Wilner said the roughly 500 she already catalogued probably "doesn't begin to crack" the number that's still out there, given that some were sold to farmers who moved the structure onto their yard. She said she'll probably never finish the project, but she's fine with that.

"I'm going to be doing this for as long as people tell me about schools," she said.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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