Historic school welcomes 21st century students
JANESVILLE Teacher Marlene Roessler rang a handheld bell as children shuffled inside an 1853 one-room schoolhouse.
Girls from Monroe Elementary School entered through a door on the left and boys through a door on the right. The third-graders settled onto benches around the perimeter of the historic Frances Willard School.
As they looked around the room, a boy stood up and asked: "Shouldn't there be a dunce cap in here?"
Just as students have done for 30 years, the students visited to get a glimpse of pioneer education. They also learned about the school's most famous student: Frances Willard, one of the most distinguished women of the 19th century who spent much of her youth in Janesville. In addition, they carried on a tradition in learning that has been held annually since 1983.
In May, third-graders from Janesville schools and beyond attend a class in the iconic school at the Rock County 4-H Fairgrounds. The experience usually comes when they are studying local history. This year, 11 Janesville schools and one Edgerton school sent third-graders to step back in time. More will come in the fall.
At the school, an 1846 flag with 29 stars hung on the wall. Worn textbooks, including the 1879 "McGuffey's Second Eclectic Reader," piled up near the teacher's desk. A wood burner at the front of the small building reminded children of chilly times before thermostats.
Roessler, among 10 volunteer teachers at the schoolhouse, said she learns along with the students.
"This is a one-room country school," she began, explaining what education was like for Willard.
Young Willard didn't think it was fair that her brother attended an academy in Janesville, while her mother taught her and her sister at home in the mid-1800s. Later, her father and others built the school a mile from the Willard farm, which was located on South River Road. At age 14, Willard first attended the school on a cold winter morning.
In her autobiography, she called the school "plain and inviting … But this schoolhouse was a wonder in our eyes, a temple of learning, a telescope through which we were to take our first real peep at the world outside of home."
After leaving Janesville, Willard became one of the great reformers of the 19th century and one of its most famous women worldwide. She earned advanced degrees and became president of a women's college in Evanston, Ill. Along with Susan B. Anthony, she co-founded the National Council of Women and was one of its presidents. She also advocated for suffrage, legal protection of women and children and an eight-hour work day.
Today, Willard is best known as a temperance leader and was longtime national president of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union from 1879 to her death in 1898. Women organized the group in 1873 to combat drug abuse and alcoholism, which had devastating impacts on women and children.
The local temperance union bought the school in 1920 and saved it from being demolished. In 1969, the group donated the building to the Rock County Historical Society. Eventually, the Willard school was relocated to the fairgrounds, where it has been open to the public since 1972 during the Rock County 4-H Fair.
Roessler shared a story about two boys who in 1970 took it upon themselves to raise money to restore the aging schoolhouse. They came up with only $15, but they inspired a larger effort to replace the roof, plaster and floor boards. Their effort reflected Willard's motto: "I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything. But I can do something. What I can do, I ought to do with the help of God."
"If you think something is important in your life," Roessler told her visitors, "you need to fight for it and make it happen."
Dressed in a long black skirt and white blouse, she helped students understand what pioneer life was like. She held up a hickory stick, more than a foot long, used for disciplining students. She carried a water pail and noted that everyone drank from the same dipper. She pointed to a board painted black, where students used chalk to sum numbers.
Monroe teacher Dennis Condon explained that technology-savvy third-graders now learn with the help of electronic SMART Boards. He is teaching a unit on early Janesville history.
"From the Native Americans to the first settlers, they are learning how the area has changed over time," Condon said.
Roessler hopes children leave the school with insight about life 160 years ago.
"Sometimes, you take too many things for granted," she said. "I want to give them an awareness of how things were then and how they are now."
Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at (608) 755-8264, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.