Monday, February 6, 2012

Preserving Michigan's Rural School Heritage - Part 1

With only a handful still in operation, Michigan has nearly seen the end of its active rural schools.  In its heyday, however, there were an estimated 7,000 active one-room (and some two-room) schools in the state.  Most of us Michiganders either attended one ourselves or know that our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents received their early education in those schoolrooms of the past.  What of their history and those who taught, learned, and governed in those schools?

Bess (Cook) Britton, formerly of rural Decatur was one of those students, as were her parents and grandparents before her.  She and several members of her family attended East Valley School, Decatur Township, Van Buren County, comprising generations of history, photographs, and memories.

Bess knew that country school life was also community life, and by her 70's she saw this culture was disappearing.  Most of the rural school districts had consolidated and the buildings were being destroyed or converted to other uses.  It was then that Bess embarked on a mission to collect and preserve Michigan's rural school history.

She definitely had a vision...a lofty goal of identifying all Michigan rural schools by name & location, and then compile as much information as possible about students, teachers, administrators, history, and the buildings themselves.  This was accomplished by any means at her disposal, which was limited since she had been confined to a wheel-chair for several years.  Some of the methods included:
  • Letter-writing campaign, writing to anyone she knew or heard of with connections to a rural school (no e-mail then)
  • Conducted telephone interviews
  • Subscribed to and clipped articles from countless Michigan newspapers, magazines & periodicals
  • Patrolled the countryside by car, with the assistance of her husband Edgar, searching for & photographing rural school structures
Bess (Cook) Britton
All of the notes were typed on her home typewriter (no help from computers), and those along with the support material that she collected were organized by the name of each school.  This she placed inside sheet protectors and stored in large three-ring binders.

It didn't take long for word to get out about Bess' project, and others shared her excitement.  Soon individuals were writing and calling her, volunteering photographs, written memoirs, and all kinds of other information.

On several occasions Bess was interviewed by area newspapers, including the Kalamazoo Gazette and the Herald-Palladium, and large feature articles were published about her "collection."  This, of course, led to more contacts and more information, and so on...

Bess soon fondly became known as the schoolhouse lady and she loved it.  For about 12 years, she devoted much of her time to data gathering and her notes blossomed into 19 large binders.  By this time she was 86 years old and the project had become more than she could handle.  She knew that her work had formed an important piece of history and to insure its survival, it was time to consider a permanent home for it.

The Local History Collection of the Van Buren District Library had formed in 1995 and was fast becoming one of the research centers for the area.  For this reason and because I had the honor of being not only an extended member of Bess' family but a good friend, she made the decision to deposit the collection here.  We happily accepted what was then formerly named "The Bess Britton Michigan-One Room Schoolhouse Collection."

Bess passed away in 2003, and that same year the Michigan One-Room Schoolhouse Association posthumously awarded her their first annual award of excellence in schoolhouse history preservation.  It was my honor to present this award, on their behalf, to her family at her memorial service.

With this tremendous gift, came our commitment to not only preserve the collection but continue to encourage its growth.  We have honored this request.  In 2000, there were over 700 schools represented in Bess' notebooks.  Today, there are over 4,700 school listings.

Next time we'll talk more what can be found in the Bess Britton Michigan One-Room Schoolhouse Collection, online indexes, and access information.

Nameless Picture of the Day
unknown woman
Photographer - Dawes, Dowagiac
original owned by Judith (Brown) Grime

Can you identify the woman in this cabinet card?  Are you familiar with the photographer?  Please contact us if you any information and we will publish it in a future blog.  Please include the photo's catalog number with your e-mail.