Jim Bredemeier of Marion was researching Luta Creek, also known as Brook Luta, Luta Brook, Muddy Creek, and Mud Creek, on historical maps, when he noticed the proclivity of country schools that once existed in Marion County.
“I realized my parents saying they walked five miles to school was not true,” he said. “Schools often were two or three miles apart and no more than four.”
Social media posts requesting information about former country schools prompted him to do more research.
He connected with Lowell Ensey, a Marion native living in Bel Aire. Ensey said he saw a post from Bill Young, who asked, “Where did my grandfather George Holmes go to school?”
“That’s how I got started,” he said. “I thought I could help him.” And he did.
Bredemeier and Ensey have known each other for a long time. Both are Marion High School graduates.
“Lowell was my summer baseball coach when I was in the Peewee League,” Bredemeier said.
The two men are working together along with Marion Historical Museum director Peggy Blackman and Marion native Gene Ewert of Neodesha to compile data on country school names, district numbers, when organized, when closed, teachers, location, and directional information.
Ensey is a retired lifelong educator. He is filling in a spreadsheet with all the information.
“When you’ve organized teachers, classrooms, and schedules for many years, this falls into a natural fit,” he said.
They learned the county had 136 schools at one time, but the numbers gradually decreased as the number of students declined and schools consolidated or closed. By 1969, no one-teacher schools remained.
For many homesteaders, schools were the religious, political, and social centers of communities and often were close to churches or cemeteries.
In addition to information from individuals and the museum, the men are using Marion City Library and the Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies at Tabor College. Among documents moved from the county courthouse to Tabor several years ago, Ensey found annual reports from early schools.
Ensey found a document titled, “The Early Schools of Marion County, Kansas” at the museum. He has a two-inch thick loose-leaf notebook collection of maps, articles, and pictures related to country schools.
“Needless to say, this is an arduous task, and our work is a ‘work in progress,’” he said.
The men enjoy searching for maps and locations.
“Sections originally covered the entire county except the first mile west of the Morris County line,” Bredemeier said. “We discovered that quite a few section roads now are closed.”
This makes pinpointing locations and providing driving directions to school sites more difficult. They hope to provide lateral and longitudinal coordinates and the closest intersection, information that could be used in a GPS system.
Bredemeier found several 1902 maps that identified schools by number, but not by name.
The men have found useful a 1921 hand drawn map laying out the townships. Using a Microsoft Paint program, Bredemeier highlighted each school with a number, added current road names around the periphery, and added two red stars for schools that were either closed or opened at the time the map was created.
“I am going to reference old maps and add them to a current Kansas Department of Transportation map,” he said. “I will remove all insignificant streams, feature markers, and so forth, and after that, I may add missing schools on the 1921 map.”
Bredemeier has come to a surprising conclusion after many weeks of work on country schools.
“It’s true the older you get, the better you were and the harder you had it than the younger generation,” he said. “But I have documented proof they had it better. I walked or rode a bike farther than most country kids. Plus, when I got home, I had to trudge 20 feet through 2-inch shag carpet to change the TV channel or adjust the volume or go outside to twist the antennae pole during high winds.
“They didn’t have Cujo sitting on the porch waiting to chase you off if you got too close to the curb, or the neighborhood bullies laying ambush because you smarted off to them, or high school kids driving through puddles to splash you because the city didn’t patch potholes like they should have.”
The researchers hope to place all the information they collect on a web page, where people can find a map showing school locations and see the data. The website also will include a list of internet links people can use to look for information.
“We are attempting to collect as much as we can from various sources,” Ensey said.
The men hope to have the website up and running by spring.
“Certainly not before,” Ensey said.
Individuals who desire to help by sharing information may contact Ensey by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (620) 381-3783. Bredemeier’s email is email@example.com.