School days: Built in 1875, old school house to be open to public at farm show

The museum at the Maple Grove one-room school house has been set up to reflect the era from 1875-1900. Each subsequent year, it will reflect an era 25 years later. The school house has been restored and will be open to the public for the first time at this year’s Historic Farm Days show set for this week in Penfield.

PENFIELD — For years it sat neglected, hidden by trees and used for storage. Not any more. The one-room Maple Grove school house, where countless children of farm families were taught, will be opened to the public at this week’s Historic Farm Days show in Penfield.

It took four years of work from volunteers to restore the school house.

The school will be one of the featured attractions at the four-day show that starts Thursday, sponsored by the I&I Antique Tractor and Gas Engine Club.

Group with piano

A number of volunteers helped to renovate the old Maple Grove school house. One of those volunteers, John Schmidt, said it took quite a bit more work than originally expected to bring the building back into good shape.

Debbie Deremiah, who helped with the effort to relocate Maple Grove from just north of Rantoul to Penfield in 2015, said Allan Thomas — a former student at the school — and Virlon Suits — who has done a great deal of research on one-room school houses in Champaign County — will be present to answer questions about the school during three days of the show.

Suits said there were more than 200 one-room school houses in the county.

“One by one, they went off the grid,” he said. “They located them every four-section block.”

Suits himself attended a one-roomer for part of his schooling in the same Kentucky School that his mother attended, two miles west and two miles north of Flatville.

While the Maple Grove school house, like most one-room school houses, didn’t have many of today’s amenities, Thomas, who attended Maple Grove, said it had one “luxury” item — indoor toilets. While the toilets weren’t hooked to plumbing, at least the boys and girls didn’t have to go outside.

Deremiah said a great deal of work went into restoring the school. John Schmidt and Kenny Knight did much of the volunteer work, which Deremiah said included replacing the floor joists and completely redoing the floors.

“They took it down to the studs and completely redid the inside,” Deremiah said.

The exterior was also repainted, and the doors were replaced.

Figuring out the name

There was some question as to the name of the school. Some remembered it as Maplewood, others thought it was Maple Grove and some thought it Maple Ridge. The school had the numbers “41” on the front. Deremiah said in researching the school through county records, it was learned that a number “1” was missing. The county school number should have read “141,” which led to the discovery of the correct name of Maple Grove.

The school, which was built in 1875, when Ulysees S. Grant was president and a year before George Custer met his fate at The Little Big Horn, was originally located about 2 1/2 miles north of Rantoul on what is now Maplewood Drive.

Lavern Christian, who spent the last three of her eight years of grade school being taught at Maple Grove, said the school was closed after she finished eighth grade in 1953. She said a Rantoul Township High School school teacher then bought it and made a chicken house out of it.

It was moved to an area about a mile north of Rantoul near U.S. 45 on the Jean Lukens property, where it was used for storage and then sat empty.

Christian said all eight grades were taught by one teacher — Wanda North.

“We all had a desk,” Christian said. “When it came time for my class to meet, there were like six or seven chairs set up in front. The teacher sat in front of us and we had reading, math, English, geography, health.”

Christian said North did a good job and was strict.

“As long as you obeyed the rules and did your lessons, you were fine,” she said. “One little boy, I think he had Attention Deficit (Disorder). She lost her cool with him a couple times. She had a good reason to. He wasn’t concentrating and getting his lessons. I never thought of her being cruel by any means. My parents always thought I got a good education from Miss North.”

A time of tragedy

Christian, who is 78, said she had heard North had met with tragedy before she had her as teacher.

“The story was she lived in Ludlow. Her and her mother lived together. I heard later she had an accident working on a gun and accidentally killed her mother. They said that affected her a lot.”

Unlike many students, Christian didn’t have to walk to school. Her parents drove her the three miles to Maple Grove.

The school house had no electricity or running water, and coal was brought in from an outside building.

Christian said she and her fellow students found ways to entertain themselves when not studying.

“We were kind of along a swamp area,” she said. “A couple of us older girls were kind of a clique, and the middle school girls were kind of a clique. We built huts around trees with these swamp sticks.”

She said they brought items from home to decorate them.

Entering high school was a “rude awakening, and I was one of 300-some students,” Christian said.

She said she was afraid at first but after a month or so, adapted to the bigger-school atmosphere, although there was a bit of a stigma.

“We were considered country hicks,” Christian said. “Sometimes I think a few of the teachers looked at us that way, too. We managed.”

Christian said she will “definitely” visit her old school at the farm show this year if she is able to.

Seventy-eight-year-old John Schmidt was one of the volunteers who helped to restore the building. He said the work was much more involved than initial estimates.

In addition to the entire floor system having to be replaced, “a bunch of us got together, knocked all the plaster off the walls, plastered it and relined the walls,” said Schmidt, who also worked on the windows, and scraped and painted the building. A handicapped-accessible ramp and additional door also had to be added.

He said volunteers put hundreds of hours into the building.

Schmidt said Kenny Knight and Johnny Bensyl were among the several volunteers who put in a great deal of time renovating the century-plus structure.

Deremiah, who was involved in setting up the school museum at Maple Grove, said the years 1875 to 1900 will be highlighted this year. She said the colors will be muted.

“The one-room schools of the prairie didn’t have a lot of color because it wasn’t available,” Deremiah said. “As the schools progressed, the colorful maps and globes progressed. Pens and ink wells were used.”

Each year, a different 25-year era will be highlighted at the school museum.

In the early to mid-1940s,  the boys would bring scrap iron and the girls would bring lard for the war effort. They were picked up for use.

The schoolhouse will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday-Saturday during the farm show. It will be closed Sunday.

dhinton@rantoulpress.com