Hidden History: Vassar schoolhouse stands as monument to one-room education

Student photo of Vassar School 1939-40. Wendi Bevitt collection.

Throughout the countryside, remnants of schools of a bygone era dot the landscape. The one-room schoolhouse was the core of not only its surrounding community’s education but also a social center supported by its citizens. Sometimes the only public building in the area was the town’s school. On the edge of Vassar, Kansas, the town’s one-room schoolhouse still serves as a center of the community.

The first schoolhouse for Vassar, District 68, was located on a farm northwest of the modern day town site. A second school was built in 1884 closer to the center of the school district, a half mile northeast of what would become the town in 1887. When Pete Peterson gave land to the community in 1912 to be used for stockyards and a depot, part of it was set aside for a new school.

In 1913, the town moved ahead with its plans for a new school and requests for bids were sent out to the surrounding area. Merchant and aspiring architect Clarence Silven, of Osage City, submitted the plans chosen for the school, competing against firms from Ottawa and Topeka. Clarence also created successful plans for Osage City’s Swedish Lutheran church and the high school at Reading.

Frank Cargey, of Baldwin, was selected for the carpentry work and A. M. Duty, of Melvern, was chosen to do the concrete and brick work. As bricks emerged as a building material for schoolhouses, the sturdy material made it the style of choice. Vassar’s second school was torn down and much of the material was reused for the new building. Total cost for the new Vassar school was $3,299.

The year the Vassar school was completed, 54 percent of teachers and 42 percent of pupils in the state were in one-room schoolhouses. One-room schools typically had two teachers that split the responsibilities of teaching the different age levels. Back then, schoolteachers’ professional lives only lasted on average about four years, but they were at the core of social improvements in their communities.

After World War II ended, increases in technology changed the farming lifestyle and made travel easier, which allowed for a migration of families to urban areas. Because of this trend, half of the state’s one-room schools were closed within the decade, and by the 1960s schools in rural Kansas started to unify under consolidated districts.

In Osage County, the proposal of a single consolidated district was presented to voters in 1963, and soundly defeated at the polls. The next option given in 1964 was for three districts, which was again rejected and changed again in 1965 to create the districting that now exists.

Throughout the consolidation efforts, support for the Vassar school continued to be strong, and while students were allowed to attend the Lyndon school in their district, many chose to remain. Tradition kept school attendance up, many of those that stayed had parents that had attended the school.

“I think you definitely feel something for the school,” said former student Scott Bauck, in 1974. “My dad went there and so did my grandfather. It’s mainly tradition. It means a lot to go to one of the last country schools in Kansas.”

Throughout the years, students who had graduated would return to see how the school had changed and stayed the same. The only major changes made in the school after its original construction were updates like plumbing, heating, and electrical systems. An oil furnace replaced the use of coal for heating in 1943. Teachers and students in the 1960s still used slate blackboards and had pull cords for overhead lights, and would ring the school bell at the end of the school day on Friday, greeting the weekend.

Schooling in a one-room schoolhouse was very different than that of a modern school.

“There sure weren’t any teaching courses in college which prepared me for a one-room school,” said Mrs. Ann Duey to the Iola Register in 1976. Duey said that she believed that her pupils benefitted from the extra attention and added responsibility that the one-room school gave them, where older children assisted in teaching younger grades.

Minnie Masenthin, who was employed at Vassar as a teacher from 1957 to 1973, also saw benefits, “when you have a student more than one year, you realize more than ever the things the child should know – the basics of education.”

But at Vassar, the advantages of a bigger school kept drawing students away. The number of pupils continued to decrease, and was down to 19 in 1974. At that time, only 44 country schools were still operating statewide. By 1977, there were only 12 students enrolled at Vassar, critically close to the 10 student minimum to retain accredited status with the state school board. No students enrolled in 1978, and concern mounted in the town.

“The more you take out of a town, the worse it makes it,” said Elwood Sowell, custodian of the school. “Right now all we have is a grocery store, post office, grain elevator and the school. The school buys its groceries from the store – closing the school couldn’t help but hurt the whole town.”

Citizens took action. Not wanting the school to be converted into just storage, a group of residents formed the Vassar Community Service Corporation to start the process of preserving the school as a community center for town activities. The group was headed by Raymond Duke.

“There were a lot of people who were interested in keeping it,” Duke said. “They just needed somebody to do some running, some legwork, to find out how to do it.”

Determination paid off and the building and grounds was deeded to Vassar in 1978. With this move to preserve the school as the center of the community, the schoolhouse has been the host of many celebrations and gatherings since.

In addition to use for community events, the school hosted the Vassar Playhouse Players during the cold winter months in the early 1980s, when their main venue at Vassar Junction was just an unheated barn.

The Vassar Fun Fest, an annual fall tradition since 2008, celebrates the Vassar community. Fun Fest activities are centered at the school, and the day of fun continues to show the town’s admiration for this unforgotten one-room schoolhouse.

Vassar Fun Fest will take place Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020.

Vassar School 1939-40. Teachers: Carol Anstaett, grades 1-4, Mary Shaffer, grades 5-8. Student photo, front from left, Billy Fauchier, Kirk Anstaett, Arlie Ray Neilson, Virgil Scheid, Roland Stahr, Reuben Bauck; middle, Donna Lee Fauchier, Junior Woodard, Luddell Neilson, Wilbur Stahr, Raymond Fauchier, Mary Ellen Fauchier, Donna Lee Priebe; back, teacher Carol Anstaett, Lois Scheid, Elda Lee Cunningham, Cloris Neil, Doris Neil, Betty Sayler, Doris Kersten, and teacher Mary Shaffer. Photo from Wendi Bevitt’s collection.

An AP photo from 1975 shows a snapshot of school days at Vassar, Kan. Caption reads: (NEWS PICTURE PACKAGE ADVANCE FOR AFTERNOON PAPERS OF MONDAY, Jan. 5, photos by Ron Smith of the Lawrence, Kansas, Journal-World) VASSAR, Kansas, Dec. 30 – FRIENDLY DISTRACTION – A student at the Vassar, Kansas, one-room school takes time out from raising the flag in order to pet Maggie, a dog who’s always looking far a playmate.(AP Wirephoto)(rbp304001wrnc)75

For more photos of the Vassar schoolhouse, see: Vassar schoolhouse, still serving as center of its community.


wendibevitt2016bWendi Bevitt is owner of Buried Past Consulting LLC. She lived in Osage County for 20 years and her research interests include Osage County Civil War veterans and Osage County history.


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