The Brown County Historical Society exhibit, Loyalty and Dissent: Brown County and WWI, is likely the most in-depth exhibit on the subject in the state. Last month, it received a Minnesota History Award from the Minnesota Alliance of Local History Museums. I had a small part in the formation of the Alliance back in 1990-91. I had previously been president of the Bay State Historical League in Massachusetts, and, on arriving in Minnesota, found that there was no similar organization here. So we worked to begin some networking. In honor of the Minnesota History Award for the WWI exhibit, I’ve posted a tribute, The Silent Army, to those Brown County men who gave their lives.
This is the story of one country school, located just west of New Ulm, Minnesota, for which I wrote the National Register of Historic Places nomination. It was closed in 1971 when Minnesota added a requirement that school districts must offer high school curriculum — the death knell for District No. 50 and others across the state. There are hundreds of these rural schools across the country, but I enjoyed working on this project for two reasons. First, it is a remarkably preserved example of a building influenced by Progressive era educational theory, taken from the cover of a state-issued plan book. Ideas were translated into the built environment. Second, I conducted oral history interviews with several former students. It is easy to fall into sweet nostalgia when talking about one-room schools, but the interviewees raised issues that are still with us — the benefits of a very small school with multiple grade levels and the reinforcement of learning that took place when older students helped to teach younger students. And it is not nostalgia when speaking of the bonds of community, knowing who your neighbors are and, more importantly, knowing their stories.