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A Woman’s Quest to Visit North Dakota’s One-Room Schools

They once numbered in the thousands. Now, only a fraction are left, mostly abandoned and falling apart. But Kathy Wilner is determined to find every remaining one-room school in her state.

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For over 100 years, small country schools have been vanishing from the North Dakota landscape.
(Photographs by David Kidd/Governing)
Kathy Wilner is on a mission. The 75-year-old Midwesterner has taken it upon herself to locate and document the surviving one-room schools that dot the landscape across her home state of North Dakota. To date, she can personally account for 721 of them. Kathy, also known here as “The School Lady,” is the driving force behind the Country School House Project, a database of the state’s small rural schools, created and overseen by the State Historical Society in Bismarck.

A century ago, half of the children in North Dakota attended one of the state’s 4,500 small country schools. Besides being places of learning, the buildings often served as hubs of community activity for isolated populations. They were often spaced not more than a few miles apart, so that students on foot or horseback could get to them in a reasonable amount of time.

By the early years of the 20th century, the state was already advocating for improvements to its country schools. A 1904 pamphlet issued by the Department of Public Instruction bemoaned the circumstances in which rural students and teachers worked, identifying numerous shortcomings present in many of the makeshift buildings. “Most of our schoolhouses are built in utter defiance of all accepted laws of heating, ventilating and lighting,” it said.
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Photographed in 2004, this school no longer exists.
But the department’s pamphlet also offered a number of constructive ideas, from the arrangement of pictures to the hue of the walls they hung on. “Gray, dull green and tan are good colors,” it claimed. Much attention was paid to window placement. “The quality of light introduced into schoolrooms should be of sufficient strength to fully stimulate the faculty of vision … Special attention should be given to the location and size of windows, the quality of glass, and the mounting of the same.” It was further stipulated that light should “come from behind and to the left of pupils,” so as to facilitate handwriting. At least for those who held their pencil in their right hand.

But education reformers of the time were interested in more than uniform building codes. Many thought that children attending small country schools were not as well educated as their peers at larger schools. Proponents of consolidation cited higher per-pupil costs, lower graduation rates and underqualified and undertrained teachers as justification for abandoning one-room schools. The result: decadeslong consolidation of districts, combined with an ongoing population shift away from rural areas, hastening their demise. By 1961, just 817 one-room schools were still in use in North Dakota. Today, only five remain in operation.
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Citing concerns over liability, the farmer who owns this school is thinking of tearing it down.

The School Lady Finds Her Calling

Preternaturally cheerful, Kathy Wilner speaks in a rapid Midwestern clip. Nearly every other sentence contains at least one “golly,” “dang it” or “Oh my gosh!” Everything is “so much fun” and “just a blast!” Of the 721 schools she has documented, she is sure she can still describe hundreds of them from memory.

Kathy’s involvement with country schools took root in 2008. Recently retired and with a lifelong interest in family history, she was recruited to help plan the 125th anniversary celebration of a one-room school with ties to her family. Her great grandfather had donated the land and served on the school's first board. Her grandfather was one of its students. “That school has been kind of big in our lives,” she says.

In the course of her anniversary planning, she learned of an upcoming conference in Bismarck about one-room schools, put on by the State Historical Society. “It was wonderful,” she says. “One of the workshops was how to document a standing one-room school, and I thought it sounded kind of fun. So I went, and that was the start of that!”
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Kathy Wilner is known in North Dakota as the School Lady.

Searching for Survivors

Initially, Kathy stuck close to home, making day trips, with maps in her lap, behind the wheel of her Oldsmobile Alero. She traveled alone. “My husband doesn't really think this is the most fun thing in the world to do,” she says. Out on the roads of rural North Dakota, Kathy was enjoying her newfound passion in life. “I found all these schools and I just couldn't quit,” she says. “I never drove by a school I didn't stop at.” But it isn’t enough to simply locate a school for the state database. It is just as important to record details about the structure: its construction, condition, the materials used and architectural details.
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One of the many abandoned schools that are still standing in North Dakota.
When she’s visiting a school, Kathy keeps a measuring tape, pencil and paper in the pockets of the apron around her waist. She takes pictures with her phone and lately brings a step stool, the better to see inside windows. “I finally got smart and put rubber bands around the bottom of my clipboard,” she says. “In case it is windy. Which it is all the time.”

Encounters with birds, mice, snakes, bugs and barbed wire are inevitable when trudging around fields in the summer. “I don’t like ticks,” Kathy says. “But you know what? I would have never done this project if I hadn't gotten over ticks.” In more than a dozen years, she has never touched poison ivy or stepped on a nail. But she has not escaped entirely unscathed.
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The bell tower is all that remains of a school that was lifted from its foundation and repurposed as an addition to a nearby home.
Working alone one day at a remote location, Kathy was so engrossed in making notes and taking pictures that she didn’t notice the big hole directly in her path. Suddenly, she was on the ground, looking up at the sky. “And I laid there,” she says. “And I just started laughing. Because I wasn't hurt. And I thought, ‘Well, this is really stupid! Maybe I need to make sure my phone is always in my pocket. And maybe somebody should come with me.’”

As she ventured further from home, Kathy came to rely on locals to show her around. “I would call people and say, ‘If I come, will you get in my car and ride with me?’” More often than not, they did. Her husband once questioned her plans to meet up with a farmer in another county. “‘Aren’t you worried about meeting a man in the middle of nowhere?’ And I said, ‘No, I'm in North Dakota.’”

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Without intervention, this one-room school will disappear.

Road Tripper

Over 12 years, Kathy guesses she has driven at least 20,000 miles in pursuit of country schools, first in her Oldsmobile, and later in a ‘97 Chrysler. “It was like a huge boat,” she says of the second car. “Leather interior, sunroof, the whole nine yards.” The Chrysler belonged to her mother, who, well into her 90s, crisscrossed the state with Kathy on at least 20 of her trips, acting as note taker and keeping her company. “We were a good team,” she says.

Kathy was also occasionally joined by her friend Karen, from Minnesota, who shares her enthusiasm for road trips. With Karen at the wheel, Kathy could concentrate on map reading and writing down her observations between stops. “I should have done that years ago,” she says. “It would have been way easier.” Travel costs were initially offset with a few thousand dollars in grant money, but for the last few years, Kathy has pretty much paid her own way. “Whatever I have done since 2016 came out of my own pocket.”
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Built in 1917, this school was moved to its present location 20 years later. It closed, for the second time, in 1961. Restoration efforts are underway.

A Moving Target

There is no way to know how many one-room schools still exist in North Dakota. Many of them have been moved from their original locations onto private property, often repurposed as granaries, guest houses and museums. The schools that are left untouched will eventually collapse or be burned and bulldozed to make more room for crops.

Just a few miles from where Kathy lives, a young couple moved a schoolhouse onto their property to prevent it from being burned. “The farmer wanted more space for his cows,” Kathy says. “It's like, ‘Gosh, you guys. Don't you understand history?’”
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In an early effort at consolidation, two schools were moved and joined into one, more than 100 years ago. A local teacher saved the school from demolition and is overseeing its restoration.
Today’s imagined, nostalgic view of life on the prairie may not match the reality. Kathy did not attend a country school. But her husband did and has shared his stories about the experience. “It was pretty tough for him,” she says. “I think because I did not attend a one-room school, I tend to romanticize it. I think it must have been so cool. And then I think … maybe not.”

Kathy Wilner is lately insisting that her days on the road in search of undiscovered schools are over. “My school project is really winding down," she says. “I won't travel anymore. I am really going to miss all those dusty gravel roads!” But she hopes to keep hearing from others in the field who need her help in cataloging their discoveries. Amy Bleier, an archaeologist with the State Historical Society, has heard it all before. “She keeps saying she's done. But she's not. She's been saying that for years.”

“Oh, gosh,” says the School Lady. “I'm never going to be done!”
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The School Lady at work.
(courtesy Kathy Wilner)
David Kidd is a photojournalist and storyteller for Governing. He can be reached at
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