In Steele County’s not so distant history, children were taught by single women in rural one-room schoolhouses, bringing kids of all ages together for their daily lessons. But as transportation improved and kids could be bused into town, nearly 100 rural schools largely serving the county’s farm families were closed.
“Everyone has heard those stories of walking 5 miles in the snow, uphill both ways in order to get to school,” said Jerry Ganfield, the interim director of the Steele County Historical Society. “I really did walk uphill both ways.”
Despite a large population of Steele County having similar school experiences to Ganfield’s, many of the one-room country schoolhouse alumni in the area have been unable to visit the History Center to view the Country Schools: The Beating Heart of the Rural Community” exhibit currently on display.
People are still very afraid,” Ganfield said, explaining that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has drastically impacted the History Center’s foot traffic. “But so many people who have gone to these country schools are living in our care communities, and it’s really very difficult to bring those individuals here.”
Throughout the pandemic, most long-term care and assisted living facilities have been quarantined in some way, shape or form. For a long period of time, local facilities were closed off to outside visitors and many had their residents stay within their own living quarters to reduce exposure. Most if not all facilities have also suspended off campus trips indefinitely.
“In a past life, I was an activities director of a care center in Owatonna,” said MaryAnne Higgins, the SCHS volunteer, tour and events manager. “I know how difficult it was then to come up with activities for our residents. We had a lot of family events, large group activities, intergenerational activities with Montessori kids or students from the high school, and just a lot of outside activities to keep them involved in the community. And now you can’t do that, these people who have lived here their entire lives can’t engage with their communities. I cannot imagine how hard that is right now.”
Bringing her two worlds together, after speaking with area care centers, Higgins helped coordinate a virtual tour of the rural schools exhibit. Similar to some of the YouTube tours the SCHS put together in the spring for schools to share with their students, this particular tour was recorded and put onto DVDs to send out to the care communities.
“A lot of these places don’t have the access or capabilities for their residents to work on a laptop or device,” Higgins said. “By putting this on DVDs, we are giving more access to more people.”
Higgins, Ganfield and SCHS volunteer Audrey Parker narrated the tour, showcasing different areas of the exhibit — including the one-room schoolhouse in the Village of Yesteryear. Ganfield said they covered a day in the life of a teacher, transportation, different requirements for students and a variety of other drastic changes between then and now when it came to education. They also discuss the 96 different country schools that once occupied Steele County.
Aside from providing access to the exhibit to those in long-term care and assisted living facilities, Ganfield said they are constantly working on other ways to help invite visitors into the History Center.
“We want the public to know what we’re trying to do and about life in Steele County and our history,” Ganfield said, noting that the large facility allows for ample safe social distancing. “We hope people will come back soon. A lot of work goes into putting these exhibits together.”
Higgins said that more than 200 volunteer hours go into building and putting together an exhibit at the History Center, not including the laborious amount of time put into research prior to the beginning of construction.
“These people dreamt this all up and put it together to make it happen,” Higgins said. “That’s what we do here, we’re always dreaming up new things.”
Other exhibits currently set up at the History Center include American Legion: A Powerful Factor for Good and a poster exhibit on the 19th Amendment from the Smithsonian Institute.