STERLING – From Kempsterville School across the Rock River to Talbott School near Penrose, every rural schoolhouse that once dotted the Whiteside County landscape now has a documented history.
Carolyn Duncan of Sterling and Sandra Miller of Rock Falls are editors of Whiteside County Genealogists “History of Whiteside County, Illinois Rural Schools.”
The 700-page collection uses stories, pictures and everyday academic material to highlight the history of one- and two-room schoolhouses, which were the beacons of rural life from the 1840s until they started to consolidate in the 1950s.
Most building are long gone. Some have been converted into homes. Some sit empty. One now is a corn crib.
Duncan, 75, is the society’s secretary, and Miller, 73, is its treasurer. It took 6 long years, but they didn’t do the work by themselves. Don Mulnix. of Rock Falls and later Morrison, started out as the lead editor; he died June 19, 2018, at the age of 73.
“His feeling was, and then we agreed with him, the ones that were left that are not houses, these schools all were disappearing,” Miller said. “We wanted to do a history before these schools disappear, [and before] the people who attended these schools pass away.”
The society conducted about 300 interviews with former students and teachers, most of which were done by Della Boehmke. Old newspapers were scoured, as were plat maps and land records. Teacher journals were used to tell some tales.
Members were put in charge of certain townships, and submitted their information to Mulnix.
The book almost didn’t get made: Mulnix left behind a password-protected computer. Fred South of the Prophetstown Historical Society broke the code.
“He had to go through everything on the computer, because it wasn’t in any order,” Miller said. “Don knew his order and his files, and we didn’t.
“If Fred would not have taken it over for us, it would not have come to be.”
Some schools would close and reopen, depending on the ebb and flow of students.
Some schools went through name and address changes over the years, others were razed and built nearby. Some were built on skids and moved, and one, along the bottoms of the bluff east of the Mississippi River near Fulton, was built on stilts in a bog, and was moved to firmer ground when the need arose.
One school moved from Lee to Whiteside County.
“The teacher went to go to school to start the day, and the school wasn’t there,” Miller said. “She backtracked with her horse and buggy, and there was the school, lo and behold, inside Whiteside County.”
Swan Lake in Montmorency Township, south of Rock Falls, was one of the last one-room buildings built, and the first to close. Dorothy Jacobs, 103, taught at Swan Lake, and later was Duncan’s second-grade teacher at the former Lincoln School building in Sterling.
The current school’s L-shape was designed around the footprint of the old school, which was razed in 1951.
The book includes questions from a from a 1935 graduation test. What is 72% of 32.8? What is the square of 97, cube of 15 and square root of 6,241? In sentences of two, tell what occurred in each of these years: 1803, 1807, 1820, 1832, 1846-48 and 1873.
“When they graduated from eighth grade, they all had to go to Morrison for their graduation,” Duncan said. “For a lot of them, that was the end of their schooling. The tests they had to take to pass, I couldn’t do it, and probably 90% of the kids in high school today could not do it.”
This is the third book published by Whiteside County Genealogists. The other two are “Whiteside County, Illinois History & Families,” which focuses on all aspects of the county’s history from 1839 to 2013, and “Whiteside County Illinois Veterans of the Rebellion,” a book on the Civil War.
To buy a copy
“The History of Whiteside County, Illinois Rural Schools”contains nearly 700 pages of history and photographs on more than 200 country schools throughout the county’s 22 townships.
Editors Sandra Miller and Carolyn Duncan will sell copies from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Feb. 22 at Sterling Public Library, 102 W. Third St. They also are available at the Twin City Farmers Market, 106 Ave. A in Sterling, which is open from 8 a.m. to noon Saturday.
The cost is $38; postage, if needed, is $5 more.
Call Miller, 815-625-0187, or Duncan, 815-625-7878, to order, or for more information.