Schoolhouse migrates to Norway
A simple schoolhouse journeys to Norway
Cynthia Elyce Rubin
After more than eight decades of serving Norwegian immigrants on the South Dakota prairie, a one-room country schoolhouse built in 1883 begins a new life in Norway.
This is a personal story. It begins in 2000 when Richard Christopher of Letcher, Sanborn County, about 22 miles northwest of Mitchell, read my query in a publication seeking information about an obscure Norwegian-American photographer, O.S. Leeland, who had operated portrait studios in nearby Mount Vernon and Mitchell, S.D.
The correspondence that ensued between Christopher and me, at the time a New York City curator and writer who had collected early real photo postcards by Leeland, ended with a visit when I attended Memorial Day services at Trinity Lutheran Church and cemetery. At that time, I was amazed to find a one-room school in Christopher’s backyard.
Christopher loved the school that he had attended through the eighth grade. When the Elliott township school district was consolidated in 1968, Leet School, like so much in rural America, became a useless anachronism. Building and contents were sold at auction. In an immediate and direct act of grassroots historic preservation, Christopher paid $115 for the 85-year-old building and $64.50 for much of the contents. Lifted and carried by a local haystack mover, the old structure was placed on a new foundation in Christopher’s yard. He then began collecting furnishings: textbooks, pens and steel pen nibs, glass ink pots, a cast-iron coal stove, water cooler, reverse paintings on glass, lanterns, an old tea kettle to set on the stove, Prang watercolors, maps, and the list goes on.
In the 1880s, the Norwegian immigrants who homesteaded the 160-acre land claims in Letcher valued education. Hardanger native Jens Christopher, Richard Christopher’s great-grandfather, wanted a centralized school for the neighbor children. After a community school bond measure failed to pass, Jens joined with early postmaster Lorenzo W. “John” Leet and several neighbors who made plans to build a school, naming it for John Leet because it was close to the Leet farm. He was elected first Director of the Elliott School Township in the spring of 1884. By then, Leet School had already been built and was used for early Trinity Lutheran Church services and as a polling place and community center where pie socials, school programs, community dinners, and temperance meetings were held.
Mrs. Florence Uhre, who taught at Leet School, wrote: “My great uncle was Sunday School Superintendent. This was our church for the pioneers. When they had a funeral the teacher would wash the blackboard and send the children out to play. They would put the casket across two of the double desks. When the service was over, the children would come in and proceed with their classes.
“My father, Halver Boe, attended Leet School as well as a number of the dads of my pupils. Martin (husband) and I went there as well as all three of our daughters. I taught there four years and never once had to discipline any of the children. They were the best years of my 30-year career.”
In June 2001 when I visited the Norwegian Emigrant Museum, now the Migration Museum, in Hamar, I learned from museum director Knut Djupedal that there was only one building he could not locate for the open-air museum. Displays included a granary from Wisconsin, the Lindahl Corn Crib from Coon Valley, Wis., the Saquitne Barn from Highland, Iowa, and a North Dakota cabin built for pastor Johannes Hellestvedt. The Oak Ridge Church from Houston, Minnesota, was in storage at the time, soon to be erected. But there was one building missing.
“What is that?” I asked.
“A one-room school,” he responded.
“Oh, I know where there’s one.”
“No, a Norwegian community’s one-room school.”
“I know where there is one.”
When I returned home, I wrote to Christopher. The rest is history, so they say. Djupedal visited the school several times. A contract was signed.
Before the dismantling of the school in 2007, Christopher hosted an open house. I attended and watched as both shiny new cars and mud-spattered pickups arrived. More than 125 people came, representing many states. Among the special guests were two Leet School teachers and six of Christopher’s fellow students from 1945 to 1953, some of whom had not seen each other for 65 years. There were descendants of John Leet and eight of Jens Christopher’s great-grandchildren, two of them retired Lutheran ministers.
“There comes a time when you should begin folding away your tents,” Christopher mused. No one in the family cared about the schoolhouse the way he did, and like any devoted parent, he wanted to protect it. Like a parting gift for a beloved child and in tribute to an ancestral land he had never visited, Christopher preened Leet School to show off its Sunday best. With customary seamless attention to detail, he asked his sister-in-law Mary to sew new curtains from a specially chosen sunny yellow dotted-Swiss fabric. He had the rusted stove sandblasted to its original surface and then blackened it. He claims he did some washing, a little dusting, and “moved the broom,” then carried out everything that he deemed extraneous for a typical functioning rural schoolhouse. Looking around the room’s gussied-up interior, Richard admitted that in the old days the school would have been “a little less pretty and a lot less cute.”
Workers painstakingly deconstructed the school, board by board, taking two weeks to dismantle and pack the building into a 40-foot container. A truck headed to Kansas City, and some six weeks later the school had arrived safely in Hamar.
This year, after eight years of waiting, Christopher traveled to Norway for the Leet School opening. Djupedal explained that in honor of the man who saved the school, it would henceforth be named the Leet-Christopher School. The local Ottestad school band played and marched to the school on the museum grounds as everyone followed. Christopher rang the school bell and cut the ribbon, then we all entered the school. People quickly took their places at desks while Christopher sat at the school’s organ and played traditional school songs. The Norwegian audience enthusiastically sang along to “School Days” and “Home on the Range.”
The re-named Leet-Christopher School no longer teaches “reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic” on this side of the Atlantic. However, it is not done educating. It will surely instruct timeless lessons in Norway, including self-reliance, stewardship of the land, and love of homeland.
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 6, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.