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Whelan School gives modern kids taste of 1908 one-room school days

Oct. 9, 2008

Wearing a pinafore and toting a lunch pail, second-grader Madison Cummings nervously paused at the entrance to Whelan School, an A-shaped, one-room Cream City brick schoolhouse in Franklin’s Lions Legend Park.

Inside awaited a trip back to the school days of 1908. Instead of computers and Smart Boards, this classroom featured fountain pens and ink wells, slate boards, a pump organ and a potbelly stove.

“Things were a lot different then,” Madison said.

A moment later, historical re-enactors Barbara Pforr and Luanne Burdick greeted Cummings and her fellow students from Greenfield School District’s Elm Dale Elementary outside Whelan School. Dressed in ankle-length black skirts, white high-necked blouses and sensible shoes courtesy of area resale shops, they looked like early 20th-century school marms.

The two retired teachers, members of the Franklin Historical Society, have been giving schoolchildren a glimpse into the past since May 2007. For $2 per student, Whelan School is catching on as an entertaining, yet educational field trip.

The school served students in grades one through eight until 55 years ago, when the former Ben Franklin Elementary School opened in Franklin. In the late 1960s, the Historical Society purchased the old schoolhouse and had it moved to the park. The school was named after Patrick Whelan, who owned the land at Highway 100 and Puetz Road, where the schoolhouse was originally built.

“We thought, we’ve got such a beautiful building here, why not take advantage of the opportunity,” Pforr recalled.

Hands-on history lesson

The school-day agenda included reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, working math problems on slates, creating art and singing such songs as “America the Beautiful.” Simple games such as the ring toss were featured at recess.

Burdick also read aloud biographical sketches of students who had attended the school and told the kids about life 100 years ago.

Theodore Roosevelt was president; Henry Ford was just beginning to sell his horseless carriages. Oklahoma had recently become a state, and the Crayola Co. introduced a new artistic device in eight colors — the crayon.

“They spend a regular day in 1908 with slate boards and McGuffey (beginning-to read) Readers,” Burdick said. “The only differences are that they have the experience compressed into four hours, and we only have one grade level, as opposed to the eight they had back then.”

The re-enactment also includes visits to Lions Park’s other historical buildings: Franklin Town Hall, the Sheehan-Godsell Log Cabin and St. Peter’s Chapel. Pforr’s husband, Dale Pforr, sometimes plays a turn-of-the-century town chairman during the tours.

Many differences noted

Barbara Pforr said the program has grown in popularity largely because of a fascination with the past.

“We want them to see the historical changes in education between (1908) and now,” she said.

Those differences are considerable. For example, the school year did not start until fall harvest was done.

“The crops had to be brought in,” Pforr said. “Kids also had a lot of ailments back then. They might be out of school a month and have to come back and blend in again.”

Farm kids trudged great distances through snowstorms to attend Whelan School, Burdick told the children. They gathered wood early in the morning to feed the school’s potbelly stove. A trip to the outhouse often meant tearing a page out of a catalogue.

Elm Dale teacher Betsy Bowen said her class will follow up their visit to Whelan School with more study of the history of the area.

“This is kind of a start. Now we’ll go back and read about schools back then, and they’ll write about their experience,” Bowen said.

John Neville can be reached at (262) 446-6609.

TIME LINE

1878

Whelan School is built

1953

Whelan School closes

1969

Whelan School moves to Lions Legend Park

2007

re-enactors open schoolhouse for school groups

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