The Country School House Project is an initiative by the State Historical Society.
Back in 2009, the theme of the Governor’s History Conference was education. People were asked to help document one-room schoolhouses across the state.
One woman has put so much effort into the project that she’s been dubbed “The School Lady.”
“I love history and I love North Dakota so you put it together and here we are,” said Kathy Wilner.
KX News met Wilner and her cousin Clinton Tweeten at Ingersoll School, about 11 miles north of Washburn.
This is the school that started it all for “The School Lady.”
In the past 12 years, she’s documented about 650, most of which she’s traveled from Bowdon to visit.
“I live in the middle of…not much,” she said. “So it’s kind of fun to go somewhere and do stuff!”
Wilner is passionate about what she does. But when it comes down to it, she considers herself a family historian. This [Ingersoll] school is a part of her family history. Her grandfather actually went to this school.
“My great grandfather donated the land,” Wilner said. “They were some of the first settlers that came into this area.”
Her great grandfather also helped find the financing to get the school built and a school board was formed.
Wilner’s cousin Clinton remembers his dad attending school board meetings and has learned quite a bit about Ingersoll School as well.
“It says so much about our forefathers and about their hardship, what they went through and sacrificed to make sure everybody had an education,” Tweeten said. “They stepped up and did a great job, I think.”
The school lasted until 1910 when there were too many kids and more schools were built in the surrounding townships.
Then it became a multi-purpose building, used as a community center, voting or as a church.
Like Tweeten, Wilner’s mother grew up nearby.
“She and her sister would come down here and mess around in the building when they were kids and get into trouble. But it was something that was always there, there were always stories,” Wilner said.
As the years have gone by, Wilner has heard many stories about many schools.
To properly document them, she learns about the buildings from top to bottom, including “what are the walls made of, what’s on the roof, what is the chimney look like or is there a chimney? Are there windows, is there glass? A lot of times there’s no glass.”
Each school in the system has photos to go along with it.
Many of them are taken by her, but a lot of help has come from others, too.
“I have met so many people on the phone to talk about their school. And that’s been just delightful. We have a conversation, I may never see them ever in my life. Some of these people I’ve met along the way I’ll never see again. But we’ve had wonderful conversations about old schools,” she said.
Wilner has visited just about everywhere she’d like to in the state, but that doesn’t mean her work is done.
At this point, the schools still out there are likely on farmsteads that she hasn’t been able to find.
Many of the schools that once existed no longer stand today but the hidden history that’s still out there can certainly be documented with photos and a little information.
With a love for history, her state, and one-room schoolhouses, Kathy Wilner is Someone You Should Know.
Ingersoll School was named after Robert Ingersoll, a lawyer, writer and orator during the time of Abraham Lincoln.