The last country school
Story and photo by Clarke Davis
There are six school districts in Jefferson County. There used to be an even 100.
Those country schools were spaced so that a couple’s children didn’t have much over two miles to walk to get to school.
The last one-room school to close was Nichols School in 1965. The building still stands on the side of Labette Road and is located midway between Valley Falls and Nortonville. The school dates back to 1859 and the remaining building served the district for 65 years.
Phil Dunn, Valley Falls, went to grades 1 through 8 at Nichols before entering high school in Valley Falls.
“There were three school buses that came within a mile of our farm and I picked the one that came past our lane,” he said. That one was Valley Falls as opposed to Nortonville or Effingham.
Dunn, soon to be 65, left a class with four students and entered a freshman class of 55. That class would graduate in 1967. His sister, Gail Jepson, was two years younger and left the same year to enter seventh grade at Valley Falls.
It’s been 50 years since the school bell called children to class in this building and many more years since chalk was applied to the blackboards in the other 99 country schools.
Dunn said a coal furnace was in the basement at Nichols, but was replaced at one point with a propane heating stove. He recalled wrapping potatoes in tinfoil and heating them in the coal ashes for a hot meal.
The building has the appearance of being aged and unkept. Gone are the well pump and the girls’ and boys’ outhouses. Gone are the merry-go-round and swings and slide.
“This was before baggies when we used wax paper to wrap our sandwiches,” Phil said. “We then used the wax paper to sit on when we came down the slide. It made for a faster trip.”
A 15-gallon crock with a spigot held water and each child had their own drinking cup.
When recess time came, all the children were released and Dunn said they all played together.
“The big kids would push the little kids on the merry-go-round or we’d play ball or something,” he said.
The teacher would rely on one of the older boys to rid the building of an occasional snake or run to fetch help if someone got injured.
Betty Jane Wilson, 92, president of the Valley Falls Historical Society, also attended Nichols school among others in the vicinity. A few desks from the school are now in the society’s museum. Betty Jane was in the eighth grade when local retired teacher Barbara Tosh entered first grade.
Tosh was the last teacher at Nichols when it closed. She taught at Nichols four years. It was the school she started in as a first-grader, but her family moved and she left after the fourth grade to attend school at Nortonville and then on to college.
“When I’d leave home I’d stop and pick up students on the way to school. When I arrived I had half my students with me,” she said.
The railroad track ran by not far from the school and she said back in the ’30s and ’40s the tramps that followed the tracks would come to the school at night and the teacher would find them sleeping in the basement when she went to tend the furnace. By the time Barbara was teaching there the hobo days were long gone.
Because it was the last country school to close following unification, the Kansas City Star did a feature on it and its nine students in 1964. The headline captured the school’s nickname, “ ’Possum Trot.”
By that time four of the pupils were Schneiders, who had been preceded by seven siblings, along with two Uhlers, a Dunn, Page, and Bond.
After statewide school unification a school had to have 10 students to receive state aid, so the last year the parents had to pay extra in taxes to support No. 11. There was a day when Nichols had 70 pupils.
The Star feature pictured the children in the school and at recess along with the board president Celestine Schneider and county school superintendent Ira Brammel.
At left are the names of all 100 schools that once graced the countryside in Jefferson County.
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