• Indian River History

Memories of Old Country Schools

One hundred years ago children named Passino, Lapeer, Griswold, Wakeford, Hungerford, Schoolcraft, Galbraith, Beebe and Richards studied reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, language, grammar, history, physiology, civil government and spelling at the old Beebe School near Afton.

The students are gone today and the school building is now a home, but some of the memories remain in an old teacher's grade book which Will Pekrul salavaged after the school closed.

When schools were first founded in northern Michigan, several small schools dotted the Cheboygan County countryside. Among them were the Beebe School on the corner of Afton and Beebe School Roads, Koehler School #1 which eventually became the Afton School on Quarry Road, Koehler School #2 by Parrott's Point, the Montgomery School on Montgomery Road, and the Gorbutt School on M-33.

Eventually all of those schools consolidated into the large two-Afton School on Quarry Road. Later, the Afton school became part of the Inland Lakes School System.

Back in the early 1960s, a few years before the old Afton School burned down, a man bought the building and was going to have some work done it. Pekrul worked in the heating business at the time and was called to come and take a look at the building. While there, he found the old school book and some old pictures. The man was going to throw out the items, but said Pekrul could have them if he wanted them.

The book is the teacher's grading book and includes information about the Beebe School from the fall of 1898 through the spring of 1904. Beyond the students and their grades, the book also offers insight into how small country schools operated at the turn of the century.

In 1898, the school had 19 students, when they all showed up. Showing up for school was something of a hit and miss proposition in those days. There were no school buses so students got to and from school the best way they could, which for most meant a long walk.
Josephine Hanel attended the Afton School, but says her mother, Edith O'Connor, attended the Beebe School. Hanel's mother said she and her siblings walked to school in the fall and continued going to school until the weather got too bad in the winter. Then, either the school closed, or if it was open some of the children didn't attend, until spring.

In the teachers book, the teacher often made notes that talked about students, particularly the younger ones, coming to school only on an irregular basis.

The old country schools apparently changed teachers on quite a regular basis. Nine different teachers are listed over the years covered in the Beebe School teaching book. At the end of each semester, the teacher would make notes in the book in a section titled "Teacher's Report to Successor." In the report, the teacher talked about the progress of individual students and needs of the school.

According to the report filed by Dormer in 1901, Beatrice Wakeford had completed the Third Reader and Roy Wakeford was ready to begin the Prince's Arithmetic book.

Apparently the district also needed a new school building in 1901. According to the report, "The most important thing needed in this district is a "school-house." It would be an easy matter for the teachers to raise money and obtain a library, which is very much needed, if there was a building to keep it in, but it would be useless to try to keep one in a building which anyone can enter at any time."

Another need the school had in 1902 was new maps. Apparently that need was met. Bruce and Shirley Blanchard bought the old Beebe School building in the early 1970s and converted it into a house. The Blanchards say the building wasn't much more than a shell when they bought it, but Bruce had always had it in his mind that he would like to renovate an old school house.

According to the Blanchards, they didn't find much left in the building when they bought it, but among the things they found were some old maps, the kind that were in a roll above the blackboard. Bruce says he also found some old ink well bottles buried in the yard out behind the house. He also found an old water pail with a spigot in its side.

The Blanchards say its not uncommon for people to drive slowly past the house as though they're looking to make sure they're at the site of the old school. Bruce, whose family background in the area goes back generations, enjoys local history. He says he's considered putting up some type of sign telling a little bit about the history of the site and the old Beebe School.

Hanel, who is now in her 80s, is writing her memoirs. Although she didn't go to the Beebe School, she went to its successor, the Afton School. When the Beebe School and the other four schools combined, they became what was called the Afton Agricultural School. Eventually, that school was absorbed by Inland Lakes, although technically Inland Lakes consolidated with the Afton School because the Afton School was already a pre-existing consolidated school.

When Hanel attended the Afton School, it only went up to the eighth grade, although it later went to tenth grade. Near the end of eighth grade, students came into Indian River to take a state exam, kind of that era's version of the MEAP or ACT. "That was a big day in our lives," Hanel recalls. After a three or four week wait, students found out whether or not they'd passed the exam. If they passed, they took another trip, this time to Cheboygan to receive a diploma from the superintendent of schools for Cheboygan County.

Although the Afton School did eventually get to the point where it went all the way to the tenth grade, for most of the time if a student wanted to go to school past eighth grade they either had to go to Onaway, Cheboygan or Petoskey. There were no buses to those schools. Students either moved into town and lived with someone or found a way to and from school. Hanel says she was fortunate in that her parents had a car and valued education. Not only did they make a way for their children to go to school, they let two other boys from the area ride to school with them.

As she writes her memoirs, Hanel says she has wonderful memories of the old country school. "It just seemed like school was more interesting. I don't know what kids who go to school now will remember about the school."

The Afton School had two classrooms, the "big room" for the older kids and the "little room" for the younger kids. Hanel says she liked being in class with kids from older grades because she could kind of pick things up.

Pekrul enjoys the old teacher's book because it offers insight into life at that time. "I've been reading Little House on the Prairie. There are a lot similar things in there. That's the way people lived back then."