Shirley Borchardt Brown and “Radio” Ron Stelse talk about the project they’ve spent the last two years on with a rhythm and pace that can only mean they’re passionate about it. They build off each other, they jump backward and forward in time, they laugh and they tell stories.
Brown and Stelse have spent the last two years researching and planning for “Country Bells,” a program to celebrate and remember the one-room schools of Jefferson County.
The two are on the planning committee for the event which will be held July 27 in the Fort Atkinson High School auditorium from noon to 4 p.m.
Stelse is eager to point out the auditorium stage is bigger than the schools he attended as a child.
Through interviews, research and legwork, the two of them have put together the most comprehensive history of Jefferson County’s one-room schools in existence.
All the work is worth it because it preserves an important piece of Wisconsin and American history before it disappears forever.
“This is really the last time that we can sit down with live students talking about an oral history of going to a country school all under one roof,” Stelse said. “It’s happy and sad at the same time. It’s bittersweet.”
Previously, the only source of information was a book compiled by the Hoard Historical Museum. Now, all anyone would want to learn about Jefferson County’s 132 country schools is in binders cluttering Brown’s dining room table, front porch, floor and basement.
The binders are organized by school and include everything from class photos, daily lesson plans, receipts, bills and grade books.
Brown even has the original grade book from her time at Joeville School.
She laughed as she read the teacher’s notes about her that included less than flattering comments about her grade school work ethic.
“Doesn’t try hard enough,” the notes read. “Doesn’t complete her work.”
Since her time in school, Brown apparently has broken her bad habits because she’s worked hard at making sure the history she assembles is accurate and as complete as possible.
She double- and triple-checked every fact she found. She traveled up and down the county looking for old photos and documents from the schools. She spent hours scrolling through microfilm of old newspapers.
Yet, she still frets about getting things wrong. She said she is worried the locations are off or she’s misplacing people or photos.
But even if a school was placed in the wrong part of town, or a name is wrong, Brown and Stelse believe they succeeded in capturing the heart of country schools and why they were so important.
“I think one of the differences that was treasured about a country school was that you were a family,” Stelse said. “That school tied the rest of the agricultural community together really close knit. And that was proven when it closed because it was like that’s gone.”
The importance of that community and what it meant to lose it is why the Country Bells program will include an open microphone segment in which former students can stand up and share their stories.
The program also will include songs that would have been sung in the schools, a presentation by Stelse on the history of country schools from 1660-1960 and a re-enactment of a day in a country school.
The Country Bells program is meant to teach people about the importance of community and what it was like to attend a one-room school.
The program still is looking for five volunteers for the July 27 event. If interested, contact Ron Stelse at email@example.com.