Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Wisconsin Rural School Survey Records, 1931-1933 - Image Gallery Essay

Wisconsin Rural School Survey Records, 1931-1933 - Image Gallery Essay | Wisconsin Historical Society
Battle Creek School

Students of the Battle Creek School, Joint District No. 4, have gathered outside the school building for their picture. View the original source document: WHI 103021

In 1930 Joseph Schafer, Superintendent of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, designed a project to gather images and essays that depict rural Wisconsin life in the 1930s. Shafer's vision was that this collection could prove "…invaluable to the historian as a means of interpreting the rural life of the present." Working with the University of Wisconsin School of Education and the College of Agriculture (now the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences), Schafer developed project guidelines and asked rural schoolteachers to submit photographs for the collection. The photographs were to include the school building and assembled pupils, the pupils at work and play, a distinctive type of pupil (inventor, artist, 4-H champion etc.), the homes of pupils and teachers, the places where pupils travel, and many additional categories. He also requested a written history and description from each school, along with drawings and photographs of one student's home farm. The instructions were distributed to rural teachers via the Wisconsin Journal of Education during the 1930-1931 school year.

EnlargePupils of the Northey School, District No. 7, pose with their parents at a Halloween "Hard-time" party at the school.

Hard-Time Party

Pupils of the Northey School, District No. 7, pose with their parents at a Halloween "Hard-time" party at the school. View the original source document: WHI 101575

The request was extensive and a daunting prospect for most rural teachers. The response was limited, with only a few dozen submissions. Despite the low percentage of schools participating, the assembled archive comprises over 800 images and essays. It does indeed provide an interesting look at rural life in Wisconsin in the early 1930's. Schools from the south shore of Lake Superior to those in counties bordering Illinois are represented, with buildings ranging from the simplest of small wood frame structures to substantial brick or stucco buildings with stylish architectural details.

EnlargeEarl Woodbury, age 14, a student at Cloverland School, poses with a sheep on his home farm.

Earl Woodbury

Earl Woodbury, age 14, a student at Cloverland School, poses with a sheep on his home farm. View the original source document: WHI 102073

One obvious conclusion drawn from exploring the collection is that each school was the focus of a close community. School board members are photographed at their homes and on their farms; families attend school picnics together. The students of Northey School, Town of Oakland, Jefferson County, hosted a Halloween "Hard-Time" party for their parents. The children and their parents appear to be having a great time, despite their own economic difficulties.

The majority of the images are snapshots of the pupils themselves, with the teacher's written comments on the back. Earl Woodbury, a student of Cleveland School, Town of Avon, was photographed with one of his shorn sheep. Earl was described as "Winner of several prizes at Rusk County Fair, sheep. Good student. Live wire."

Although not as comprehensive as Superintendent Schafer intended, the Wisconsin Rural School Survey Records provide a good look at rural life in the state. They capture the Wisconsin landscape, farms, and living conditions even in photographs where those things are not the primary subjects. Questions naturally arise about the lives of these pupils during the remainder of the Great Depression, through World War II and into the Space Age. Unfortunately, the project does not provide answers to those questions, only clues.

Elda Strahm holding array of ribbons from various fairs

Elda Strahm

Elda Strahm holding array of ribbons from various fairs View the original source document: WHI 101100

The life of one of the pupils featured in the collection, Elda Strahm, did again intersect with the Wisconsin Historical Society, in 2005. Over 70 years earlier her teacher, Selma Eidsmoe, at Farmer's Grove School, Town of York and New Glarus (Green County) described Elda as "A very industrious, ambitious, and energetic student." She submitted several snapshots, including one of Elda holding her impressive array of ribbons from various fairs.

Elda Strahm Schiesser (1918-2017) went on to become not only a noted quilter but also, as described in a tribute by the American Folklore Society, "a prominent historian of New Glarus, Wisconsin and a scholar of Swiss American Culture." Accompanied by her daughter, Linda Schiesser, Elda presented her beautiful quilt (Object No. 2005.115.1) to the Wisconsin Historical Museum in 2005.  Read the Historical Essay describing the quilt and view a color photograph.

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