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Watonwan County, MN
Genealogy and History


History of Cottonwood and Watonwan Counties Minnesota, Volume I, Illustrated, by John A. Brown; B. F. Bowen & Co. (1916) Chapter IX; transcribed by Patricia Roma Stout

The pride and glory of our republic during the last four score years, at least, has been its free public schools. The organizers of the great Northwest Territory inserted a clause in the articles of that part of its Constitution, demanding that certain lands be set apart for school purposes. Every part of what was originally the Northwest Territory, including Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota, utilized these provisions in the formation of their separate governments, as one by one these states and territories were cut off from the original territory. It was provided that schools should be provided for all classes, without money or price--the lands being taxed for the maintenance of such free schools.


The following scheme shows the elements of the public school system in Minnesota:

District schools are divided into common, independent and special schools, graded and ungraded. Then we have the state rural schools, the state semi-graded schools, the consolidated rural schools, the state graded schools, the state high schools, normal schools and, finally, the university.

A common school district is controlled by a board of three members; independent and special districts have their own superintendents, and in the main are not subject to the county superintendents.

The state graded schools and state high schools are subject to a board of five members: The president of the State University, the superintendent of education and president of the normal school board are ex-officio members; a city superintendent or high school principal and a fifth member is appointed by the governor.

The normal schools are controlled by a board of nine members; five of these are resident directors; three are appointed for the state at large, and one, the superintendent of education, serves ex-officio.

The university is controlled by a board of twelve regents; the governor, the president of the University and the superintendent of education are all ex-officio members, and nine are appointed by the governor.

The public schools are supported by a direct tax upon the property of the school district, by a county one-mill tax, by a state mill tax, and by the income from the permanent school fund, together with small fines that are credited to this fund.

In addition to these funds, the state of Minnesota distributes annually (provided they attain a prescribed standard of excellence), $150, $100 or $75 to each rural school; $300 to each semi graded school of two or three departments; $1,500 or $750 to consolidated rural schools; also, $750 to each graded school of four or more departments, and $2,200 to each high school that admits all qualified students free of tuition.


To encourage the establishment and maintenance of school libraries the Legislature has appropriated $21,500 annually. The state will aid any school district towards the purchase of a library to the amount of twenty dollars on the first order for each school building, and ten dollars annually thereafter, provided the district raises a like amount and selects the books from the list prepared by the state library board, which is composed of the state superintendent of education and the high school board.


Teacher’s certificates are issued by the superintendent of education upon examination or upon the endorsement of a university or college diploma, or a diploma from a state normal school.

Examinations for common school certificates are given at one or more places in the county in February and in August, under the direction of the county superintendent. All manuscript for teacher’s certificates is examined and marked under the direction of the superintendent of education.


Whereas, by an act of Congress of the United States, approved on February 26, 1857, entitled "An act to enable the people of Minnesota Territory to form a constitution and state government and for the admission of such state into the Union," sections numbered 16 and 36 in every township of the public lands of the state were granted to the said state of Minnesota for the use of schools.

From time to time these school lands were sold to actual settlers on long time at good rate of interest and the proceeds placed in the state treasury to be paid out for public school purposes, nothing only the interest being allowed to be used, hence the state has a perpetual school fund which will ever give its educational facilities an advantage over many other states, where only the sixteenth section was set apart for school purposes. In Watonwan county there are now more than three hundred farms, which were originally school lands.

In 1875 there were thirty-five organized school districts in Watonwan county, of which twenty-six were in session and located as follows: Long Lake, three; South Branch, three; Antrim, three; Fieldon, three; Odin, two; Rosendale, three; Madelia, two; Riverdale, two; St. James, three; Adrian, one. The number of scholars enrolled in the summer schools were six hundred and seventy-six.


The earliest schools in the county were at Madelia settlement. Credit for the high standard of efficiency of the Madelia schools belongs to no one more than to the present superintendent, J. C. Straely. Although having served in this capacity only two years, yet during this time the standard of the schools has been raised at least twenty-five per cent. Naturally he has not accomplished this mark alone, as he has been ably assisted by an efficient corps of teachers and an appreciative school board.

The old building, which was constructed of brick was built in 1892, at a cost of thirty thousand dollars. In time, this building became too small to accommodate the increased attendance and the growing needs of the times. Consequently, these facts led to the construction of a new brick structure in 1914, at a cost of forty-three thousand dollars. The building is thoroughly modern in every respect and is used exclusively by the high school. The enrollment of the entire school in the spring of 1916 was four hundred and thirty. That of the high school was one hundred and seventy-two. Nineteen teachers were employed.


When a stranger appears in St. James and inquires about the most important institution in the city he immediately receives the answer, "the public schools." The city has one of the best school systems in the state and doubtless the best in this section. No one deserves more credit for this than the present, but retiring, superintendent, Prof. J. C. Davies. However, he gladly shares the credit for this high standard of efficiency with his able corps of teachers, and especially with Professor Young, the present, but retiring, principal of the high school and to whom the state high school inspector gave credit as being one of three best high school principals in the state of Minnesota. With the leadership of such men as these at the head of a school system and aided by a helpful and appreciative school board, it is no wonder that the schools have risen to such a high point of efficiency.

The city school was organized in 1871, the first building being out by the lake. As time advanced this building was outgrown. A new site was selected nearer the center of the town, it being the one on which the high school building now stands. A brick building was constructed, which was thought to be ample for all time. But the folly of this idea has long since been seen, as already two large additions have been made. The first addition was in 1901 and the last one just recently completed, at a cost of forty-thousand dollars. With the last addition the school has a complete and modern building and an assembly room that has few equals.

The high school was organized in 1892 and the first graduating class was in 1896, a class many times smaller than that of 1916, which was composed of forty-six members. There are four different courses and perhaps more. They consist of science, language, commercial and industrial arts. The latter course includes complete instruction in domestic science, manual training and agriculture. In the language course, four different languages are offered as follows: Norwegian, Swedish, German and Latin.

The old Northside school building stood near where the Minneapolis & St. Louis depot now stands. With the coming of the railroad a new site was necessary. Mr. M. K. Armstrong, a wealthy landowner and public spirited man, arose to the occasion and donated the site of the present Northside building which bears his name. This building was constructed in 1902, costing twenty-two thousand dollars, fully equipped. In the sixth, seventh and eighth grades the departmental system is used with decided success.

The corps of teachers numbers twenty-six, with a total school enrollment of nearly six hundred and seventy-five. The members of the school board are as follow: President, J. K. Sonnesyn; secretary, L. E. Chambard; treasurer, Fred Church; W. S. Manning, Marion Clark and A. M. Hanson. The board has succeeded in filling all the vacancies for the coming year. Prof. J. J. Skinner becomes the new superintendent and Mr. Keen Young, the principal.


In I882 the school of the village of St. James employed two teachers, with a total enrollment of one hundred and eighty-two; in 1882 there were three teachers and two hundred and two pupils enrolled; in 1890 there were fifteen teachers and five hundred and twenty-five pupils enrolled.


In 1890 the superintendent of the schools in this county gave the following: Pupils entitled to apportionment, eight hundred and eighty-six; not so entitled, four hundred and thirty-nine; total enrolled, thirteen hundred and nine. Average length of school year, five and eight-tenths months per year; teachers employed fifty-eight; average wages paid, $32.07 for men and $27.94 for women; number of districts of common schools, forty-eight; total school houses, forty-five; cash on hand, $6,021 ; salary of school superintendent, $48o. The superintendent made sixty-two school visits that year. Rate of taxation for schools, one and fifteen-hundredths mills on the dollar.


The first schools in Rosendale township were taught in 1869-70. Henry C. Sergent taught in the winter in I869, at the house of George Knudtson. His sister, Hellen Adell Sergent (now wife of E. Z. Rasey of St. James), taught the following summer in a "spare room" of her father's house. She had an attendance of about twenty pupils, and received for her wages either eighteen or twenty dollars per month. Later, she attended the State Normal school at Mankato and received the appointment of county school superintendent, soon after the office was created in Minnesota. She was examined for her qualifications by State Superintendent H. B. Wilson, at St. Paul. At the hands of the county commissioners she was made Watonwan county's first woman superintendent, and also has the distinction of being the first woman in Minnesota to hold such an office. She was a teacher at St. James for two years after the first two-story school house was completed. She had sixty pupils and taught an interesting and most highly appreciated school in what is now the city of St. James.


The present building is a two story frame structure constructed in 1902 at a cost of two thousand four hundred and fifty dollars. The school has two teachers and an enrollment of about sixty-eight.


The school building is located in the southwestern part of town and is surrounded by a beautiful playground. No high school work is offered, but thorough instruction is given in all the grades by two competent teachers. The building consists of a two-room brick structure erected in 1906 at a cost of three thousand dollars. The enrollment averages about one hundred.


Under the able leadership of Principal William T. Weld, the school has made great strides toward educational efficiency. The school exhibit of 1916 attracted the attention not only of patrons and friends, but of outsiders as well. Special mention should be made of the sewing and agricultural exhibits, which were excellent.

The school and site are estimated at seven thousand dollars. The building, which was constructed in 1912, is being remodeled to meet the growing needs of the school and community. Three teachers are employed. The enrollment for the past year was ninety-six.


In 1901 a two-story frame building was erected at a cost of two thousand dollars. The school board employs two teachers who serve the needs of about fifty school children. The school building was constructed with a two-fold idea. First as a place of instruction; second, as a social center. The latter idea has been carried out conclusively, as is evidenced by the many gatherings of all kinds held at this building.


The village of Butterfield supports a fine modern school house, costing fourteen thousand dollars. It was erected in 1898 and is a handsome brick structure. Five teachers are employed in these schools and the enrollment is over one hundred and fifty.


The following facts have been extracted from the county school superintendent's report of July, 1915, which is the last completed report to the state:

There were on that date sixty-one districts in Watonwan county, of the rural and semi-graded class. Nine months were then being taught each year in graded and semi-graded schools of this county and the, strictly speaking, country districts had only seven months, as a rule. The following shows the districts and the number of pupils in each, as per enrollment:

District No. Pupils   District No. Pupils   District No. Pupils
District No. 1 40   District No. 22 38   District No. 41 14
District No. 3 15   District No. 23 32   District No. 42 20
District No. 4 26   District No. 24 46   District No. 43 47
District No. 5 4   District No. 25 21   District No. 44 19
District No. 6 32   District No. 26 7   District No. 45 10
District No. 7 18   District No. 27 23   District No. 47 14
District No. 8 21   District No. 28 43   District No. 48 23
District No. 9 12   District No. 29 22   District No. 49 22
District No. 10 18   District No. 30 30   District No. 50 24
District No. 11 28   District No. 31 29   District No. 51 39
District No. 12 21   District No. 32 57   District No. 52 34
District No. 13 29   District No. 33 27   District No. 53 33
District No. 14 24   District No. 34 42   District No. 54 30
District No. 15 55   District No. 35 17   District No. 55 95
District No. 16 21   District No. 36 18   District No. 56 60
District No. 17 18   District No. 37 33   District No. 57 41
District No. 18 33   District No. 38 12   District No. 58 24
District No. 19 29   District No. 39 10   District No. 59 37
District No. 21 31   District No. 40 84   District No. 61 18


Madelia independent district had ten departments and seventeen teachers. Madelia independent district had 193 males and 226 females.  Butterfield (district No. 46) had two departments and five teachers.  

Butterfield (district No. 46) had 80 males and 67 females. 

St. James (district No. 20) had twelve departments and twenty-five teachers. 

St. James (district No. 20) had 311 males and 337 females. 


Total number children of school age in county----- 1,670

Average number to each district---------------------------- 29

Total number teachers-- males, one; females, sixty-one 62

            Average wages paid for males per month---------------- 65.00

            Average wages paid for females per month ------------- 49.00 

The high and grade schools of this county have the following: Independent district No. 1, five male and twelve female teachers, each paid $112.00 and $60.00 per month, respectively. 

Independent district No. 20, has five male teachers, each at $129 per month and twenty female teachers at an average of $59 per month. 


With the exception of any recent changes, the following table shows the geographical location of the school houses within Watonwan county, the same having been taken from a map of the county prepared a year or two ago: 

Madelia township--at the village.
Riverdale township--sections 23-25-21-7.
Kelson township--sections 7-11-18-24.
Adrian township--sections 8-12-20-26.
Butterfield township--sections 2-17-26-29--and at village.
St. James township-section--2-8-29-35 and at city.
Rosendale township--sections 8-11-26-28.
Fieldon township—sections 1-7-10-16-23-30.
Antrim township—sections 4-22.
South Branch township—sections 11-17-22-31.
Long Lake township--sections 2-8-18-26-29
Odin township-sections 8-11-26-29


On March 23, 1874, there appeared an advertisement in the Madelia Times of a select school to be taught by Prof. A. C. Harrison, as principal, and Miss C. I. Mead, as assistant and teacher of music.  According to the advertisement the first term of this school was to begin in Madelia on Monday, April 20, and to continue three months; that the aim of the teachers was to make it a first-class school in every respect and that no pains would be spared to make the school pleasant and profitable to scholars.  The tuition rates were as follows:  Primary studies, two dollars and twenty-five cents; intermediate, three dollars; higher branches, four dollars and fifty cents; instrumental music, twenty-four lessons, including the use of the organ, ten dollars.  Tuition was to be paid half in advance and the remainder at the end of the half term.  The  advertisement stated that as he had a family he would accept produce  in payment of tuition from those not having the ready cash; also that there would be no personal call for soliciting pupils and all desiring  to attend to please be present on the morning of  commencement. 

In the same advertisement appeared a recommendation signed by Prof. E. C. Payne, superintendent of the schools of Blue Earth county.  Parents having children of school age, thought that this chance to give their posterity an education was a great opportunity and as a result, on the morning of April 20, there was enrolled a goodly number.  

On May 16 there appeared the following headline in the Madelia Times, "A rascal and a dead beat," which read as follows: The quiet of our village was somewhat ruffled the latter part of last week by a disgraceful matter coming to light. A little over a month ago a young man calling himself A. C. Harrison came to town and advertised that he and a lady acquaintance would begin a private school on April 20.  He had a family of a wife and two children and in due time they came and took rooms at the Flanders House.  In two weeks Harrison sends his wife and kids to Ohio, stopping on the way at Winona.  Harrison, who had been very gallant toward his assistant, was noticed to be more so. Letters were obtained to show that he was tampering with the affections of the young lady under the pretense of love.  He declared to the girl that since meeting her his love for his wife had grown cold; that he was going under an assumed name, his right name being Arthur Morris.

Colonel Vought did not admire these proceedings and promised to expose Harrison.  At first all of the charges were denied, but when letters were produced that he had written to Miss Mead, he considered it time to leave and made his exit by the rear door of the hotel, taking with him the tuition money which many of the patrons had already paid.  This was the last ever seen of him. In a few days the young lady school teacher was called home by her mother's illness, which the scandal had caused.


Rolla Christenson
Source: The Weekly Times-Record (Valley City, ND) January 10, 1918; transcribed by Mary Kay Krogman
Miss Rolla Christenson returned to her school duties at Butterfield, Minn., on Thursday evening after having spent the past two weeks visiting with her parents near this place.

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