The following history of the early schools in Burnett County was written in 1908 
by Mabel Ahlstrom, Superintendent of Schools of Burnett County
Grantsburg, Wisconsin
In a county such as Burnett where large areas have but recently been settled a brief history of the schools may serve to indicate not merely educational conditions but the past and current progress of the county as a whole, for Burnett, a young and growing factor of the commonwealth of Wisconsin has not attained that state of placid and satisfied inertia that may characterize a region whose resources are fully developed and whose reasonable possibilities have been fulfilled.

The interested delver in old records is usually rewarded by the discovery of data that lends significance to the facts of more recent years and here and here a still familiar name makes personal and vivid the association of the present with the past.

The earliest written county record of the schools of Burnett County is the annual report of County Superintendent Malcolm McMillan for the year ending August 31, 1872.  Shortly after 1865 however, a public school had been maintained on what is now the Andrew Skog farm south and west of Grantsburg in a hunting shanty in the wilderness on land then owned by J. A. Hickerson, an early and highly esteemed pioneer.  About the same time another school was maintained on what is now the Peter Mathison farm near Branstad.  In these improvised school houses there were no desks, rude benches held the faithful learner and the teacher followed a forest trail to dispense knowledge from a dry-goods box.  In 1868-9 a school house was built near the site of the present village of Grantsburg. (Superintendent's Note - Most of the material in this paragraph and the preceding one was secured by interview.  I depended largely on information given by Ole Anderson, though Simon Thoreson and others contributed clues.  Rev. P. E. Swanstrom also says that the school building formerly near the fair grounds was the first school house erected in Burnett County.)

Burnett in 1872 included what is now Washburn County, yet it contained but one town Grantsburg, of magnificent proportions.  There were three school districts in the town and three school houses, one in what is now the town of Trade Lake on the shore of the lake, the site of the present John Davidson farm house, one on the "quarter Line" three miles south of the village where now is situated the St. Olaf's church and the third also on the "quarter line" which was then visible only to a surveyer, about ½ mile south of Grantsburg on the lot adjoining the present fair grounds on the south.  Of these three school houses this was first erected.  It was built of logs but was afterwards sided and painted a reddish brown to conform with the proverbial poetic ideal of the "little red school house."  This relic of pioneer days remained standing for many years but about ten years ago it was sold and moved to the farm of Sever Hanson where it served as a barn till overshadowed by the presumptuous buildings that recent years demand.  To such base uses did this first hall of learning of Burnett County descend.

Before 1872 this school was taught by Charles Nelson, now Rev. Charles Nelson of Evanston, Illinois, by Annie Peck and Tena Thompson afterwards Mrs. Thomas Peck, one of the earliest teachers recorded in the annals of Burnett County.  Tobias Thoreson, supervisor of the Town of Grantsburg for a dozen years and present chairman of the county board of supervisors, Simon Thoreson chairman of the county board for more than a decade, member of assembly for the 9th District, 1903, Ole Anderson one of the firm of "Hickerson Roller Mill Company" and President of the "First Bank of Grantsburg," Andrew Ahlstrom, deceased, for thirteen years County Clerk and eighteen years Postmaster of Grantsburg, were among the older pupils and since continuous residents of the county, who sought at this early period to relinquish further their native Norwegian and Swedish under the influence of American institutions.

The school at Trade Lake was taught by Tena Nelson.  Among the pupils who attended here were Maggie and Rika Nylander, two of "King Karl" Anderson's sons, Hannah Davidson, Pete Wedin, and Joseph Ekberg, farmers in the prosperous town of Trade Lake, and G. R. Wedin, a practically continuous resident of Burnett since 1869 and now a merchant of Grantsburg.  County Judge F. G. Dalberg and his brother Aaron Dalberg, a supervisor of Trade Lake, both pioneers of Burnett, at this time attended school in Polk County from which Burnett had recently been set off.

The school house at St. Olaf's was a spacious frame building, of which that active and ardent pioneer, Knute Anderson, was justly proud.  This building was afterwards moved north to the present location of the Branstad graded school, and was used until 1899, when a stiff breeze scattered it to the four winds of heaven.  In this building in 1872 Christian Sangstad taught school.  Among the present residents of Burnett who were enrolled here are Nicolai Hanson, Christian Olson, Hans Jensen, Ed. Estenson, progressive farmers of Grantsburg and Wood River, Mrs. Christine Mathison Monroe and Lydian Olson of the village and James H. Jensen, county clerk for six years, president of the village of Grantsburg and at this time a real estate dealer in that village.

Mr. Sangstad received for his services $40 per month, the wages of the two women averaged $32.50.  School was maintained for five months in each of the three school houses and 202 children were enrolled in all.  For his services of supervision, Supt. McMillan received $3 a day.

The next year, 1872-3, four schools were maintained in the county and Malcolm McMillan, I. Grettum and J. Tharaldsen wielded the birch and rule for the average monthly remuneration of $45.66 while Ella Green and Hortense Peterson taught the young idea how to shoot for $35.

The possibilities of cranberry culture in Burnett attracted, among others, John G. Fleming of Oshkosh.  This popular and kindly gentleman, with his wife, kept a "stopping place" known later as "Smith's" northeast of Grantsburg.  In 1874 Mr. Fleming succeeded Mr. McMillan as county superintendent of schools.  That year the women held full sway over the prospective merchants, farmers and legislators of Burnett and Mrs. Belle Fleming, Almina Nelson, Caroline Ahlstrom and Hortense Peterson are recorded as teachers.

Mr. Fleming continued as superintendent for six years, during which time the schools grew from six to twelve.  In 1876 the perdiem of the county superintendent was $4, yet the aggregate must have been small for Mr. Fleming's successor, E. M. Wilson, reports the emoluments of the office $100 for salary and $15 for postage.

In 1882 Martin Satterlee, now Rev. Satterlee of Minneapolis, who serves St. Olaf's Lutheran church near Grantsburg, became county superintendent.  Mr. Satterlee resigned in the fall of 1882 and E. M. Wilson was appointed to fill the vacancy and afterwards elected.  After 1877, teachers' wages diminish.  From that time till 1887 the wages of women teachers vary from $27 to $29, of men from $28 to $32.

In 1884, Tena Nelson one of the first teachers of the county, the daughter of Judge Magnus Nelson, a respected and influential pioneer of Burnett, was elected superintendent.  During the decade that Miss Nelson served the schools of Burnett the school districts increased in number from 16 to 32, the number of children who attended school from 821 to 1300.  The salary of the county superintendent ranged from $175 to $300.  In 1897 the salary was $500, in 1904 it became by the operation of the law $900, in 1908 it was fixed at $1000.

In 1895 Mrs. Fay S. Williams, who resided on a farm east of the village of Grantsburg and had taught in the district schools of Burnett, succeeded Mrs. Tena Nelson Davidson and held the office for two terms.

Before this time the men had ceased to be an appreciable factor in the teaching force of Burnett County and we see the prediction of the next decade when they almost entirely disappear from view.  The average teachers' wages for women in the rural schools of Burnett were in 1895 $30 a month, in 1900 $28, in 1905 $34.50, and in 1907-8, the average wages had increased over this amount as but seven teachers in the rural schools taught at $30 and wages otherwise ranged from $35 to $50.

In 1898, Mrs. Tena Nelson Davidson was again elected and served a term after which she was succeeded by Mrs. Fay Williams, who also served a term and was followed in 1903 by the present superintendent, Mabel Ahlstrom, daughter of Andrew Ahlstrom.

The period from 1900 to 1905 was one of growth in the resources and population of Burnett, numerous homesteads were taken, new towns were organized, the number of school districts increased from 35 to 61 and the schools from 46 to 76.  In 1900, 1758 children had attended the public schools of the county.  In 1905, 2499 were enrolled.  This is almost identically the enrollment for 1908, tough somewhat better school facilities are provided as there are now 74 districts and 86 schools.

Of these 86 nearly all are rural schools.  Grantsburg contains the only High School and large graded school in the county.  A one-room school was first maintained in the heart of the village in 1882.  This grew to be a two-department school, where the grades were designated by "upstairs" and "downstairs" in 1886.  In 1890 the first common school diplomas in the county were issued to Herbert Ahlstrom and Elizabeth Burns of the village schools.  In the early nineties the grades became more definitely organized and in 1894 took possession of the new building which, with its subsequent addition, comprises the present quarters of the village schools.  From 1880 for a period of eighteen years, F. O. Olson, the first supervisor of the village of Grantsburg, and the holder of various public offices, was elected clerk of the village schools, and was closely associated with their growth and development.  In 1898, District Attorney A. J. Myrland was elected clerk.

The Grantsburg Village Schools enrolled in the fall of 1908 nearly 300 pupils.  The High School employs a principal and two assistants, one of whom has also charge of the eighth grade.  Four additional grade teachers are employed.  The High School offers a German and an English course.  Although high school work had been done previous to that time, it was not till 1899 that Grantsburg definitely organized a three-year high school.  In 1906 a fourth year's course was added.

The Grantsburg High School naturally draws on much surrounding territory for its pupils.  The enrollment is seventy-five, of whom more than a third come from rural schools.  Attendant with the growth and prosperity of the farming districts, and through favorable state legislations has come an impetus to rural education and fifty common school diplomas were issued to rural pupils in 1908, for Burnett a comparatively large number.

Though Grantsburg has the only large graded school in the county, there are in the rich farming regions south and east of there, four two-department State Graded Schools.  Because of the perceptibly increased efficiency of these schools, they have won the active approval of rural patrons.  Situated in the heart of farming communities these schools are distinctly rural and lose none of their characteristic advantages of rural environment by being graded.  The organization of such schools is a new movement in Burnett.  In 1906, Wood River, the first State Graded School was organized, Branstad took the same progressive action in 1907, and Bass Lake, Falun and Freya followed in 1908.  The last, however, being under the township system of school government will not be in operation before 1909.  In this district, to avoid disintegration and the building of additional school houses, pupils will be transported from remote parts of the district.  In the county at large, transportation is only occasionally resorted to, nor would consolidation and transportation to any extent be at present feasible in Burnett.  There are, however, opportunities for further State Graded schools, as several one-room rural schools are becoming too unwieldy in size.

Seventy-two, one-room rural schools are maintained in Burnett. Of these fifty-five are furnished with heating and ventilating plants, card catalog cases, supplementary readers and other equipment which designates them as "First Class" rural schools.  Before the close of another year, it is probably that practically every school in the county will rank as well.

The Burnett County Teachers Association was organized in 1905, of which O. H. Casper, Jean Smith and Huldah Dahlberg, resident teachers of the county, have been the respective presidents.  A teachers' institute is held annually at Grantsburg, and teachers' meetings are held during the year at various points in the county.

The attendance of the annual institute ranges from forty to fifty.  More than half of the eighty-six teachers of Burnett are imported from other counties, it being necessary to do this to maintain a reasonably efficient teaching standard.  Outside of the Grantsburg schools there are at present employed in the county ten first-grade teachers, seven County Training School graduates, thirty second- and thirty-two third-grade teachers.

Chronology and statistics are doubtless tedious to the disinterested eye, yet through them may be read the evolution of Burnett from pioneer infancy to vigorous youth.  Spacious, well-furnished farm houses, ample barns, and broad fields have replaced the meagre clearing and cabin of the early home-steader.  Removed from railroad facilities, except a twelve-mile spur into Grantsburg, the development of much good land is of course retarded, though the hope of a railroad springs eternal in the breast of Burnett.  Material prosperity and progress, have, nevertheless, furthered educational development.  While conditions may appear crude to an observer of older counties, yet a live and interested attitude toward school matters is manifested alike by school officers, patrons, and teachers, and whatever hand may be at the helm that attitude bodes well for the future of Burnett County Schools.


Last Update Wednesday, 10-Nov-2010 23:54:59 EST

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