Looking through old photographs of Schnellville, one can barely recognize the scenes in the photos that were taken years ago. For example, many young people would never guess that where the church parking lot is today once stood a school and sisters’ house. Where many houses stand now, a gravel road once led the way to a two-room schoolhouse. Time has changed—school has changed. To really figure out how townsfolk lived their lives years ago, we can’t only look at photographs. Talking to our grandparents and other elderly men and women is the only real key to opening the treasure chest of history.
I interviewed my grandma, Rita (Peter) Knust, who remembers the grade school in detail. According to my grandma, “The first two-room school was replaced by a larger two-room school in 1903. In 1926 more room was needed so another room was added on.” Authorities named the school Schnellville Grade School — a simple and straightforward name. “The school was located on the west corner of what is now the church parking lot. It was there along with the sisters’ house and the church. This was all in the center of Schnellville one block from the main street.”
After arriving to school by bus or foot, the students — ranging from grades first through eighth — gathered in the two-room schoolhouse. According to my grandma, “About 85 students attended the Schnellville Grade School. At one time, over 100 students attended the school — in those two rooms.” Grandma recalled the need for a local school. “Several parents in Schnellville didn’t want their children transported to Birdseye or St. Anthony.”
Grandma applied for the position of secretary — and was hired. “This is an interesting story. In 1969 my oldest son was in the seventh grade. His teacher and also principal, Sister Mary Harold, asked if anyone knew someone who could type, wasn’t too busy, and would like a job. My son always volunteered for everything. He raised his hand and said I wasn’t too busy. I only had four children ranging from 13 to four years old! Well, needless to say, Sister Mary Harold came one evening that weekend to talk to me, and I started working the following week as a teacher’s aid and secretary. When I started, my office had been a broom closet. They cleaned everything out and put a very small desk, a file cabinet, and a copy machine in the room. I worked at Schnellville and Birdseye two and one-half days each school week for the first few years until I started doing all the bookkeeping for the lunch program and all the other books. I stayed full time at Schnellville after that. Sister Mary Harold passed away in April 1975, and Sister Mary Cuthbert became principal.”
Soon, the number of students began to grow, and Grandma remembered that the school needed more space. “Small and crowded, the school added another room in the church basement.” However, the students needed a cafeteria, too, and the basement was divided into classrooms and an eating area. “In 1947 a school cafeteria was set up in the church basement under the management of Mrs. Clara Schnell. She served hot lunches to approximately 50 to 60 children. Because of illness, Mrs. Schnell retired in 1956. Mrs. Hilbert Theising and Mrs. Bernard Loechte were in charge for the next two years. In 1958 Mrs. Lawrence Persohn, along with Mrs. Lee Schnell and Mrs. Cornelius Kempf, took over as part time assistants. At the time, the cafeteria served approximately 85 students and the faculty. Mrs. Lee Schnell and Mrs. Kempf managed the cafeteria for the next several years. Nobody brought packed lunches from home. The cooks in the lunch room butchered their own chickens early in the morning behind the church. They didn’t have convenient foods. They made all the food, and we had delicious meals. Lunches were 25 cents a day.”
Friendly and kind, Grandma seemed to really enjoy being secretary and working with children. “My favorite memory was getting to be best friends with the principal, Sister Mary Harold, and other faculty members. They spent many hours at our house in the evenings. We were just like family.” Although being secretary seemed like the perfect job, it also had its downside. Grandma says her least favorite memory was that “my office was extremely crowded, and it was on the second floor. On stormy days, I could feel the building rocking.”
Rita explained to me how times have changed and why the scenery in Schnellville no longer includes a school. “The school had become too small and outdated. Pine Ridge Elementary was built — a consolidation of Schnellville, Birdseye, and part of St. Anthony School. The school and the sisters’ house were demolished, and all students went to Pine Ridge.”
Although she no longer worked as a secretary at the Schnellville Grade School, she was hired for a position at Pine Ridge Elementary. “In 1976 I became secretary at Pine Ridge Elementary, until I retired in 1999. I worked there for 30 enjoyable years. Tom Warmke was the first principal at Pine Ridge. Working conditions were different than when I moved to Pine Ridge in 1976. I loved both jobs because I enjoyed working with children, and I had wonderful people to work with.”
Over the years, schools have changed. “There is no comparison. Now they have computers in every room plus a computer lab. We didn’t even know what a computer was. The school also had maybe 35 pupils, two grades in a room, and one teacher. Back then, we had no extra space for P.E. or art classes. Teachers taught art and music, but they usually stayed in their classroom.”
Grandma recalls some memorable days. “An embarrassing story was when I had to be a witness whenever a student had to get paddled for something. This particular time — it was my own son and his best friend. They were flipping peas in the lunch room.” This “son” is now my father, Greg Knust — who still hates peas.
Grandma appeared to have an optimistic attitude despite having to work in a crowded working environment. “Although we were a small school, we had excellent teachers, and the students received a solid education.” Between 1969 and 1999, she worked under the authority of six different principals.
A sense of humor, a good personality, and someone who is easy to get along with, all tie into the qualities that make up an excellent secretary — and Grandma. This reason could explain why she worked as a secretary for 30 years — and two generations. My father experienced her caring personality at the Schnellville Grade School, and I was lucky enough to enjoy her helpful and compassionate attitude toward the students when she worked at Pine Ridge.
From schoolhouse to rock, the Schnellville Grade School experienced many changes. However, thanks to Rita (Peter) Knust, future generations will be able to know how the Schnellville community and the local school corporation have changed over the years.