Quite an Education: Silva School
one of the Treasures Found at Prairie Village Museum
Burgard, Peggy. "Quite an Education: Silva School one of the Treasures Found at Prairie Village Museum." Pierce County Tribune, 15 May 2004, 6.
It is easy to feel like you have taken a step back in time and arrived
in another time and place when visiting the Prairie Village Museum,
located east of the junction of Highways 2 and 3, just outside of
Rugby. It is a great place for people of all ages to interact with
the past and experience first-hand how life was lived during decades
gone by. There is so much to see that it seems there is not enough
time in one visit to look at all the historical items.
This year will mark the 40th anniversary of one of the area's most
well-known attractions. Through the years, thousands of visitors,
from almost every state in the union and several foreign countries,
have signed the guest book at the museum. By visiting each of the
many buildings that make up the Prairie Village, it is easy to visualize
what life must have been like for the many different groups of people
that have settled in our area over the past hundred-plus years.
One of the featured buildings on the museum grounds is the historic
two-story Silva consolidated schoolhouse. During its peak years
of enrollment from 1918-192l, the school had 122 students, and at
its closing in 1970 it had only ten students. But for the 860 students
who passed through the doors of the school during its history, the
memories live on.
One of the students, Rugby resident Edith (Crawford) Lysne, attended
the school along with her eight brothers and sisters and has many
fond memories. Through the years she has had the opportunity to
share those memories with many area school children who have toured
At first, not everyone in the area welcomed the idea of consolidating
the district and building a new school, but it was voted on and
won by a large majority. Four one-room schoolhouses, West, Sanden,
Reno Valley #1 and Romine, formed the consolidation. The main floor
housed the primary grades of first, second and third and a room
for the janitor. The original blackboards, desks and pull-down maps
are still preserved, giving visitors a feeling of what it was like
to be a student when entering the main classroom.
The upper floor had the grammar room, grades seven and eight, the
high school room, a library and a hall. Behind folding wooden doors
an auditorium was also constructed. In the basement, there was a
gymnasium, a furnace room (lignite coal and steam heat) and the
lavatory facilities. Gas lights and kerosene lamps were loaned to
the school by the townspeople, providing evening light for years
until rural electrical power became available.
Dedication of the new school took place in 1916 with a huge celebration,
songfest and speeches by Sara Guss, superintendent of schools, and
a woman instructor from the North Dakota Agricultural College in
Transportation to the school was provided by buses that resembled
covered wagons drawn by horses, with the weather deciding whether
to use wheels or sled runners. Past students can recall encountering
many dangerous moments while riding on the buses, from the horses
almost falling through the ice, to being stranded during blizzards
or tipping over sideways and having to crawl out. The buses were
heated with a kerosene burner that was centrally located in between
the rows of seats.
Throughout the years the school also served as a center for community
life and a meeting place before it was possible to finance and establish
a church. Children could also enjoy home talent shows in the auditorium
and take part in Campfire councils and 4-H clubs. Plays, musicals,
and even special marches and parades for Liberty bond drives and
the Red Cross also took place at the school building.
Classes were held in the Silva School from 1916-1970. In 1978,
the 150-ton building was moved from Silva to its present location
at the Prairie Village Museum, a project that took over three weeks
to complete. The original brass school bell was then placed outside
the front door where it stands today.
The schoolhouse is also home to a life-sized replica of Clifford
Thompson, known as the world's tallest man, who was born near Silva
in 1903 and who grew to a height of 8 feet, 7 inches. Though he
weighed 12 pounds at birth, he was of normal size as a young boy.
Physicians explained that his abnormal growth, which began after
the age of 12, was caused by overdevelopment of a pituitary gland.
Through his life he worked as a salesman, lawyer and even a circus
attraction. When traveling, he would obtain a room with two beds
and push them together to sleep diagonally on them. He drove a car
with the front seat pushed against the rear and a 14-inch extension
on the steering wheel. His clothes, shoes, and even his casket had
to be specially ordered due to his size.
In another classroom is an enlarged table-map representing the
30 townships of Pierce County, along with many interesting facts
about each one of them. The adjacent county seat room highlights
businesses, churches, organizations, the courthouse, depot, post
office and many of the historical buildings in Pierce County.
A hand-painted mural that measures 80 feet long by four feet high
encircles the upper walls of the history room. The oil-painted scenes
depict the history of Pierce County's first hundred years of existence.
The mural was painted by an 80-year-old self-taught artist from
Carrington, Richard Lefty Wenstrom. He traveled as a sign painter
during the Depression era, a job that he said he wished he had taken.
He later took over the family farm near Carrington, where he spent
50 years farming. He recalled farming during the day and sketching
by candlelight into the wee hours of the morning, not quitting until
his work was complete.
The mural begins with the first Indian settlers, prairie grass,
buffalo, surveyors, homesteaders and even the first Rugby train
in 1886. The painting took approximately one and one-half years
to complete and turned out to become the most rewarding accomplishment
of Westrom's life. By using a realistic almost folk-art style, he
created the pioneer scenes from ideas he got from his home library
of magazines and newspaper clippings about the county.
Westrom's wife, Mabel, was a Rugby native, and in addition to his
painting, he cared for her after she suffered a stroke.
The scenes were painted on individual panels that he painted in
his garage and basement. With the severe pain of rheumatoid arthritis,
he would tire easily and would paint in intervals of three to five
hours at a time until gripping his paintbrush would become too painful.
When asked by a newspaper reporter if he had any plans for any major
works in the future, he replied that this would probably be his
last gasp. Sadly, he died one week before the dedication of the
history room at the Silva schoolhouse where his mural hangs.
The Prairie Village Museum is open from May 1 to Sept. 30. Hours
are Monday-Saturday, 8 a.m.- 7 p.m. and Sunday from 1-7 p.m.
Silva School (above) is one of the popular sights at the
Prarie Village Museum. Over 800 students attended classes
there. It was moved to the museum grounds in the 1970's.
(At left) a likeness of Clifford Thompson also stands in
the schoolhouse. Thompson, who was born near Silva, grew
to an incredible height of 8 feet, 7 inches. More about
his life can be learned in the museum
Reprinted with permission of The Pierce County Tribune.