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 the building.

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 Fargo.

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.

The 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.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller