Harrisburg one-room schoolhouse preserves history of country education

Jan Shepel
Visitors were drawn to the perfectly preserved white clapboard Harrisburg School in rural Sauk County recently during an organized road tour including points of interest in the rural landscape. The schoolhouse, which lies just east of the community of Plain, is cared for by a dedicated group of volunteers who raise money through an organized non-profit organization. Built in 1892, the school is on the National Register of Historic Places. Next to the school is a related museum, built to house period-appropriate farm tools and household items.

Built in 1892 in Sauk County, the Harrisburg School has survived to this day and thanks to a dedicated group of volunteers and the non-profit organization they founded, it has been preserved to help visitors either re-live their days in such a schoolhouse, or see what rural education was like for many generations of schoolchildren.

Carol Anderson, who lives only a short distance from the schoolhouse, and whose late husband was a student there, greeted visitors to the school on a recent weekend when Sauk County’s country roads were filled with people taking an organized road trip through the area.

One of the early settlers to the area was Jonathan Whitaker Harris, who came from Ohio in 1846 and due to his leadership, the settlement became known as Harrisburg. It had a cemetery, blacksmith shop, stagecoach stop and inn. Harrisburg at one time also had a general store, post office and its own telephone exchange along with two cheese factories and two churches.

Back in that era there were nine one-room schoolhouses in the local township.

Anderson is president of the Harrisburg-Troy Historical Society and says that 14 years ago a 501c3 non-profit group was created to protect and preserve the schoolhouse and handle donations for its upkeep and grounds.

Carol Anderson

One of the society’s members, Tom Schabacker, built a museum near the school building to house a collection of tools and implements that would have been used by farmers in earlier eras. His project was supported by a Sauk City business owner, the late Morris Moseman, who had attended the school as a child. He had helped provide funds and engineering for that project, Anderson said.

While some one-room schools have been moved to other locations, this school still stands where it was built, which is one of the reasons it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But its preservation wasn’t always assured.

At one time the building was owned by a local farmer who housed pigs in huts on the schoolhouse grounds. “Thank heavens he preserved the integrity of the building,” Anderson says now.

Eventually, Moseman and a group of fellow alumni convinced the farm family who owned the school, Ervin and Lorene Sprecher, that it should be preserved. The Sprechers then donated the school and its grounds to the Sauk County Historical Society. The county group held it for some time, Anderson explained, until it was taken over by the local preservation group.

Those who attended one-room schools will recognize the desks, chalkboards and other memorabilia housed in the Harrisburg schoolhouse. Youngsters who have no idea what school was like in an earlier era, get a chance to visit this school when it hosts schoolchildren from nearby districts during open events each year. The coronavirus outbreak put a stop to those visits for this year.

She has been president of the Harrisburg-Troy Historical Society, Inc., since it was founded in 2007. She leads a dedicated group of what the locals call “Harrisburgers” – alumni of the school who had the dream of restoring the building. She is aided by a dedicated board of directors and many volunteers.

Her friend Fran Biesek says that Anderson was instrumental in getting the school listed as a Sauk County historical site in 2011 and in getting the National Register of Historic Places designation in 2015.

Biesek also credits Anderson with researching Sauk County Veterans records and finding that over 200 men from the Township of Troy had served from the Civil War to the present day and then commissioning a sign listing all those Veterans and the wars in which they served. That sign has been on display in the basement of the schoolhouse with names added as more service members from the township joined up to serve.

Biesek is an avid “Harrisburger”, having been educated in a one-room schoolhouse and eventually teaching in one as well. Anderson went to a one-room schoolhouse for eight years about ten miles away – still in Sauk County. “I come by my love and remembrance for the old schoolhouse from that history and background,” Anderson says.

The schoolhouse grounds still include a privy out back and this crockery drinking water station right inside one of the two front doors of the schoolhouse.

When the group was in the process of rehabilitating the school, they were contacted by the last person who had taught in the schoolhouse (who lived in nearby Loganville) who had the school’s original bell. The bell had last called students to class in Harrisburg in 1955 and the protectors of its history quickly took up the former teacher on her offer and reinstalled it to its former spot in the bell tower.

Inside the building, the Harrisburg school offers a glimpse into what school was like for students back then. It has been re-furnished with wooden desks and chairs from the period – in graduating heights and sizes since kids of all ages learned together.

The ceiling in the classroom was installed by workers in the Works Progress Administration during that Depression-era program to give people jobs; that ceiling has been preserved. The floors in the classroom are original. The walls are covered with large blackboards as they would have been at the time; posters depict cursive lettering and maps for the purpose of studying geography.

A large book kept in the school carries the names of every student who attended classes there. Anderson said nobody has ever counted them up, but 35 students was the largest number that attended the one-room school in any one given year. Anderson said that four generations of residents in Harrisburg/Town of Troy went to this school.

A piano, donated to the historical society, stands near the front of the schoolroom, and it isn’t difficult to imagine students learning music, giving concerts, recitals and pageants back in the day.

At the front of the one-room Harrisburg school is the teacher's desk, set on a raised platform that no doubt served to give the hardworking teacher a better view of all of the students. The caretakers of the school’s history have a detailed list of every teacher who educated students here. A huge metal grate in front of the desk allowed heat from the lower level to rise into the classroom.

In a normal year, busloads of today’s schoolchildren would flock to the Harrisburg school in the fall after studying the “pioneer days” unit in their curriculum. But the coronavirus outbreak canceled all the open house and visiting days this year.

“The children are always interested in how learning happened back then and they really enjoy playing with the homemade instruments in the rhythm band,” she said. “We enjoy it so much when the kids visit. I hope they get as much out of it as we do.”

When the renovated and preserved schoolhouse first opened up, the historical society celebrated with a picnic and all-school reunion.

During the recent Farm Art DTour, sponsored by the Reedsburg-based Wormfarm Institute – a 50-mile organized tour through Sauk County – the schoolhouse was included as a point of interest. Visitors couldn’t go into the school but could take a socially distanced peek in the door and look around the grounds and some of the museum’s outdoor items.

Anderson said a church just east of the schoolhouse was built in the Harrisburg community in 1867. She recently discovered her grandmother’s baptism certificate, dated 1869, and realized that her ancestor was baptized in that church.