Ole Oleson Comes to Knox County
By the mid 1870’s Great Great Grandpa Ole Oleson and his sons were rooted to their homesteads in Knox County, NE. They struggled on, even when grasshoppers destroyed all their crops in 1875-76. It was during these years the family built a church at the southeast corner of Gilbert’s (Ole’s son) claim. Cutting blocks from the deeply rooted prairie grass sod, they constructed a soddy. (Read more about soddies here.)
The Oleson’s were the only Norwegians in the area for five years. Pastor N.G. Tvedt of the Norwegian Synod was the first clergy to visit this settlement. The 1885 NE Atlas shows a church on the Oleson land.
It isn’t clear if the sod church was originally meant to also be a school, yet in the memories (before 1888) of M. J. Wagner, “We only had a sod schoolhouse in District #58 where I attended.” As more farmers moved in and the village of Winnetoon to the north was sprouting up, the need for a better school building was recognized. So in 1888, a wood frame school was built. Pictures from 1889 and 1890 show 38 and 40 students.
Among these pupils were Ole’s grandchildren, his daughter, Anna’s Fredrickson’s six children. In the 1890 picture, the teacher is A. E. McDowell, who later married his pupil Lena Fredrickson.
Next, Ole’s great grandchildren attended District #58, Lena’s son and George’s children, including my mom. On to the late 1930’s, switch to the Neuhaus side of the family, when Dad’s sister, Marie, and sister-in-law, Lavon, taught there.
In 1943, District #58 was closed, the land had long passed from the Olesons. For the next 55 years the school house silently sat on the corner, while weather and neglect took hold. Our blustery Nebraska winds removed part of the shingles, cattle roamed around it and a farmer used it for hay storage. The property owners came to me in October 1998, “We plan to torch District #58 school, but if you can get it moved within 30 days, it’s yours.”
“My family school, you can’t burn my family school!”
Since the door was nailed shut, Cowboy Joe, the owners and I crawled through a window. We found falling plaster, daylight coming from the roof, the floor rotted out beneath. And, the smell, not only hay dust and mold, but mice. Maybe I didn’t want it after all. Yet, Joe was determined. He readied the building, got a friend with a hay moving outfit and loaded it in an icy blizzard. There it sat over Halloween.
A 110 years after it was built, District #58 traveled proudly the two miles into Winnetoon, where it settled in to await its rebirth. The corner where both the soddy and the frame building once sat, now shows no sign that either ever existed.
“Just inside the north property line of the District #58 schoolhouse was a long grass covered half round depression. We would hide in this depression and play games on its slopes. We called it The Old Sod School. There must have been a reason we called it that,” remembers Lewis, a former student, now 95 years old.