Frontier communities were communities in every sense of the word. They were small, sometimes consisting of little more than a half dozen families, but they were close-knit and dependent on one another for survival in an oftentimes harsh and unforgiving wilderness.
To say these communities were isolated would be an understatement. During the infant stages of community development on the frontier, those who lived in the settlement were virtually alone. Roads, in the classic sense, were nonexistent, and many of those living on the frontier were forced to travel across rough terrain with little more than a meandering river or a foot path to follow. Basic human necessities such as furniture, tools and utensils — items that we often take for granted — had to be improvised from materials available on the countryside.
Many of those first settlements were called “tent cities,” a term created from the tents that settlers would live in while building their homes. The homes, of course, were crude to say the least. Most were built from logs in a nearby woods and even sod in some cases. No matter how crude the settlement may have looked, however, they were all in need of a common area or multipurpose building.
In McLeod County, namely Glencoe, that building was a school.
The first school in the county was built in Glencoe during the summer of 1856. Earlier in the year, the County Board of Commissioners created the Glencoe School District and erected a school room. It was a simple log structure, and the furnishings, too, were made from logs. Benches lined the walls and were made by felling logs, slabbing the flat side up, and supporting them with round pegs driven into the underside. Upon completion of the building, the first school term began late in the summer and was taught by Kate Gibbs.
The school was an important part of the community, yet the building itself served a more communal purpose. In addition to being a school, it was utilized as church, courtroom and town hall for local government or other town meetings. Primarily, however, it was a simple school.
Though McLeod County’s first school was within “city limits,” it largely played the role of a “rural school.” Those living in the surrounding countryside sent children to school across rough terrain just as those who lived far distances from the community.
Winter could be especially tough as deaths of pupils and even teachers have been recorded from freezing conditions. On particularly cold days, the teacher spent a great deal of time thawing out little fingers and toes that had been nipped by the cold.
Warm clothing, too, was an issue in the early school. Overshoes and overcoats did not exist as we know them today. With many residents being farmers, children came to school with cowhide boots made large enough to pack hay and straw around little feet. One could imagine the sight of a winter day and a group of rather cold children and a teacher gathered round an iron box stove.
As the years passed, more schools were established in the county. By 1861, there were three village schools located in Hutchinson, Glencoe and Koniska. There was also a rural school near Winsted. That year, 260 pupils were enrolled in McLeod County schools.
It's often hard to imagine life on the frontier — the hardships, the weather, and the lack of necessities. We often tend to think of how different life was for people then, yet sometimes a thing such as a school, a pair of overshoes, or the simple need of a town hall are overlooked by our modern eyes.
I guess when we can say we take things for granted, it really means that we, today, got it good!