July 9, 2021

‘So very different than today’

One-room Navilleton schoolhouse museum brings memories of the past to life

Lillian Koeppel, a 9-year-old member of St. Mary Parish in Navilleton, sits in an old-fashioned school desk in the schoolhouse the parish built in 1893 that now serves as a museum. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Lillian Koeppel, a 9-year-old member of St. Mary Parish in Navilleton, sits in an old-fashioned school desk in the schoolhouse the parish built in 1893 that now serves as a museum. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

NAVILLETON—The year is 1893. Grover Cleveland just replaced Benjamin Harrison as president and the Chicago World’s Fair is underway.

In Catholic news, Pius X—later declared a saint—is pope, while the Diocese of Vincennes (now the Archdiocese of Indianapolis) is led by Bishop Francis S. Chatard.

Meanwhile, in the small town of Navilleton, one question remains after the completion of St. Mary Parish’s new church building in 1891: what to do with the leftover lumber?

The answer still stands across the street from the church today: the one-room Navilleton schoolhouse, now a museum.

“There are so many good memories here,” says St. Mary parishioner Angie Atkins, who graduated from the parish-maintained public school in 1952. She and fellow parishioner Anna Sweeney—a 1948 graduate of the school—took The Criterion on a trip to the past via the one-room building.

Atkins and Sweeney, who both serve on the schoolhouse museum’s committee, weave tales of their shared educational past to create an idyllic scene of a day in the life of a one-room, no-plumbing, stove-heated school.

‘Our legs would be numb’

The story begins in 1893 with an acre of land purchased by the parish for a schoolhouse for $40, with $800 designated for its construction. According to literature about the schoolhouse museum, the building was leased to Greenville Township as a public school for $16 a year originally, and later for $60 a year.

“Some took a bus to school, but many of us walked,” Atkins recalls.

Sweeney remembers walking nearly a mile to the school.

“We always wore dresses with stockings, so in the winter our legs would be numb,” she remembers.

But daily the elementary students came, lunch pails swinging then placed on a shelf toward the back of the building.

In winter, the church janitor would have already lit the pot belly stove in the center of the room to heat the schoolhouse by the time the children began to arrive.

But for two students it was back outside, whatever the elements, to fill a bucket with water for use during the day, since the schoolhouse had no plumbing.

“Each week it was a different student’s responsibility to walk up to Angie’s grandma’s house to fill the bucket with water, and they got to choose another student to go with them,” says Sweeney.

The lack of indoor plumbing also meant trekking to the boys’ or girls’ outhouses “some distance” from the building, regardless of the weather.

While the non-Catholic students arrived, the Catholic students attended Mass at 7:30 a.m., prayed the rosary and received catechism lessons in the church across the road, Atkins recalls.

Once school started at 8:30 a.m., the students would take their seats—the old-fashioned kind with the desk attached.

“We usually had about 22 to 27 kids in the school,” Atkins explains. “Sometimes a class had two students or even none. One year, there were six kids in one class—that hadn’t happened before in my time.

“Kids in the first through fourth grade sat on the right side of the school, and the older kids sat on the left side. We called it the ‘little side’ and the ‘big side.’ The younger ones couldn’t wait to get to sit on the big side!”

Whether sitting on the right or left side of the schoolhouse, the hope was to sit close to the stove in the winter, says Sweeney, noting that “from the stove to the windows, it got cold pretty quickly.”

‘Everyone just got along’

Angie Atkins, left, and Anna Sweeney stand in the one-room Navilleton schoolhouse they attended and later helped restore as a museum. It was built by their parish, St. Mary, in 1893. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Angie Atkins, left, and Anna Sweeney stand in the one-room Navilleton schoolhouse they attended and later helped restore as a museum. It was built by their parish, St. Mary, in 1893. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

And how did instruction work, with children ranging from grades one through eight all seated in the same space?

“The teacher would call up the first grade, and they would gather around the [teacher’s] desk and she would teach them their lesson for the day,” Atkins describes. “Meanwhile, the other classes would be doing their schoolwork—we almost never had homework.

“Then the teacher called up the next class, and so on. The younger ones would listen in when the older ones were taught, so you knew what was coming up for the next year!”

Sweeney adds that if a student had a question, “You didn’t ask the teacher—you asked the older kids.”

She and Atkins reminisce about the camaraderie among the students, regardless of age.

“We all played together at recess,” says Atkins. “We’d play ‘catchers’—sort of like tag—and ‘drop the hankey,’ and there was a table for playing jacks.”

Sweeney smiles at the memory.

“Everyone just got along,” she says. “I don’t recall there ever being a bully.”

The two agree the school had a family feel.

“We knew everyone’s parents, siblings, where everyone lived,” says Atkins.

Friday nights added to the family feel, when students and parents would gather at the schoolhouse for spelling bees, arithmetic competitions, sing-alongs and “pie suppers.”

“We girls would bake pies, and the boys would bid on them,” Sweeney explains.

“Usually it was our dads who bought the pies,” she admits, but there was one year when a boy bought the pie she baked. “I think he was sweet on me,” she says with a grin.

‘Like a big family’

The fond memories end with the closing of the schoolhouse in 1956. It was the last operating one-room school in Floyd County, according to a plaque on the building.

Atkins says the building was then “mostly used for storage” until 1991. That year, St. Mary Parish celebrated the 100th anniversary of its church building.

“We got all but one of the 1948 class together for a photo by the schoolhouse,” Atkins recalls. “Some of us started talking about how it should be turned into a museum because [learning in a one-room school] is so very different than today, and so many don’t know what it was like.”

She and other graduates spearheaded an effort to restore the structure. First, they sought and obtained for the building the status of Floyd County Historical Site in 1991.

The original desks and blackboard had been removed at some point after the school was closed. Through financial donations, desks like the ones used in the schoolhouse for more than 60 years were purchased.

“We wanted to buy a blackboard like the one we had,” says Atkins. “Then one day a man showed up with the original blackboard!”

By 1992, a year ahead of the structure’s 100th anniversary, the Navilleton schoolhouse opened as a museum.

“Schools used to come for educational field trips here,” Atkins notes. “Then schools lost funding, then COVID hit, so we haven’t had as many students and visitors.”

Except for one young scholar who says she likes “old things.” Lillian Koeppel, 9, visited the schoolhouse last school year with four other students for a history project.

“We came and played school,” says the soft-spoken St. Mary parishioner. “I like that my great-grandpa went to school here.”

She’s returned a few time since—although after hearing Atkins and Sweeney talk of walking to school and having no indoor plumbing, Lillian reconsiders her idealistic view of the era, eyes wide as she shakes her head “no” when asked if she would like to go to such a school now.

As the two Navilleton School graduates pore over pictures, report cards and memorabilia in glass cases along the walls, Lillian practices “ciphering” on the blackboard, peeks in the pot belly stove and cracks open an old book at one of the “little side” desks.

“We’re always open,” says Atkins. “We have a sign-in book so we can see where people have come from. We’ve had people from other countries visit our little, one-room schoolhouse museum.”

She and Sweeney encourage all to come experience school as it used to be, when, as Atkins says, “the older kids helped the younger kids” and students of all ages were “like a big family.”

(For more information, call the St. Mary Parish office at 812-923-5419.)

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