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By Dr. Perry Buffie, RHS 1982
© 2022 Rockford Area Historical Society

A photograph taken in 1922 of the student body and faculty at Rockford High School is very informative and helps us in this day to understand how Independent School District 883— Rockford Area Schools—came to be. This picture serves as an intriguing connection between the schools of the pioneer past 66 years earlier, to our present time a century later.
Fortunately, somebody recorded the names of those pictured, and we can learn a lot by looking at who are included in this single photograph. There are nineteen students in this picture: four Freshmen, five Sophomores, three Juniors and six Seniors. Only one-third of the students in the picture would graduate from Rockford High School, and one boy died within a month of the photo being taken. Two teachers are also present in the picture, Mr. Eggan and Miss Scovell, who represent the entire High School faculty. 

The students in this picture come from both the village and the township of Rockford, as well as the former townships of Greenwood and Corcoran.  The photo was taken in front of the Rockford School built in 1917, which is located at the present location of the Middle School on Ash Street. The building housed grades 1-12.

Three of the children pictured here are the grandchildren of D. R. Farnham, who was an original settler of the village of Rockford in 1856, and who was important for having published the first history of Wright County in 1880.  In fact, many of the teenagers pictured here were the grandsons and granddaughters of the original settlers to Rockford, Greenwood, and Corcoran, and at least one child pictured here had a parent who arrived as a small child with the early pioneers. Non-native settlement in the Big Woods of Hennepin and Wright Counties had only become possible after the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux was signed in 1851, and the first wave of settlers only began arriving in 1855-1857.

Multiple questions arise given this information, to include 1) how were schools first organized for those original settlers? 2) why did so few students graduate from high school? 3) how were school districts created to include students spread across multiple towns?  

The very first classes for children in the area that is known today as ISD 883, were held in the Spring of 1856 in Greenwood. While Minnesota did not become a state until 1858, already in 1849 and in 1851, the Minnesota Territorial Legislature had established laws outlining how school districts were to be formed. At first, with such a sparse population, each county could form a school district where any five families formed some semblance of community. What this meant was that one of the first things the original settlers had to do, in addition to clearing land and building a house, was to create a school setting and provide a teacher. 

18-year-old Ruth M. Powers was that first teacher in Greenwood in Spring, 1856, having arrived with her father and mother in the fall of 1855. Class was held by the settlers in the house of a Mr. Peasley, likely no more than a log shanty and referred to in jest as “Peasely’s Hall.”   Miss Powers soon married J.D. Young, one of Greenwood’s pioneers.  They become important as hoteliers in Delano in subsequent years.  

The first classes in Rockford were held by its settlers in Fall, 1856. That September, Miss Marilla Moses was the teacher. Marilla was the 20-year-old first cousin of Mrs. George Ames, Mrs. Joel Florida, and Mrs. G.D. George. The Ames, Florida, and George families are considered the founding families of the village of Rockford. Miss Moses soon married George Sook, son of a local German immigrant farmer in Rockford Township.  They took up farming together in the southwestern part of the state.

Not long after Greenwood and Rockford had begun schooling their children, the namesake of Corcoran, Patrick B. Corcoran was holding classes. Mr. Corcoran had arrived in 1855, and in Winter, 1857 was teaching 16 students in a log shanty built adjacent to his home for this purpose. The history book records that the school term was only three months long, but this was not unusual in those days. Mr. Corcoran and his many descendants remained important to the development of that town.

In 1858, Minnesota became a state, and written into the law that year was a provision that in every township, Section 16 and Section 36 were to be set aside as “School Land.”  This land could be sold, rented or otherwise used to generate income to operate the schools in the township.  An interesting feature of Rockford Township is that, because of the boundary made by the Crow River, it does not have a section 36, and section 16 is split by the river, with half in Wright County and half in Hennepin County.  

Rockford Township having only one half of a section to fund schools, whereas Corcoran had two sections, and Greenwood had one and a half, reveals how the system created in 1858 had inadequacies. And as more and more settlers arrived, new school districts had to be created and mechanisms to fund those districts were needed. Between 1860 and 1865, the legislature vacillated between having counties or townships responsible for the creation and funding of school districts.  By 1865 a system finally arose that remained in place in much of Minnesota for the next century. Two classes of school districts were created:  Independent School Districts and Common School Districts.  Independent School Districts could operate only in incorporated cities, village or towns, and their operation was independent of the county.  Common School Districts were under the control of the county commissioners. Occasionally, Joint Districts needed to be formed, such as in the Rockford area, where a school district’s boundaries would cross county lines and necessitate a special committee made up of commissioners from both counties. Joint districts could be either a common district or an independent district.

The one-room schoolhouses that dotted the rustic countryside made up the bulk of the common school districts. These schools only went up to the eighth grade and each schoolhouse served only one small district of approximately four to six sections of land, each section being one square mile.  Thus, schools in this area were spaced every 2 to 4 miles, the idea being that no child would have to walk more than a mile or two to any given schoolhouse.

As the population grew, new schoolhouses had to be built, and new school districts formed as well. Rockford village built its first permanent schoolhouse in 1859. By 1860, Rockford Township had two schoolhouses outside the village, one being but a log shanty. A few years later, the eastern half of Rockford Township had four districts and schoolhouses outside the village. Those schools had a name to go with a district number, and the North Rockford School was District 40, the Thompson School was District 42, the Riverside School was District 54, and the Liederbach School was District 89. There were also four additional school districts in the western part of Rockford Township, but those schools were more closely aligned with the villages of Buffalo or Montrose.  In all, there were eight rural schoolhouses in Rockford Township.

Corcoran Township had six one-room schoolhouses, but no fewer than eleven districts served Corcoran students, as some districts crossed township lines. The six schoolhouses in Corcoran were the French Corcoran School District 64, the original Corcoran School District 65, Brookdale School District 66, Oakdale School District 67, Burschville School District 107, and Morin School District 134. 

Greenwood had four schoolhouses within its limits: the original Greenwood School District 74 as well as Twin Pond School District 75, Elm Hill School District 76, and Beacon Light School District 77. A tiny fraction of Greenwood was served by District 90 in the southeast, a small bit in the south was part of District 102, and the northern tip of Greenwood went to Hanover Joint School District 122, making eight schools in total that served Greenwood Township.

Joint District 112 was comprised of Rockford village, and approximately three sections of land in Rockford Township in Wright County and another three sections of land in Greenwood in Hennepin County. This Joint District was created all the way back in 1875. Still, this was a common school district, but with a student population quite a bit larger than found in the country schools.  Nonetheless, for a number of years District 112 only served students through the eighth grade. Growth was necessitating more classroom space and to house the increased student population, residents voted to build a new two-story, four-room schoolhouse in 1878, which stood at Maple Street and Cherry Street (which is now Highway 55). 

In these earliest days of education in Minnesota, 95% of students never went beyond the eighth-grade education provided for in the one-room schools. Graded schools, that is a school with separate classrooms and teachers for different grades were much less common. In the villages, graded schools might add a ninth, tenth or even eleventh year of education, but this was rarer yet.  A true high school, that is a school graduating students after a twelfth year, was the exception, as in those days high school was exclusively to prepare students seeking a university education. For the first forty years of Wright County history, Monticello had the only high school. 

The larger schoolhouse that the village of Rockford had built in 1878 meant that it could become a graded school.  It had four classrooms and four teachers, and eventually Rockford begin offering a ninth grade. Students planning on becoming a schoolteacher required only that additional ninth year of education before going off to one of the state’s Teacher’s Colleges. In 1890, Rockford graduated nine young women with ninth-grade diplomas, most of whom became teachers. But there was still no tenth through twelfth grade education for some time, which again, was the norm in that era.  In 1878, the State Legislature had mandated that each county should have three true high schools, that is offering a twelfth year, but the law had a limited effect. It wasn’t until 1903 that Buffalo began graduating high school, and by 1910 Delano was graduating seniors.  Hennepin County was not any different, as it was not until 1903 that Wayzata established its high school.  

At the turn of the nineteenth century, Minnesota had 8000 school districts, the vast majority being the one-room schools and districts such as the many schoolhouses so far mentioned. The state, however, was interested in having more high schools built, so in the first decade of the twentieth century laws were passed to encourage their construction by providing communities with financial incentives.  The 1865 law that limited high schools to incorporated cities and villages excluded communities such as Greenwood and Corcoran, but by 1915 most of the surrounding incorporated cities and villages, such as Montrose, Watertown, Maple Lake and Howard Lake, had an accredited high school. 

Rockford was not far behind, and in 1917, join School District 112 opened a newly constructed brick schoolhouse to provide instruction through 12th grade. This new building on Ash Street occupied the hillside where the middle school classrooms are now located. The first graduates in 1918 were Hulda Hopkins, Lucille Jacobs, Irving O'Meara, and Gertrude Thompson. Hulda’s family were farmers in Rockford Township, located in School District 89, home of the Liederbach School.  Lucille’s family were farmers in what is now Lake Rebecca Park Reserve in Greenfield.  Her school district would have been Joint District 112. Both Irving and Gertrude came from farming families in Greenwood, in School District 76, Elm Hill School. 

Of the kids pictured in the 1922 photo of the student body, Carl Frederick was the sole graduate in 1923; two students, Gladys Greehling and Max Peikert; graduated in 1924; the three graduates in 1925 were Viola Quady, Arthur Farnham and Daniel Farnham, and only Doris Farnham graduated in 1926.  Max Piekert and Viola Quady’s families were both farming in Rockford Township, School District 89, the Liederbach School.  Gladys Greehling’s family had a farm in Greenfield, School District 75, Twin Pond School.  Carl Frederick and the Farnham’s lived in the village. 

For the next 25 years, things stayed relatively the same in terms of the educational system. Despite several efforts by the state to encourage consolidation, the country one-room school system stayed in place, and most children only went to eighth grade.  Occasionally, parents sent their kids to “town school,” and a slowly dwindling student body caused some of the smaller common schools to close and merge with a neighboring schoolhouse. The students in those one-room schools who wished to go beyond the eighth grade had to choose where to go, and sometimes siblings went to different high schools. Few high schools were available however, limiting that choice to Rockford, Buffalo or Delano for most children, with a few Corcoran families opting for Mound, Robbinsdale or Wayzata. 

The 1940s brought great changes to the area. Advances in automotive technology coupled with a newly built Highway 55 and bridge over the Crow River in 1942 enhanced the regions east-west transportation. Advances in farming techniques fueled the transition from many small farms dotting the countryside, to fewer and fewer larger farms. The general trend of the rural population moving to cities was happening in here as well as across the United States. Increasingly technical jobs meant that a high school education went from being an exception to being expectation for anyone not planning to remain on the farm.

Changes such as these contributed to half of the little schoolhouses in Wright and Hennepin Counties closing after the end of World War Two. Many of those students were gravitating to Rockford, crowding the school and necessitating the purchase in 1947 of a surplus Quonset hut from the US Army, which was attached to the 1917 school building to serve as a cafeteria. Prior to this, students from the school walked to the city hall for lunch, which was located several blocks away, where the current Rockford Public Library is. As the 1917 school lacked a gymnasium, the city hall was also used for physical education classes, high school basketball games, school plays, and school dances, 

Those same postwar changes in agriculture, transportation, and education also fueled more legislative reforms aimed at consolidating what remained of the common school system. A 1947 law required that referendums on district consolidations were to be held by county boards, across the state. However, any consolidation was still subject to voter approval. By the middle 1950’s, Corcoran voters in the northern school districts had consolidated with Buffalo, while those in the southeast near Hamel had merged with Wayzata.

In 1954, residents of Rockford voted to change from a common school district to an independent school district. In 1956, residents voted in 15 nearby common districts, three in Wright County and twelve in Hennepin County, the proposal being that those districts merge with the new Rockford Independent School District 112. The small districts did have the ability to join in whole or in part; in total ten of those joined, half joining in whole and half joining in part. Five districts turned down the merger proposal, either joining another neighboring district or consolidating to create a new district, albeit still a “common school” district that did not have a high school.

These consolidations were happening all across Minnesota, both the small schools joining with larger districts, or the small common schools merging with one another. In 1957, a new school district numbering system was implemented by the Minnesota Department of Education, to avoid duplication and confusion. In each county, districts with a high school automatically became an independent school district (if they already were not one like Rockford), and the districts were sequenced alphabetically. Thus, in Wright County, Annandale was assigned number 876, Buffalo 877, Cokato 878, and so on. Rockford School District was assigned 883, and thus became Independent School District 883. 

The remaining common school districts were assigned new numbers as well, so for example in Rockford Township, the North Rockford School District 40 did not merge with another district but was renamed School District 2656; meanwhile, the western half of the Liederbach School District 89 joined with its neighboring District 41 to become School District 2657.  In Corcoran, the Burschville School District 107 was renamed district 586.

A 1959 law pertaining to consolidation did allow for a landowner to petition the county board to detach from one school district, whether common or independent, and attach to another district with which the land was contiguous. Usually, the landowner requests were granted by the county, which resulted in a patchwork appearance to district borders, sometimes with an island of one district surrounded by another district.

Finally, laws in 1963 and 1965 were crafted by the State of Minnesota to deal with the few common school districts that still had not joined with a larger neighbor. The requirement was that any school district not offering a high school curriculum merge with one that did. The law had a deadline, effective July 1, 1970.  To stay compliant with the law, the two remaining common schools in our area, District 2656 in Rockford Township (the North Rockford School) and District 586 in Corcoran (the Burschville School), merged with their larger neighboring Independent School Districts in 1967. In both cases, the larger part of the district voted to join Buffalo ISD 877, and a smaller part voted to join Rockford ISD 883.

The years of mergers meant more students in the schools, and thus the facilities needed upgrading beyond the 1947 addition of a surplus Army building. In 1959, voters approved the building of what was called the Annex, as it was attached to the 1917 school. The Annex opened to students in 1960, giving the new ISD 883 a gymnasium with a stage and seven new classrooms to include those for science, band, chorus, home economics and industrial arts. The Annex meant that the kids no longer had to walk three blocks to the City Hall for gym class or basketball practice.

With the merging of the common school districts into ISD 883, more room was needed for the younger students. Elementary classes were held at various locations in Rockford in the 1960s, due to a lack of space at the school campus.  Thus, for a time, a third-grade class was held in a former bakery at Main and Walnut Streets, and a first-grade class was held at the Presbyterian Church at Maple and Elm Streets.  Voters agreed to fund a new school building, and thus in 1967, a new kindergarten to sixth grade elementary school opened on the northwest edge of Rockford, now Iris Lane at County Road 33.

By 1970, the era of the one-room school district consolidation passed and with it the modern borders of the school districts finalized and took on the shape that we know them as now. But the passing of that era was not the end of growth. Farms gave way to suburban expansion, and the student body of ISD 883 expanded as well, necessitating another new building. This new building was going to be on farmland that was in Greenfield.  In 1958, Greenwood Township had incorporated, becoming the City of Greenfield, however at the time the city lacked a sewer and water system, which would be required by a large, modern school building.  

In 1974, a joint resolution between the cities of Rockford and Greenfield and the School Board of ISD 883 created a unique solution: Land for the new school was detached from the City of Greenfield and annexed by the City of Rockford, allowing for the construction of sewer and water lines to the new building. The new Rockford Junior-Senior High School, in the present location of the high school along County Road 50, opened in 1975, with grades seven through twelve. The 1917 school building was closed, and the 1960 addition known as the Annex served to house fifth and sixth grades. The 1967 elementary school building then housed pre-kindergarten through fourth grade students.

In 1978, the old 1917 building was torn down to prepare the way for a new middle school building, which had since began housing intermediate-grade students in the early 1980s. The 1960 portion was replaced by a new building as well in the 1990s.  In 2001, a new elementary building opened. While it was built to the west of the high school, it is located entirely in the City of Greenfield, as the city had by then constructed a municipal sewer and water facility. Also, in that year an addition was put on the high school building.   

One hundred years after the photograph of Rockford High School students was taken in 1922, the student body remains a mix of residents of Rockford, Rockford Township, Greenfield, and Corcoran.  The boundaries of ISD 883 have remained constant for the last 50 years. And high school graduation has moved from an exception to an expectation, with the graduation rate of area youth rising from only 5% in the earliest years of our history, to one-third a century ago, and to 95% today. 

The 1878 Rockford School.  It was located at the southeast corner of Hwy 55 (then Cherry Street) and Maple Street.

An illustration showing the location of the one-room schoolhouses within the borders of ISD 883.  The yellow land to the west is Rockford Township, the pink area is Greenfield and the light blue is Corcoran.  The larger school icon represents the larger school located in Rockford village.

The North Rockford School (District 40, later 2656).  This image was taken about 1900 and is representative of all the one-room schools in the area.

A 1957 photo showing the 1917 school, and the 1947 “Quonset Hut” addition which served as a school cafeteria.

A page from the 1967 Year Book, showing the 1960 High School addition, known as the Annex, and the 1967 Elementary School building.