Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Remembering 125 years of school in Whitney

When the doors to the Whitney School close later this month, it’ll mark the first time that the Dawes County community has had no school in some 125 years!

Earlier this spring, the Chadron School Board announced its decision to close all rural schools in the county, including Whitney, which held its first classes in 1886 on the ground floor of the Woods Hotel at the northeast corner of Missouri and Division streets.  Many people will remember the filling station that was located there in more recent years.  Within a few months of that early school opening, classes were moved to the newly-built Methodist Church.  

There've been school kids getting educated in Whitney for a long time.  So the “Alumni Open House” set for 2:00-6:00 p.m. on Sunday, My 29th, 2011, at the “new” school in Whitney will be a bittersweet experience -- sort of a last hurrah!  It’ll be delightful to see students, faculty, and friends from yesteryear – as well as those from this final year, but it’ll be sad to see the end of a proud era.

While the existing school seems relatively new to most of us, it sits nearly in the shadow of a two-and-one-half story stucco building that was “school” in Whitney for longer than any other structure.  But there was an earlier one!

This is believed to be the first Whitney school building
 ca. 1887.  Photo courtesy of Sam Couch
According to Mabel Kendrick’s wonderful book “Still Alive and Well - Whitney, Nebraska,” the very first school building was a one-room structure.  It was built on the same parcel of land where both the existing Whitney School and its predecessor stand.  It would have been just west of the sidewalk that led up to the front of the larger, abandoned school building.  The wooden school (shown here at right) served the community for more than 35 years.

The first teacher in the school was Miss Eleanor Burkitt (later Mrs. W.S. Gillam of Chadron).

“A term in those days,” wrote Mabel Kendrick, “was three months, and a teacher was hired for one term at a time.  Each year had a spring and a fall term with vacation between to allow for farm work and very cold weather.  Other early teachers included A.G. Shears, Stella Weed, Stella Cline, and Charlie Stewart.”

“Recess time was spent in free play out of doors most of the time.  Baseball was a favorite pastime.”

“The time from around 1910 to 1922 could be considered a transition period.  The old ways were gradually being changed.  The school term had already been extended to nine months.  A teacher was required to pass a ‘teachers examination’ for which she received a certificate.  Later the teacher had to have a high school education before she could take the test.  A second grade certificate was issued.  A knowledge of geometry, algebra and music was required to qualify for a first grade certificate.  The school day began with ‘opening exercises,’ starting with the flag salute.  The rest varied with the teacher.”

By 1919, the community had grown enough that the school was expanded to two rooms, and by 1921 there were enough students in Whitney school to justify creating high school grades, “so one was begun in the Methodist Church.”

This multi-level school was built in 1922.
It remains standing today.
The early 1920’s were a time of great optimism.  World War I had ended and Whitney had survived the great flu epidemic of 1918 better than most communities.  In the fall of 1922, construction was completed on a new two-and-one-half story school building that would accommodate all grades.

The curriculum expanded, too, including foreign languages.  At different times, Latin, French and German were taught.  There were accommodations for class plays – and even indoor sporting events.  Although its open area basement  was a bit confining, both boys and girls basketball was offered in 1923.  Alas, girls basketball was discontinued in the spring of 1927 because of “the state ban.” 

There were even school newspapers published in the early years, including “The Irrigator,”  which soon became known as “The Mustang,” in recognition of Hastings College, the alma mater of one of the teachers.  For a few years, the paper was actually printed on the presses of the Crawford Tribune.  By the Depression years, the paper became a mimeographed publication and was renamed “The Shunga,” relating to the Sioux word for mustang.

High school classes at Whitney ran from 1921 until 1943.  The last high school teacher was Mabel Kendrick.  We believe the existing Whitney School was built in about 1988 or 1989, but we need help nailing down that information.  Please let us hear from you, if you can offer details!  Many thanks.

3rd and 4th graders at Whitney School; 1948-49
Thanks to Ruth Ann Connell (teacher at left)
Over the years, we’ve collected a few school pictures from Whitney, and most of them have been displayed in our Whitney School Gallery.  We invite you to browse through them.  Even more importantly, we hope you might allow us to add any old Whitney School photos you might have – particularly group photos.  Just e-mail us. Of course, we give full credit to the good folks who offer such items.  You may also want to browse around our Whitney Reflections web site -- even though it is undergoing a bit of reconstruction at the moment.

Too, we hope that anyone with ANY ties to Whitney School over the years will make plans to attend the Open House on May 29.  People of every generation are encouraged to come and share memories.  They’re looking for photographs, written stories, documents, and any similar items.  Contact Michelle Haynes  at  It'll be a grand opportunity to help rekindle some of the memories from the past 125 years. 

We hope to see you there!