Gaines Township Historical society preserves one-room schoolhouse

By Garret Ellison

The Grand Rapids Press

GAINES TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) -- At one time, there were nine one-room country schoolhouses dotting the byways and rolling farm pastures of Gaines Township.

Today, there's only one that hasn't been destroyed by fire, demolished or converted into a private residence. It stands sturdy as the day it was built on the northeast corner of 100th Street SE and East Paris Avenue.

"It was a good school," said Gerald Kayser, a retired dairy farmer who started attending the 124-year-old Detray School in the early 1930s as an elementary student.

"You got to be good friends with those kids in your grade."

Kayser, 85, has lived and worked within walking distance of the school his entire life and fondly remembers being able to bolt from his home on 100th Street at the sound of the school bell and be sitting at his desk before it finished ringing.

Later, he purchased the building and used it to store feed before deeding it in 1990 to the Gaines Township Historical Society. Members view the old schoolhouse as a centerpiece acquisition around which they can continue to build their membership and functions in coming years.

Since taking ownership, the society has tackled the historic restoration bit by bit, raising money to buy original-style desks as they can find them and bring the building up to code to use it for various functions. Community development block grant money in the 1990s helped immensely.

"It actually looks just like it did," said Shirley Bruusema, president of the historical society.

The school was built in 1887 and remained a part of the Caledonia School District until closing amid consolidation in 1960. It's named for Jackson B. De Tray, an early area settler who purchased the land from the federal government in 1852 and donated it for a school.

Before this structure was built, a log cabin school occupied the spot, with a dirt floor and De Tray's wife, Charlotte, thought to be the first teacher.

The school had about 20 pupils in the early 1900s. On the wall above the boys hall door were the words "Knowledge Is Power," and above the girls hall door, "Strive to Excel."

Female students would carry drinking water in pails from nearby farms, and the boys piled wood in the halls to feed the stove to heat the building, which Bruusema said retains heat very well considering its wind-swept location amid acres of farmland.

When Keyser was a student, class started at 9 a.m. and ended at 4 p.m., with an hour for lunch and two 15 minute recess periods, where students amused themselves with games like "Anne-I-Over," a tag-like game involving teams throwing a ball over the building.

The teacher began the day with 15 minutes of reading from a book by prolific 19th century author Horatio Alger, or a round of song-book singing.

"We did our arithmetic on slates with slate pencils," wrote the late Cora Bauman of Wayland in 1976, who attended Detray around 1910.

For lessons in spelling, "instead of the teacher marking our test papers with A's and B's, we were marked with percentages," she wrote. Friday afternoons were spelling bee contests.

Teachers taught grades 1 through 8, Kayser said. They were generally single women who boarded with nearby families and walked to school just like the students. They changed often and rotated between the nearby schools.

The class being taught was brought up to a recitation bench in the front.

"All the students knew what was going on, and some of the younger students picked up on what the older kids were doing," he said.

Back then, country schools were used as a kind of rural community center and Keyser remembers Christmas programs and generous neighbors who donated wood for the stove and did landscaping, partly to keep operating costs and taxes down.

These days, the original blackboard adorns the wall, facing a restored chandelier hanging from the ceiling. The original iron school bell was tracked down and returned in 2008 after 47 years in New York.

Bruusema said the historical society, which recently formed as a 501c3 nonprofit, is hoping to bring in more students for visits when the windows and the floor finishing is completed. The group hosted second grade students from Dutton Christian School in May.

Students these days should know what school was like in the days of quill pens, strict discipline and outhouse bathrooms, she said, and "learn what it means to get an education while not having the amenities you have today."

Published: Wed, Jan 11, 2012