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Marshall County rural schools: A history

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - The old Le Grand Public School building pictured sometime after its completion in 1871.

Editor’s note: This is the first part in a Times-Republican Education Corner series on some of the area’s rural schools. The series will look at the history and formation of the schools, as well as what challenges they face in modern times.

It’s been well over a century since the first white settlers came to what is now Marshall County. As they arrived, they got busy setting up key foundations of modern towns: roads, homes, stores, churches and schools.

In the time since, there has been an immense amount of changes to education in the state. Three rural school districts in the county – West Marshall, East Marshall and Green Mountain-Garwin – each has a unique history. History also shows some patterns shared among the districts.

Past actions, modern impacts

Each of the West Marshall, East Marshall and Green Mountain-Garwin districts has its own origin story. While unique in their own ways, there are also clear patterns that appear when it comes to the timing of mergers between and among small schools.

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - People and horse carriages pose outside the St. Anthony Consolidated School building, which opened in 1913 and closed in 1957. The building has since been destroyed.

As accounts in the book “The Continuing History of Marshall County Iowa, 1997” suggest, residents in some of the communities who lost students or entire school buildings because of consolidation were opposed to merging into larger districts.

“The small town people, like we were … thought consolidation was probably not good for us because we would lose our school,” said 34-year Marshalltown Schools teacher and current Green Mountain-Garwin substitute teacher Julie Lang. “There are pros and cons like there is in everything.”

Lang said she grew up in Van Cleve, east of Melbourne. That small town was eventually added to the Marshalltown School District and its local building closed.

Lang said Van Cleve, just like some communities in the West Marshall, East Marshall and GMG school districts, could not keep up with the educational and facilities needs required by the state for student success.

She said the first wave of consolidations in the late 1800s and early 1900s came as a result of country schools banding together. In the 1940s and beyond, she said consolidation saw schools in smaller towns lose out in favor of those in larger towns, like State Center, Le Grand and, in her case, Marshalltown.

Gary Krob of the State Library of Iowa’s State Data Center said the state’s population experienced steady growth throughout those time periods.

“Iowa’s population in general has always just had a slow and steady population increase,” he said, noting that was prior to the farm crisis in the 1980s.

He said international immigration from places like Germany and Ireland was a key to that population growth in the early- and mid-20th century like it is today. The arrival of the Baby Boomer generation also contributed to the growth of the state’s population.

Krob said looking at historical population data can sometimes be difficult because methods of collecting information were different than they are now.

West Marshall

Today, the black-and-gold of West Marshall Community School District covers State Center, where all of its education buildings are located, as well as Melbourne, Rhodes, St. Anthony, Clemons and LaMoille.

The modern district came to be in 1962 after an election was held to consolidate several independent area districts into West Marshall, according to “Continuing History.”

The first small schoolhouses appeared in the district in the 1860s in Rhodes and State Center. LaMoille followed suit in 1870. After that, a first wave of school consolidation began in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Rhodes Consolidated Schools started in 1883, combining students at several area schoolhouses. The same happened in State Center in 1909 and in LaMoille and Melbourne around 1914-15, according to “Continuing History.”

That was the way of things in western Marshall County for a few decades. Another wave of consolidation came in the post-World War II period. Minerva Consolidated School combined with State Center in 1945, and LaMoille did the same in 1955. Rhodes and State Center combined in 1961, just before the final 1962 formation of West Marshall.

The formation of the current district didn’t immediately spell the end for local school buildings in the other towns. However, as the years went on and new educational additions popped up in State Center, other towns began to lose their school buildings.

The final blows came in 1979 with the closing of the Clemons school building and in 1983 with the Melbourne school closing.

According to “Continuing History,” there was discontent among some citizens in the smaller towns around State Center when it came to consolidation.

“Rhodes’ citizens vehemently opposed the (local school) closing because they anticipated a negative effect on the town, but were unsuccessful,” it reads.

East Marshall

On the other side of the county, the purple-and-gold East Marshall Mustangs have come about much more recently. That district currently serves the communities of Le Grand, Gilman, Laurel, Quarry, Dillon, Dunbar and Ferguson.

East Marshall was formed in 1992, according to “Continuing History.” Prior to that, there were a couple of waves of consolidation.

The first school in Le Grand was established in the mid-1850s. By 1871, it was clear a bigger space was needed for the students so a two-story brick schoolhouse was built on the northeast side of town.

A three-story building was built in 1916 to accomodate even more students, but it burnt down sometime in the seven years thereafter. A replacement building was constructed and opened in 1924 and continues to serve as part of East Marshall High School.

As with West Marshall, some communities lost schools as a result of consolidation. The Dillon school closed in 1955, and the nearby Rock Valley school lasted from 1862-1954.

Ferguson initially had a two-room schoolhouse prior to consolidation with nearby schools in 1915. The last class to graduate from Ferguson was in 1960, and after that the school was for third- and fourth-grade students in the Le Grand-Dunbar-Ferguson (LDF) school district and, later, East Marshall. By the 2010s, Ferguson’s school was also closed.

There was a consolidated school in Dunbar from 1922-1958. The building continued for some time to serve fourth- to sixth-graders for the LDF district before being closed.

The towns of Laurel and Gilman continue to serve East Marshall’s elementary and middle school students, respectively. Laurel saw a new brick schoolhouse built in 1920 and in 1951 a new high school was built.

Change came for Laurel in 1963 when it consolidated with Gilman’s school and part of Jasper County’s Mariposa Township to form the South East Marshall County (SEMCO) district. That district combined with LDF for a few years until East Marshall was formed in 1992.

The first school building in Gilman lasted from the 1870s to 1908, when a fire burned it down. The next year the building was replaced and has been renovated since. It is the current East Marshall Middle School building.

Green Mountain-Garwin

The GMG School District straddles eastern Marshall County and western Tama County. Green Mountain, that small community just northeast of Marshalltown, experienced many of the same pressures as other towns across Marshall County in the 19th and 20th centuries.

According to “Continuing History,” students in the Green Mountain area went to a one-room school house a little north of the current school’s location prior to 1921.

It was in September of that year that voters decided to approve the creation of Green Mountain Independent School District. That decision followed two previous unsuccessful attempts to create the district.

In 1952 came a major decision allowing for the construction of a building to house students in grades four through six and the superintendent’s office for $120,000.

Things remained fairly stable for the small town’s school in the following decades, according to “Continuing History.” Then, in 1992, the current district of Green Mountain-Garwin was formed when the two communities’ schools merged “after much discussion.”

Nowadays, Green Mountain hosts the district’s elementary students through the sixth grade while Garwin is home to the junior/senior high school.

From one- and two-room schoolhouses on the plains in early 20th century to multi-floor and multi-building school campuses today, the rural schools of Marshall County continue to change as time goes on.