It’s an ambitious project that’s for sure, but the North Clayton Cardinals 4-H Club might be just the organization to spearhead the effort. After all, if it works out, they’d be the major user of a revitalized North Clayton Community Club.
On a recent blustery December morning, officers of the club, along with a couple of their parents and leader Margaret Davidson, gathered at the old building to look it over and explain some of their plans for it.
The North Clayton Community Club is located on County X about a mile north of County H in northeastern Crawford County. It was originally a one-room school built in 1889 to replace two different log cabin schools that were used in North Clayton beginning in the 1860s. The building was a big improvement over the log cabin schools and multi-grade classes were taught there until 1961.
Bonnie Young, Soldiers Grove, was the North Clayton School’s last teacher. She taught until the end of the school year in 1961, when the school was closed. Laurel Hestetune, the current village president of Soldiers Grove, did his student teaching at the North Clayton School with Bonnie Young in the spring of 1961.
However, the end of the North Clayton School was not the end of the building. It was converted into the North Clayton Community Building and served the local 4-H Club and others until some point in the 90s. In fact, Carrie Morga, recalled attending 4-H meetings in the building in 1991. Carrie is the mother of Faith Morga, the current secretary of the North Clayton Cardinals.
The 4-H Club and others stopped using the building at some point in the 90s because of structural damage to the floor or walls. The building deteriorated from there.
However, thanks to the persistence of Davidson and others involved in the North Clayton Cardinals a north wall was repaired recently and the floor was stabilized. The next step is sealing the building against the weather by closing off some open windows and doors.
Despite its state of disrepair, the North Clayton Community Building appeared to be in relatively good shape as the North Clayton Cardinal 4-H Club officers and their parents looked it over earlier this month. Everyone seemed optimistic about the chances of revitalizing the old building, so the club can return to hosting the Halloween socials and the benefit auctions there, as they had in the past.
“It’s a big project,” Margaret Davidson readily acknowledged, as she looked around the building that is so dear to her, as it was to her mother the late Eunice Johnsrude.
Davidson attended school in the building, as did her grandfather, Henry Grandstaff, and grandmother, Freda Adams. While Margaret’s sadness at seeing the old school in its current condition was obvious, her excitement at the prospect of reviving it was also readily apparent.
The last teacher at the school was Bonnie Young. She still recalls with fondness her years teaching in North Clayton and the sadness that accompanied the closing of the school in 1961.
“It was sad,” Young said. “The parents really wanted to keep the school open, but it wasn’t feasible. It wasn’t going to work. It was one of the last one-room schools to close. It was time to go along with the (Soldiers Grove) district and everybody started going to town.”
Young still remembers writing the lessons for the next day on the chalkboard after the children went home for the day. She also remembers the heavy drifting snow of those last winters teaching on the ridge. She laughed to recall the outhouse, the old coal stove and the kids playing softball in the schoolyard.
The school’s last teacher likes the plan to revive the building.
“I think it’s a good idea,” Young said of the plan to revitalize the former school building. “I went to a lot of country schools growing up and now two are completely gone. It’s kind of sad. This school is still in a little community setting and there’s no place people can get together as a community. I think reviving the building could bring the community back together.”
Another local resident with good memories of the school is Laurel Hestetune, who did his student teaching assignment at the school in the spring of 1961 under the direction of Bonnie Young. Hestetune laughed as he remembered teaching eight grades in the same room.
“Compared with today, it was chaos,” Hestetune said recalling those moments from so many years ago. “It was unique…I think the kids received just as good of an education as today. The little ones learned from the bigger ones. The kids were well behaved….that’s why it worked.”
Hestetune remembered that the community was “behind everything” at the school. Like others, he recalled basket socials and the big Halloween social.
What about reviving the old North Clayton School building?
“In some ways I think it’s great,” Hestetune. “It would save a lot of history that everyone had in common. It would bring back a lot memories.”
Hestetune asked about the storm cellar, which was built to protect the children of the ridge top school in bad storms. He also recalled the sled rides behind the school that went out through pastures with gates opened for the kids on sleds.
“I remember there was a lot of fun,” Hestetune said.
It’s not just Margaret Davidson, Bonnie Young and Laurel Hestetune, who are excited at the idea of rejuvenating the old building. The North Clayton 4-H Club officers seemed equally enthused by the idea.
“I think it will be fun cleaning up the place,” said Brennah Ghormley, the club’s treasurer. Her brother, Dylan Ghormely, the club’s vice president, agreed.
“It will take a lot of work and money,” said North Clayton 4-H Club President Hunter Roberts, as he looked around the old building. While it was a frank assessment of the situation, Roberts seemed as ready as the rest to take on the project.
Amazingly, there are still a few remnants of the days of 4-H Club’s use and even the school’s use before that. There’s a faded green velvet banner at the front of the room from some 4-H dairy activity, as well as a few old 4-H dairy showmanship trophies. There is also an upright piano and, of the course, the big blackboard from the old North Clayton School.
One day, the piano may be tuned and the black board may have a welcoming message, but getting there will probably take a “lot of work and money,” like Hunter Roberts said.
While the local 4-H members look ready to take on the challenge, they acknowledged they could use some help from friends and alumni of the North Clayton School and the North Clayton Cardinals 4-H Club.
Anyone wishing to make a donation to help with the rehabilitation of the old North Clayton School building can do so by mailing a check to Peoples State Bank, North Clayton Community Club Account, PO Box 7, Soldiers Grove, WI 54655. Checks can be made out to North Clayton Community Club. Deposits can also be made in person at the bank.
Anyone with questions or ideas about the project can contact Margaret Davidson at 608-624-5235.