Island Grove Township, Gage County, Nebraska
Every two years, people travel great distances to share an afternoon of memories with school mates who remain close to their hearts. Some of these friendships have spanned nearly eight decades, all of them have spanned nearly five. Union Center School District 161 closed its doors to the laughter and wonderment of children in the spring of 1952. It remains a familiar, if fragile, landmark in a deserted community; alumni long scattered to the four winds. What is the magic in its enduring legend? Perhaps the answer lies in a strength drawn from the land and values taught within the old school walls. This is their story, lovingly dedicated to the people, past and present, of Union Center ...
The Great American Desert
Through the first half of the nineteenth century most citizens of the United States accepted the notion that the land stretching west of the Missouri River to the Rockies was a vast wasteland. The endless miles of treeless prairie were deceiving to the eye and below average rainfall in the region led geologists to believe the land to be uninhabitable. When Thomas Jefferson was in negotiations with France in 1803 for the Louisiana Purchase, his principal interest was the acquisition of the area around the mouth of the Mississippi River. Seeing no promise of resources in the vast trans-Mississippi region, he believed it had simply been thrown into the bargain to increase the purchase price.
From The Great Plains by Walter Prescott Web, early 1830's: East of the Mississippi civilization stood on three legs - land, water and timber; west of the Mississippi not one but two of these legs were withdrawn, -- water and timber, -- and civilization was left on one leg -- land.
When the great migrations tracked across the prairie throughout the middle of the century, the ribbon of wagon trails cut across southeastern Nebraska. The Oregon Trail entered Nebraska at the present line between Gage and Jefferson Counties following the Blue River Valley across present day Jefferson, Thayer, Nuckolls, and Adams Counties to join the Platte River near Grand Island. Smaller trails branched through the region; cross-country, just west of the corner one mile east of where the Union Center School building stands today, school children in the 1920's could still see the ruts of the wagon wheels marking one of the old trails. At the top of the hill, a small cemetery of six or eight stones with names carved into their faces stood as testaments to the hardships of the trail. Within sight of the location of Union Center today, in the mile south on the east side of the road, a trading post stocked supplies for travelers and maintained a small post office. A small hotel, converted from a doctor's office across the road, provided a welcome retreat for the more well-to-do.
Few acres of original prairie exist in Gage County today. Wildcat Creek Tallgrass Prairie located 1 north and 3/4 mile east (see map Section 4) of Union Center has been preserved by the Wachiska Audubon Society and was dedicated in June of 1999. It is a fine specimen of 30 acres of original prairie. The preserve is also the former site of one of a few log cabins which existed in the community. Built in 1869, the cabin took 16 men to lift the logs and assemble using the old 'Peg and Mortie Method'. It stood until early 1943, serving its last days as shelter for the Magner family's vehicles until it was torn down and sawed into wood. Another small hill of prairie exists 1 west and 1/2 mile north of Union Center on the west side of the road, the field is cut for hay to present day and this writer personally spent many hot summer afternoons helping to haul hay bales from that field.
With the promise of a trans-continental railroad, speculators bought up large tracks of land across Nebraska in the early 1850's. When the Kansas-Nebraska act was signed in May of 1854, settlements began emerging west of the Missouri River. Aside from speculation, there was little interest in agriculture or industry in Nebraska before the financial panic of 1857 when many turned to farming for lack of other options of earning a living. The first results were discouraging and reports claimed farmers in the region harvested "scarcely any produce enough to support themselves." However, by 1859, wheat fields were producing enough flour to be shipped out of the territory by steamboat. Corn, grown in the region long before the first white settler appeared, became the dominant crop. In 1860, farming was proving to be a fairly dependable way of making a living in the Nebraska Territory. The US census that year showed three thousand farms in Nebraska with an average size of about 225 acres valued on the average of $5.82 an acre. The hazards of bringing a crop to harvest: drought, insects, wind, and hail has remained a problem through the years for those who derive their living from the land.
The First Schools
In the early years, many children in the Nebraska Territory were denied the opportunity to attend school. Of the 10,934 school-age children in 1860 only 3,296 attended any school during the year. With the coming of statehood in 1867 the situation began to change. In 1868, two one room school houses opened in the township of Island Grove, Wildcat (School District # 25) located in section 4 and Island Grove (School District #26) located in Section #23. In 1873, Island Grove Center (School District #52) was added in section 16. In 1880, Pleasant View (School District #108) was opened in Section 8. In 1889, the George Wright School (School District #153) became the last one room school to open in the township. (see 1906 map) In retrospect, the five little schools spaced two miles apart were an admirable accomplishment for the rural community. In 1890 there were only 250 graded school districts in the state and approximately 16 percent of all children between the ages of eight and fourteen did not attend any school.
Poor roads and changeable weather made the young Nebraska township a tight knit community. The Union Hall was built in 1890. Situated centrally between four of the Island Grove schools, it was a busy place for public meetings and box socials. Its location appropriately became known as Union Center. Just as the promise of the railroad drew settlers to the prairie, the most important element of the expansion of the late 1860's, 1870's, and 1880's was the construction of railroads through the state. The fate of the growth of many young communities was sealed as railroad stations passed them by. The nearby town of Blue Springs was a booming river town of 1,600 in 1881 but lost momentum when the Burlington and Missouri Railway ignored the town's bid for a station, opting to cash in on the speculation of town lots a mile and a half south by establishing the town of Wymore.
The Zion Class of the Evangelical began their work in the township in 1890, holding services in the new Union Hall. In the 1899, the Zion Church was erected under the supervision of W. L .Dillow and located one mile to the west of the Union Hall. It served the community on many levels until 1954 when the church merged with the Blue Springs Ebenezer Evangelical United Brethren Church. The influence of these early churches reached beyond their immediate membership, notably in respect to the prohibition controversies of the late 18th and early 19th century. The church also hosted camp meetings on the grounds, filling outdoor tents with crowds several days at a time, ministered by traveling Evangelists. The church was also an important center of social gatherings for members and people of the community in general, particularly before the advent of the automobile and widespread commercial entertainment.
As the century turned, Nebraska farmers enjoyed the good graces of mother nature and a bustling domestic economy for a span of the next twenty years. The advent of the gradual redistribution of population from farms to municipalities beginning in the 1890's brought an increase in individual farm acreage and values. Rainfall was abundant and prices rose. Between the years of 1899 and 1910 the price of wheat increased 67%, oats 78%, corn 140% and hogs 133%. In comparison, the cost of purchases increased a conservative 30%. New discoveries, labor saving inventions and improved varieties increased productivity. The livestock industry also flourished with the development of new serums and production of richer feeds. From 1895 to 1907, the number of hogs increased from 1.3 million to 2.4 million. Cattle reached a 3 million count peak in the years 1907-9.
Despite the threat of the world war that loomed ahead, the close ties that the relatively new settlers held with their homelands and their relation to the homelands of their neighbors, and the vast resources the United States would draw from as they entered the war in 1917; Nebraskan's rose valiantly to the cause. Their major contribution to the war was food production for the armed forces and the allies and in fulfilling that contribution, the state prospered greatly.
Union Center Consolidated School
In early 1917, the people of the Island Grove township were investing their prosperity into a daring new dream. The results of that dream would make the establishment of the Union Center Consolidated School one of the earliest consolidated rural schools offering complete secondary education in the state. In the spring of 1917, the four one room schools serving the 17 sections surrounding the Union Hall closed their doors. Initially, there was talk of building the new school on the corner south of the Union Hall. When an offer came from the Darner family for the use of five acres on the corner to the east, plans were drawn up and construction began. Wagons brought lumber from yards in Blue Springs and Kinney. Douglas Fir 2x12 timbers were shipped in 30 ft lengths, spanning half the length of the new building. The outer walls were built with oversized red brick and covered with stucco.
The doors opened in the fall of 1917. On January 25, 1918, the people of Union Center gathered proudly for a picture on the day of dedication. The impressive 63 ft. long by 48 ft. wide structure came complete with an attached 27 ft. by 9 ft. deep stage adjoining a large community room that occupied the back half of the second floor. The size of the space allotment was a testament to the importance people placed on both education and community. That year classes at Union Center extended only through the tenth grade, by 1921 a full four years of high school were offered, filling the community room space during the day. The first high school graduating class roll of 1922: Frank Becha, John Elwood, and Blanche Emerson.
During the next few years the site of the new school changed dramatically. The Union Hall was moved from across the road to house the machine shop, a teacherage was built to provide a residence for teachers, a livery stable was built for the horses and merry-go-rounds were added in the play ground. A privately operated general store was opened across the road to supply the growing community. The young school was not without its inconveniences. It should be noted that for the span of its thirty five years, Union Center School operated without running water, indoor plumbing, telephones or electricity. A well provided water for the school and the teacherage. Carbide gas lights lit the evening meetings, rural power lines would not reach the school until 1949. Children living within 1 1/2 miles of the school were expected to walk to school. Initially, factory built horse drawn hacks were purchased to bus children living greater distances, but the hacks proved too heavy for the horses to manage. Spring wagons were enclosed with roofs and seating to solve the dilemma. In the early 20's a small fire in the furnace room demanded relocation of the furnace. Of even greater concern was the discovery that the brick walls were separating from the center beams. In the late 1920's, large metal cylinders with long girders were drilled into place above the windows (these girders continue to hold today as the materials they are anchored in deteriorate, fully exposed to the elements).
While the adults of the community worked and worried over each new challenge, the children benefited from the advantages of their consolidated school system and developed a sense of pride as members their rural community. Box socials drew large crowds and school class plays were a favorite springtime event. Laughter echoed through the halls, pigtails ended up in inkwells, and a group of the more mischievous students meticulously dissembled one of the spring wagons and relocated it over night perfectly intact above the bell tower as a Halloween trick.
Twenty Five years later, at the anniversary celebration, Mrs. Fred (Faye Clopper) Garman read the following history of Union Center school: Many years ago a few men living in this community had a desire for their children to get a higher education than they themselves had been able to get. These men got together and discussed a rural high school where this education would be possible, and also the young folks might remain at home. They visited the consolidated school at Humbolt, Nebraska and learned how they conducted their school, how people liked their system and also costs compared to the one room schools as they were then.
The matter was finally brought to ballot after considerable discussion and resulted with three of the districts voting in favor of the consolidation and the other district tying the vote. This tie was later voted off in favor of the consolidation.
Meetings were then held in what was known as Union Hall, located where Union Center now stands. Here a school board of five members was elected to conduct the business of the newly formed district. The five men were Alva Hardy, George Palmer, Fred Trauernicht, I. M. Fisher and Homer Neal. All are living today, but I. M. Fisher, who passed away during the past year.
A building committee was elected for the purpose of construction the necessary buildings and work was started. This committee consisted of John Clopper, John F. Magner, W. L. Dewey, Phillip Goin and Pierce Andrews. All of these men have answered the summons of death except John F. Magner, who still resides in the district.
Most of the material for the new school building was shipped to Kinney, Nebr., where it was hauled to the new school site in wagons. Most of this hauling was donated. Some women and children helped in the building.
In the fall of 1917 the building was completed enough for school to start. Three teachers had been hired. One for the four lower grades, one for the 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th grades, and one teacher for high school. School started about the first of October in the fall of 1917 with an enrollment of 23 in the primary room, with Miss Edith Cole as teacher; 32 in the grammar room, with Miss Agnes Smith as teacher. High school at that time consisted of just the 9th and 10th grades. The following year two teachers were hired for high school, but only the 9th and 10th grades were taught.
Conveyance to school was by means of horse-drawn hacks, driven by school boys. One driver was a high school boy, the other two boys were in the 8th grade. These hacks were very heavy and were not used for very long. Soon hacks of lighter weight and smaller were built, these were still driven by school boys, but more than three were necessary. Later these horse-drawn vehicles gave place to motor buses, and school boys could no longer handle the transportation.
Janitor work was first done by the school teachers and pupils.
Then came the dedication of the new school building. A day long to be remembered by those who attended. A program was given in the morning by the pupils. A basket dinner was served at noon by the ladies of the district, and in the afternoon the program was given by the teachers, with greetings from Co. Supt. T. J. Trauernicht, and an address by H. E. Bradford, Prin. Agr. College. This was followed by remarks from the school board and the building committee. A program was also given in the evening with the address by the State Supt. of Schools, W. H. Clemmons.
Just before dinner, pictures were taken of the crowd and building, and also the pupils from each room.
The school system as started was known as the Smith-Hughes system, teaching Home Economics to the girls and manual training to the boys. The grammar room teacher taught sewing to the high school girls, and music and art were taught by the primary room teacher to all pupils.
In 1921 all four grades were taught in high school, and in 1922 the first graduation exercise was held with three graduates.
Three of the original one-room school buildings were sold and moved to farms in the community for use there. One building was moved to the new school grounds and turned into a shop where the boys took manual training. This was later turned into the janitor's cottage.
from The Weekly Arbor State 1/23/43
The Roaring Twenties
When the world war ended, the people of the United States turned their attention away from international concerns determined to build the wealth of their own country and to enjoy the material inventions of twentieth century technology. Through much of the decade, the people of Nebraska shared in this prosperity. They bought automobiles, telephones, radios and other modern conveniences; cities increased in population and tall buildings changed the skyline. The revolutionary invention of electricity impacted the family home, in particular. In 1900, basic housekeeping chores were expected to take up nearly 58 hours of the week. By 1925, modern inventions cut the allotted time to 44 hours. To put the matter into perspective, by 1975 household workers were spending 22 hours each week doing domestic chores.
Without accessibility to electricity, rural life was quite different from urban life. Mother's farm kitchen in the 1920's consisted of a wood cook stove and an icebox. Her pantry contained store bought supplies of sugar and coffee, but the majority of her produce came from the barnyard and vegetable garden. Each vegetable harvest was methodically canned to provide for the long winter to follow. Livestock were butchered and large quantities of meat were stored in meat lockers in town. Canned meat was a popular delicacy, it's nearly impossible to put to words the flavor of this meat cooked into a stew with biscuits and served on a cold winter's night. The sweet fragrance of baking filled the air nearly every day, and the women endured the heat from the cook stoves through the hottest days of summer. Gooseberry bushes grew wild along the creeks and the children were sent out in early June to pick the plump, tart fruit to bake into pies and boil into jelly. Monday's were wash day, with outdoor tubs of soapy & rinse water and clotheslines filled with bedding and garments soaking up sunshine. Kerosene lamps lit the evenings after a long day's labor. The family often enjoyed playing musical instruments, reading, phonograph music and listening to the radio. Radios were powered with car batteries and B Batteries.
Robert Morris, Union Center Class of 1928: The first time I heard a radio was with one of my schoolmates, Byron Stake. He'd learned how to build a radio all on his own. You listened to it through earphones. He eventually went on to work for Lockheed Aircraft in California.
With the advent of the automobile, neighbors and towns grew closer together. Farmers eagerly embraced the automobile, while it was more expensive than the horse, its conveniences were much more attractive and its demands for maintenance were less burdensome. In the 1920 census, 205,000 automobiles were registered in the state. It is also interesting to note, like most rural communities, the people of Island Grove township were buying automobiles and accommodating road systems for them nearly forty years before Norris Public Power brought electricity to their homes.
Robert Morris: I remember Dad paid $261 for our first new Ford Model T in 1917. He didn't have any trouble driving it home but he couldn't remember how to get it stopped and he drove around the barnyard yelling 'whoa! whoa!' until it finally ran out of gas!
The whole of the industrial revolution coupled with years of prosperity and relief from the end of war, cast an air of gaiety and recklessness across the decade. Indeed, the youth of the 1920's were the instigators of a cultural revolution of their own, its significance overshadowed today by the counter culture movement of the 1960's. The cities were regarded as mecca's for the decadence sweeping the youth of the nation and young ladies were warned not move to the cities, for fear of abandoning their morals. Just as Edith Wharton weaved the opulence and strict social mores of the 1890's into her Age of Innocence, F. Scott Fitzgerald captured the urban urgency and revelry of the 1920's in his The Beautiful and the Damned.
Willa Cather: Too much prosperity, too many moving picture shows, too much gaudy fiction have colored the taste and manners of so many of these Nebraskans of the future. There, as elsewhere, one finds the frenzy to be showy; farmer boys who wish to be spenders before they are earners, girls who try to look like heroines of the cinema screen; a coming generation which tries to cheat its aesthetic sense by buying things instead of making anything. There is even danger that the fine institution, The University of Nebraska, may become a gigantic trade school. The men who control its destiny, the regents and the lawmakers, wish their sons and daughters to study machines, mercantile processes, 'the principles of business'; everything that has to do with the game of getting on in the world - and nothing else.
The youth of Union Center experienced social change from a distance, through radios and magazines; putting their own spin on the decade. Fink's Park, southwest of Union Center, was a short drive on Saturday night and large crowds gathered in the summer when traveling orchestras played for dances. Lawrence Welk was one of the bandleaders who performed there. It was often a different story on the way home when a thunderstorm had drenched the dancers and turned the dusty road home into a muddy trail.
The surrounding towns were also a popular Saturday destination. Cars lined the streets, having brought the family for an afternoon of shopping and an evening at the picture show. Silent film, one of the first waves of mass entertainment, was effective advertising for the towns. Blue Springs and Liberty hosted free outdoor movies on Saturday night and Beatrice had three indoor movie houses with piano players hired to dramatize the action from sheet music written for each scene.
Willa Cather need not have worried. So brilliantly engraved into memory were those years, the generation who came of age in the 1920's remember it with a most admirable sense of bliss. Their genuine love of people and life would carry them through the lean days of the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl and dark days of World War II. In this spirit of celebration, the Union Center graduating Class of 1928 chose their class motto Always Lead, Never Follow, their class flower the Pansy and decorated the Union Center stage in their class colors of Blue and Gold. They installed a new backdrop and extended the construction of the stage by several feet, a gesture of gratitude for the years they had enjoyed in school and as memento from the class.
The Seeds of Depression
The agricultural boom of the first two decades of the century held briefly after the end of the war. A false sense of stability led farmers to mortgage their land to purchase more land at higher prices on which to plant larger crops. By the early 20's, foreign demand for U.S. agricultural products diminished and government guaranteed prices for wheat expired. Wheat harvested in 1919 sold for $2.02 per bushel and plunged to $1.31 after the harvest of 1920. Corn dropped from $1.22 to $.41, oats from $.65 to $.37, barley from $1.00 to$.50, potatoes from $1.90 to $1.20 during the same time period.
Many farmers, under pressure to pay bank loans on land and loans taken to put out their crops, were forced to sell their 1920 grain harvest sustaining heavy losses. Those who held onto grain, hoping for price increases, suffered heavier losses. By the harvest of 1921 wheat was down to $.83, corn $.27, oats $.21 and barley $.28. Although there was some recovery during the middle of the decade, prices never returned to wartime levels. To add to the agricultural recession, farmer's cost of goods sold remained at prior levels. Government repercussions of the war put more pressure on the economy with taxation. Taxes that took 5.63% of the net farm income in 1914 rose to a high of 20.41% in 1922. In seven southeastern Nebraska counties there were 315 farm foreclosure sales from 1921 to 1930.
During the 1920's, there was a heavy emigration from the state, particularity to the west coast. The farm population continued its perpetual migration to the cities. Our nation historically remembers the 1920's as a decade of great prosperity, Nebraska was fortuitously struggling with depression amidst a grand illusion of prosperity.
With the stock market crash in October of 1929 and subsequent panic following, Nebraskans were most effected by the collapse of farm prices. Between 1929 and 1932, farms prices decreased an average of 75%.
Farming and livestock remained the staple of life in Gage County. In 1931 the young people of Union Center organized their own chapter of 4-H. This is an excerpt from Milton Essex's "Report on my 4-H work" :
In 1931, our County Agent, Harold C. Besack, made a visit to our school and talked with the Superintendent, Lloyd A Shepard. Mr. Shepard asked the boys if they would be interested in joining a 4-H club. Several were interested, including myself, so we went into another room and talked over the possibilities of organizing some kind of a 4-H club. We finally decided it should be a pig club. We set May 14 to meet at the school house to organize. Six members joined the club. Dale Richards was chosen president; Howard Essex, vice president; Harold Ellis, news reporter; I was chosen secretary-treasurer, and Truman A. Essex was chosen as the leader of the club.
Our club put up an educational booth at the Gage County Fair. In the booth, we showed the old way and the new way to raise hogs.---The second day of the fair we went to look at our booth and were surprised to see that it had won second prize. Our club received $15.00 for this."
When Franklyn D. Roosevelt was elected President on March 4, 1933, he immediately declared a Bank Holiday, closing every bank in the nation until an investigation of their solidarity could be determined. The Blue Springs State Bank was among the first to meet the requirements and reopened for business on March 10. While it is true that some farmers in Union Center lost their farms during the years of depression, it should be noted that as long as the rain fell, most farmers in the area fared well enough, considerably self sufficient in feeding their families with produce from their gardens and barnyards.
When young men graduated from Union Center in the 1930's most of them stayed to help with the family farm or married and farmed in the area, some moved on west, few went on to college. It was not uncommon for the young women to graduate and begin to teach without further education. Eva Craig, one of the best-loved teachers at Union Center began her career there after graduation.
Robert Morris: When the wheat harvest was over in Nebraska, we would drive to Colorado to help with the harvest. In 1931, Chet Veits, Glen Pyle, Carl Rhine, Vernon Vasey and I followed the harvest to Colorado together.
Baseball was the nation's pass time. Ball diamonds were a common sight around the township. The main diamond was on the southeast corner of the Union Center School grounds, another 2 and 1/2 miles east, one 1/2 mile south. Softball teams gathered on the rural diamonds every Sunday afternoon and for two games on Saturday evenings in Wymore where the diamond was lighted. There were games in other surrounding towns of Liberty, Burchard, Virginia and Armor.
Baseball season 1936
May 4, 1936 Union Center and Wymore UC won 9 to 4
May 8, 1936 Rained cancelled the game.
May 11, 1936 Union Center and Barnston at Barnston
UC lost 1 to 2
May 12, 1936 Union Center and Filley UC lost 2 to 5
May 15, 1936 Union Center and Wymore UC lost 5 to 7
May 18, 1936 Union Center and Lewiston UC won 2 to 0
May 22, 1936 Union Center and Barnston US won 5 to 4
from the diary of Milton Essex
(contributed by his daughter Roberta Essex Everett)
Robert Morris: Gasoline was 9 cents a gallon and the boys would get a gallon of gas at a time, it would take us 25 miles. All the towns had crowds for their town picnics in the summer. Families would bring dinners, there were merry-go-rounds for the children and young people filled the dance halls.
The Class of 1930 had a memorable baccalaureate service at Zion Church. The program was interrupted by news that the General Store across from the school was burning. People left to try to help but there was no water to put on the fire and people watched helplessly while the building burned:
General Store at Union Center Burns
The George Shoff general store was completely burned to the ground Sunday night.
The stock of goods, the household goods and personal effects of the family were consumed, only the cash register and a show case being carried to safety.
The family lived in the second story of the frame building and operated the store below.
The fact that there was a large sale of gasoline early in the evening, drawing heavily upon the supply and which depleted the supply, saved a probable explosion of the liquid and a much worse fire. The gas pump was melted to the ground.
Mrs. Shoff and a small daughter were preparing to retire, using a kerosene lamp, which was accidentally overturned in some manner by the girl and the flames spread so rapidly the family had barely time to get to the floor below with safety. Mr. Shoff and the boys, who were still below, carried out what articles they could get at once.
It is said to have been covered by a small amount of insurance.
The basement under the building is completely filled with ruins and ashes.
--- From the Weekly Arbor State, May 16, 1930
Union Center's community room burst at the seams with frequent gatherings. Every two weeks people gathered for Community Club, meetings of the Parent-Teachers Association, entertainment programs were put on for the whole community.
The Dust Bowl
In the nineteenth century, Nebraskan's had little interest in soil conservation. The focus was on expansion, not conservation. The resources underneath the vast prairie sod seemed endless. The drought and depression of the 1890's caused brief concern and research into crop diversification and rotation, but it was the severe drought of the mid 1930's that finally held the farmer's attention.
Drought came to Nebraska in 1933 and 1934. After a brief stretch of normal rainfall, 1937 dawned cold and dry. By spring, the soil had turned to powder and the winds picked up the dust, filling the sky with a brown haze.
Robert Morris: The hot winds blew day and night month after month. All of the crops were destroyed and there was no feed for the livestock. In 1933, The government offered $12 a head for cattle and we loaded them up in wagons and waited in a line 2 blocks long in Liberty to unload them. In 1937, the soil drifted 1 ½ feet deep in the fence rows and red soil blew in from as far away as Oklahoma.
I remember the day the drought broke. Storms usually came in from the west, but that afternoon a black cloud appeared in the northeast. I was in the pasture bringing the milk cattle in. Before I could get them to the barn, the rain started pouring and it hailed, I was caught out in all of it.
In 1938, we moved 1 mile west and ¾ north of Union Center. Our landlord was from Wayne College and decided he wanted the land terraced. The CCC boys were hired to build terraces designed to carry the water for ½ a mile. When the rain came, the water filled the new terraces and stood, drowning the crops. The terraces had to be plowed down in order to farm the land. [Later, waterways were built to allow the water to drain and terraces became important to soil conservation.]
During the summer of 1938, swarms of grasshoppers filled the sky and wiped out everything in their path. When they were finished feeding on the crops they began eating the fence posts. We would find them in the house eating the curtains and clothes in the closets. The government furnished sawdust treated with poison to control them.
The little town of Kinney in the southwestern corner of Island Grove township would attain a degree of infamy in the desperate years of the depression, unknowingly providing refuge for a group of stylish bank robbers.
Union Center School continued to welcome their students through those years of devastation. Sports became an important part of their education. In the fall of 1939, the boys of Union Center worked for area farmers, becoming "Cornhuskers" in their own right, earning funds with which basketball uniforms were purchased. Undaunted by the fact that they had no indoor court to host games, they practiced on a dirt court in the school yard and went on to finish runner up in the Class D District Tournaments of 1940 and 1942.
Bob Mann, Union Center Class of 1940: When it was decided we could have a basketball team at Union Center we had no gym, our court was a level strip of ground outside. Poles with hoops were installed and the ground was swept until it was hard and smooth. If it snowed during practice, we just swept off the snow and practiced anyway.
In 1939, the boys were excused from school for five days help raise money to buy basketball uniforms for the team. Corn was shucked for Clyde Mann and Carl Rhine and the boys were paid 2 1/2 to 5 cents per bushel. All the boys in school volunteered to help, since the alternative was to attend school as usual.
We had no ceiling to practice under, so most of our shooting had very high arches. We played all the small towns in our area and lost many games due to the fact that the town teams played in buildings with low ceilings.
When we played in the District Play Off in Beatrice in 1940, the town had just built a new city auditorium. The ceilings were very high and we played very well and went on to play in the District Championship. We ended up in 2nd Place but we'd had a good season.
Baseball was the most popular sport for the school and we always had a good team. One day at practice I was playing third base. The bell for school rang and I started to leave the field just as the batter hit one my way. The boys called to me to stop the ball, I turned around just in time to stop the ball with my jaw and one half of my double tooth! The day before Thanksgiving, I made my first trip to the dentist and had the other half removed.
We tried playing football, but after just one practice Raymond Cripe broke his leg and the school board said "no more football." We were playing without pads or helmets with only our coats to protect us.
Doris (Friedmann) King writes about The Friedemann Family's life at Union Center:
In 1940 our family moved from the Prairie Cottage school area to a small farm across from the Zion Church. At this time our family included our parents, Arnold and Edith Friedemann and 9 children -Verna, Lela, Elden, Doris, Dean, Arnola, Elaine, Dale and Lee. Ruth Garman and husband live there now, the church is gone as is the former parsonage where the Rockemann family lived.
Our house was quite small, especially by today's standards - three bedrooms, one for our parents, one for the boys and one for the girls. The kitchen-dining room was as wide as the house and there was a living room, probably 14' X 14'. There was a long screened in porch on the east side and a cave just to the south of the house. Fortunately, we didn't need a big house to be well fed and happy.
Little did we know that first year would be such a tough one. My father had a huge carbuncle just below his knee and he was unable to be up and around. The Rockemann boys came over and did our chores. Praise God for neighbors!
My ninth and youngest sibling, Evelyn Marie was born in July 1940. She was such a sweet child and I sometimes wonder if she was the best thing that happened in our family that year.
I remember riding in the wagon as we scattered grasshopper poison to try to save our crops, helping hold the sheet under the mulberry tree so we could harvest those juicy purple berries, and Dad digging a hole maybe 5 ' deep to store the harvest of potatoes and turnips, covering it with straw & hay to keep them from freezing during the long cold winters. We "picked" potato bugs from the plants during those days when the poison "arsenic of lead" cost money and there was precious little of that. And I can remember never, never, never getting to like mashed turnips and potatoes together. Dad washed so many of those turnips, his crop after the spuds were harvested, and took them to the stores in Wymore to sell.
Our economic level slowly came up and Dad bought the quarter of land 1/2 mile west of us for $50 an acre from the Yarger family. He always wondered if there could possibly be anywhere there could be with more sunflowers than that place. Rainy days were days for the corn knife and sunflower battles as he patiently (and not so patiently) walked the rows and chopped and chopped. Perhaps that is why I dislike the color yellow to this day.
This house was quite new and we rejoiced in being a little less cramped even though there were still only three bedrooms. Two were upstairs, certainly by today's standards inadequate in space, but we lived outside most of the time like most farm families. When the first "water" paint came out; Kem-Tone, in powder, there were several pastel shades,--green, blue, pink and yellow. My sisters and I enjoyed painting the white walls of the bedrooms and the stairway. Wallpaper was the choice for the downstairs rooms.
Our water supply was uniquely planned by making a concrete "room" or "tank" under the dining room. I would guess maybe 16' X 16". A pipe from the windmill & pump about 20 feet from the house transported water from well to house. Inside the house we used a kitchen pump to bring it up to the kitchen. Mr. Yarger's plan was a great idea at a time when most farms were carrying water to the house from the well.
Our transportation to school was by bus except for one more exciting mode of transportation. For some time my brother Elden drove horses which pulled the "hack" which was kind of like a "gypsy" wagon - a box on wheels . We got up in the back and there was a long seat on each side from front to back . This had been the mode of transportation in past years by the school but as motorized vehicles became more popular the hacks were put in the school barn in storage.
One morning the horses got spooked by something and they headed for the school like a typical stagecoach run-away in an old western movie! We were holding on to our seat as tight as we could as the hack careened down the B Line. Ethel Evans was one of our high school teachers, we picked her up as usual, so she was aboard at the time. We were tossed and turned as the ride continued, bless her heart, Mrs. Evans was quite a lady and tried not to show her fear of the outcome of this trip. I'm sure there were some tears shed over that one! To add a humorous bit to the adventure, our family sold milk to the school for the hot lunch program, taking 2 gallon each day to school. The milk containers tipped over during the wild ride ... what a mess! Elden had the horses under control by the time we reached the school with no one injured except for Mrs. Evans dignity!
Some of the bus drivers that I recall were Denny McKernan, Bob Morris, Floyd Cripe & Chester Stoll. I'm sure there were other drivers for the other routes.
At the end of each month the hot lunches served to the Friedemann children and the milk bill were reconciled and I don't know who owed what, it was another way of bartering what you had for something you needed. I was hired to help in the kitchen during the school day, washing dishes, setting the tables and such. I can't remember what it paid but I know it was more money than I'd ever had. The lunch room at that time was on the lower level in the southwest corner of the building. I remember Mrs. Appelget (the superintendents wife) and Mrs. Pearl Hillhouse (Dwaine's mother) being cooks. There were several others from time to time.
Now we liked to eat most things but the least desired food was an attempt to introduce us to soy bean soup. The lunch program was run then by the subsidized food program and we did get a lot of fresh fruits which were not common fare in many of our homes at that time. I do think the soy bean soup was a worthy rival to the mashed potatoes and turnips that I mentioned earlier.
During the years I was in high school we had no competitive sports programs for girls. Longing for some sort of activity during the noon hour we were shamefully advised by Mrs. Zuella Dayton regarding our unladylike behavior ... sliding into home plate, indeed! Of course, we were not dressed in jeans in those days but wore dresses, as all girls did then. In contrast to the jeans and pants that boys wear today I can't remember any of our boys wearing anything besides overalls, patched and clean.
In my senior year I did my "practice teaching" under Bea Pyle. The summer after graduation I attended UNL to earn the 15 hours of college credits needed to be eligible for a teaching certificate. It qualified me to teach in rural elementary schools for 3 years before getting more education.
Many school photos were taken on the front steps of the school and also on the old wooden merry-go-round which was across the drive south of the schoolhouse. My teachers at Union Center included Kenneth Hart, Edna Miller, Supt. Appelget, Mrs. John (Ethel) Evans, Annie Crawford, Zuella Dayton and Hannah Gilmore. In my graduating class roll of 1946: Inez Craig Willet, Betty Lou (Hardy) Siems, Ida May (Eitzen) Maguire, Betty (Post) Frase and myself, Doris (Friedemann) King.
It was great adventure when we went clear to Omaha on our Senior Sneak Trip. Bill Yost , who dropped out of school and joined the Merchant Marines during the war, was our driver and Inez was on crutches from breaking her leg. Mrs. Gilmore was our sponsor and we visited the Boy's Town and the State Capitol.
Since we had no radio at home we were at school on Monday morning, Dec. 8 when we heard the news of Pearl Harbor and we had to study what this might mean to us in the middle of the USA. I remember a heap of scrap iron being donated by the various farmers around UC but I cannot remember what was done with it to further the war cause.
These were some of the immediate memories I have of my 6 years at Union Center. There was a special bond among us there since we were all from farming families and we survived the Great Depression with a wholesome desire to improve our situation. Hard work, great determination to make our own way and a firm belief in our way of life has brought us today with the ability to work hard to accept the varieties of today's urban life. With all the changes we have seen within this one century and we have certainly triumphed !!!
Lela (Friedemann) Miller, Union Center Class of 1943, wrote for the newspapers: Although Sunday, January 24 was not as pleasant a day as might be expected, the 25th anniversary program of the Union Center Consolidated school was held as planned.
Sometime before noon people began gathering but due to the inclement weather no program was given until about 12:30 when the most important part of the day's festivities was ready -- dinner.
As is customary at Union Center everyone present brought well filled baskets and the table groaned under the load of good things that had been brought.
The afternoon was given over to the program part of which had been planned by the committee meeting and part by the school.
The program follows: Community singing; Invocation, Reverend Kramer; Music, grades; History of Union Center, Mrs. Fred Garman; Violin and piano duet, Viola and Elinor Morris; Solo, Kathleen Mooney; Solo, Kenton Vasey; Remarks, visitors and school board of past and present; Violin solo, Laura Ann Wilterdink by Verna Jayne Essex; Solo, Kathleen Mooney; Talk, Mrs. Kramer; Talk, Rev. Kramer; Community sang Auld Lang Syne; Solo, "A Perfect Day" Mr. Appleger with Verna Jayne Essex at the piano and Laura Ann Wilterdink at the violin; Benediction, Rev. Kramer.
Due to gas and tire rationing and the threat of storm many of those formerly connected with the school were kept at home but two of the former superintendents with their families were present. Theses were Mr. and Mrs. Spidel both of whom taught here in the years of 1918 and 1919. Mr. Spidel is teaching in Waverly and Supt. and Mrs. Malone, Carol and Clarice. Supt. and Mrs. Malone were both instructors here in 1927 and 1928 but are now located at Cortland where Mr. Malone is superintendent.
Letters were received from other instructors who found it impossible to be here.
Other guests from a distance were: Carolyn Koehne, Miss Coralie S. Wilterdink, Lester and Paul Wilterdink of Lincoln.
The End of an Era
When Union Center Consolidated School was conceived, it filled a need in a community of several hundred people. Unique in its distant location from surrounding towns; the church, school and store served their community well. With the introduction of the automobile and better roads, farmers had easier access to the benefits larger towns provided. Nearly five decades into a steady migration from rural to urban life, the late 1940's found the school with few students and fewer modern educational resources.
While U.C. remained the largest rural school district in Gage County, the costs of educating and the resulting higher taxation forced the community to circulate petitions to close the grade school in the fall of 1946. With its limited resources Union Center barely maintained its "approved" status set forth by state regulations. Both Barneston, Holmesville and Burchard districts offered proposals to contract with Union Center, but the nod went to the Wymore School District.
The 1951-52 school year ended with a single senior graduate and in June of the community gathered to make the difficult decision to close the school. For the first time in its history, the Wymore School District agreed to enter into the transportation of rural students to its school. Still held by contracts, the complete merger of the two community schools would not be made formal until July 1, 1957. In a community where the building had faithfully gathered people together through World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II, it gathered one more time on a hot day in August to watch school desks and books and sports equipment auctioned off and carried away. The property reverted back to the original landowners.
The Turn of the Century
The old Union Center School building has stood more years empty then occupied. After its doors were closed for the last time, it stood empty for a while. For several years it was used as a shed for raising hogs, in the late 1950's the property owner began the process of tearing it down. The task apparently became more work than anticipated and what remains of the demolition has existed untouched for 30 years. The old timers still find it hard look as they drive by, poetry is written about it, from time to time the newpapers find a piece of its story to tell, but most who know it by name have only seen it as it stands today; fragile, proud and defiant of the hand of man and nature.
Beyond any hope of restoration, the soft red brick crumbles in your hand, the once strong beams split under their own weight, the rows of neatly nailed lath protrude down from the ceilings as the bones of a skeleton, and the walls threaten collapse with the next breath of wind. If you've ever been fortunate enough to enjoy the tireless work of our historical preservationists, this scene is certainly the tragedy we face without them.
Unlike the haunted rooms of many legends, there are no tears falling from the bell tower or ghosts creeping round the stage, only the unmistakable sound of children's laughter drifting on the breeze of a crisp fall morning and the feeling you've come close to experiencing a time when people made less of a living but knew more about how to live life.
Your stories of Union Center are welcome, contact us.
Last update 6/18/2000
story written by Jan Eloise Morris
This story could not have been written without the
contributions of these wonderful people
Gage County Historian
About the Author:
Jan Eloise Morris is a 1970 graduate of Southern High School, Wymore, NE. She grew up on a farm 1 mile west and ½ mile north of Union Center School. Although the school was closed the year she was born, her father's love for the old U.C. school and Island Grove Township influenced much of the 18 years she lived in the rural community and continues to be a source of inspiration today. After 25 years of life in Lincoln, NE; she moved to Los Angeles, CA in the summer of 1994 where she has a Internet Web Design studio. She is an internationally published poet, writer, photographer. "School Bells of the Heartland" will forever be her love letter to her father, the people of Union Center and the memory of her childhood home.
School Bells of the Heartland
Copyright 2000 J. E. Morris