Search billions of records on

One Little School House And How It Grew


JoEllyn Clow

Before the turn of the century the one-room schools werea vital part of the Pembina community. These schools, which were the forerunnersof the present school system, have an intriguing, but vanishing history.Back in the days when the Chippewa Indians and fur traders were the chiefinhabitants of the Pembina area, formal education was practically non-existent.But, as the Selkirk settlers and others moved into the area, the need foreducation was evident. The grown of business due to the Red River cart trains,the steamboat ear, and the beginning of the railroad, also created a greaterneed for education.

In September of 1818, something new was added to the settlementat Pembina. About one and a half miles north of the present city area, aCatholic Mission was set up. Father Severe Dumoulin, and teacher, WilliamEdge came to accommodate the children of the voyagers and the courier debois in what they then thought was British Territory. Three hundred peopleattended the mission under the religious teaching of Father Dumoulin, andsixty children were schooled under teacher, William Edge. This flourishingestablishment was abandoned in 1823, when Major Long verified the InternationalBoundary Line and the school was found to be in the United States, abouta half mile south of the border. In 1960, interstate highway number 29 wasbuilt within about forty feet of the mission site. The State HistoricalSociety of North Dakota placed a marker there about one year later, at therequest of the local citizens.

When Augustin Nolin, a voyager who formerly lived at SiouxSaint Marie moved to Pembina, his two daughters taught children in the homeson both sides of the boundary line, as no schools were available until theCatholic Mission was re-established in 1848.

The new mission was built by Father George Anthony Belcourton the same site as that of 1818. He played a very important part in thelives of the early settlers. Being a very practical man, he was an excellentteacher for both children and adults. He had great influence with the Indiansand helped them to acquire the ways of civilization. In 1853, because offlooding of the Red River at Pembina, he moved his mission to what is nowWalhalla. After he moved there his school for the Indians was given governmentaid. "Not withstanding the lack of money which he deplored and theprivations and hardship involved which he welcomed, Father Belcourt visitedthe Indians on the Western plains. Even before he made St. Joseph his permanentresidence in 1853, it was the center whence he set out on these expeditions."(1)

"Before he (Father Belcourt) went to reside in Walhalla,a Presbyterian minister opened an English school in Pembina. The schoolwas in operation in 1853. It was taught by George Northrup, a frontier scout,who claimed the honor of being the first teacher in a Protestant schoolin that part of Minnesota." (2) Since Father Belcourt moved to Walhalla,George Northrup was given the opportunity to set up his teachings in thePembina settlement.

A North Dakota town was named for Father Belcourt, andan Indian school is presently operating there. The government is erectingmodern homes for the resident Indians and in nearby Rolla a watch makingindustry was recently established by the government in order to help theIndians earn a livelihood. They are very skillful and proficient at combiningthe delicate mechanisms. In earlier days Father Belcourt had discoveredthis manual skill.

In 1870 Father Simonet conducted a school taught by BrotherDoyle in connection with his church which was now within the area of thepresent city. Attendance was open to the general public. Children of manypioneer families of other faiths attended the school. There were nine childrenin the first class: three Nelsons, two Vaughns, and four Cavelcer children- Ned, Mac, Albert, and Lulah. The parents paid Father Simonet and BrotherDoyle. They had separate classes for Indian children, to teach them catechism.Folks vied with one another in preparing baskets of food for them. Manya basket went to the priest from the Nelson home.

One day an organ was unloaded from the steamboat and putinto the chapel. Father Simonet could play! It was his delight to gatherall the children about the organ and teach them songs that he loved so well."(3)

In 1871 the United States Military Fort, a mile south ofPembina was occupied. Many children were among the families of the soldiers.One of the soldiers taught school in Pembina and Father Simonet discontinuedhis school.

These schools were all forerunners to the school of 1874.In his report dated December 15, 1876, J. J. McIntire, Superintendent ofPublic Instruction writes: "In 1873, I formed all the settled portionsof this county into districts numbering from 1 to 6 and gave notice as requiredby law for the first meeting thereof. District Number 1, which includedthe village of Pembina, was the only one however, in which full organizationwas effected." (4)

In 1818 Pembina had the first school in what later becameNorth Dakota, and according to the above report by Superintendent McIntire,it may also claim that it had the first public school with a full organizationeffected. F. A. Wardwell taught in this school many years, beginning inJune, 1877. Classes were held with 30 children, between the ages of 5 and21 in attendance, and the sum of $105 was paid out for teachers wages and$35 for incidentals. This school was moved to the business area and wasused as a Flour and Feed Store by F. A. Feldman. When the store was abandonedthe building was unused for a few years until it was moved by members ofthe Masonic Lodge to a site beside the present city hall. It still is incontinued use as a Masonic Hall. Yet, there remains a reminder that at onetime it was a school house, as the blackboards have been retained and theteacher, F. A. Wardwell is listed in North Dakota's Hall of Fame.

A brick school house with a bell tower was built on thesame site as the first public school. This was used until 1917, when itwas burned. Some of the first graduates attended the University of NorthDakota in its early years. One of them was Sydney Wardwell, son of the pioneerschool teacher. Another was Lucy B. Conmy, oldest of a pioneer family ofeleven, who graduated as salutatorian of the University class. This schooland those following it to the present day have supplied leading athletes:among others are two McKay brothers, the three Conmy brothers, Stanley Kneeshaw,and Dean Ritter.

The pupils were housed in the Old Court House during thebuilding of the 1919 school which was a modern brick structure. Since thenthere have been more developments and additions. A 75,000 dollar gymnasiumwas added in 1958 and more classrooms in 1967. Before reorganization in1959, Pembina School District had a value of $400,000. Now it contains allor part of 11 districts, comprising 127 sections, with a valuation of $750,000.

This is a chronicle of 150 years of school developmentin Pembina. Progress is far beyond the rough log cabin school of 1818. Theone room school of the 1870's has increased in size over the years intothe large modern structure of today, with a total personnel of 25 teachersand employees. The lunch pail of early days has been replaced by the noonlunch program using surplus government commodities. School buses furnishtransportation where once travel was by Red River Carts.

Our foresighted pioneers realized that progress and educationgo hand in hand. From their efforts many small school houses mushroomedup over the prairie. Theirs was an intriguing but vanishing history. Littlecould our pioneers have realized this modern era with its network of highways,which permitted consolidation of our school districts and the developmentof our modern schools which are as vital as the one room school was in pioneerdays. Again as in pioneer days education and progress go hand in hand. Weare grateful to the pioneers of our bountiful Red River Valley for theirforesight in establishment of schools. Thanks are also due to the officialsof the public school systems over the entire valley for the results theyhave obtained from their efforts to promote the pioneer idea of schoolsin every community.


(1) "Reardons" Father Belcourt. (December, 1938)Pg. 127

(2) "Reardons" Father Belcourt. (December, 1938)Pg. 370

(3) "Excerpt from Martha Nelson's Diary" 1871

(4) Libby Manuscripts, North Dakota State Historical Society,Bismark.

rpt from Martha Nelson's Diary" 1871

(4) Libby Manuscripts, North Dakota State Historical Society,Bismark.