Lessons from the 19th century

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Local first-graders learn what education was like for their pioneer predecessors

By Ben Wiebesiek

FORT LUPTON — The first-graders worked through their spelling assignment with chalk on individual slate boards, slowly scrawling out the words before the teacher called them up to the front of the one-room schoolhouse to demonstrate their work.


    A map of Kansas Territory hangs on the wall behind the wooden rows of desks, but seated on the benches, the students are clearly from Colorado: half of them are wearing orange for the Broncos season opener.
    These first-graders are here at Independence School as part of a social studies field trip from Butler Elementary designed to give students a peek at how their predecessors were educated in the 1800s.
    Their teacher, Monika Nadanyi — dressed in a long skirt and white blouse — rings the rooftop bell to bring the students inside the school, which sits near the historic site of Fort Lupton. Inside, the students will read aloud from 19th century primer books before heading back outside for recess.
    “In first grade we specifically study about the one-room schoolhouse, so it just gives the children an eye-opening experience of what it was like,” Nadanyi said. “And it’s much more beneficial and a lot easier for me to teach it to them if they get to go out there and see it for themselves. And since we have a one-room schoolhouse right here in Fort Lupton, we are fortunate enough to be able to take the students on a field trip out there to see it. It makes it easier for them to understand what I am talking about if they get to see it in person.”
    While only the first-graders make the field trip during the year, students of all ages are welcomed during a three-day course during the summer. Nadanyi taught the program this summer, and that’s where she learned the ropes about Independence, which was open from 1876 to 1900.
    “I did some research, and I did a lot of lesson planning when I taught out there this summer because I did the program during the three days. I had to do a lot of preparation this summer. ... they also get to dress out in pioneer clothing that they can borrow from the museum, and they wear it all three days,” Nadanyi said. “I guess our curriculum drove this because it’s something I’m already teaching here at the school. It wasn’t for my benefit. It was for the kids.”
    And for the kids, it was a hit.
    “They loved it. They were able to talk about how school used to be different, which was one of the goals of the lesson. They were able to compare and contrast the ways that school is different now,” Nadanyi said. “They were able to do that very well and they were able to make those connections about how our history has changed over the years.”
    After the class, the kids head out for recess, 1800-style. One group of kids pushes a hoop with a stick while another group struggles to walk five feet on old wooden stilts. The students smile while competing to see who can master the unfamiliar games first.
    The South Platte Valley Historical Society owns and maintains the school, which replaced an even earlier log cabin schoolhouse that was used from 1864 to 1875.
    “As Western expansion advanced, the first railroad track came to Fort Lupton,” the SPVHS article states. “Farmers and ranchers replaced fur traders and Indians as a result of newly dug irrigation ditches. As the community grew, the school board voted to build a new schoolhouse in 1876. The children first named this schoolhouse ‘Acorn Academy’ because a cattle ranch nearby used an accord for its brand.”
    The school received its official name in the 1890s — and its first teacher: John Perry.
    “Farm families had difficulty finding funds, however, to pay a teacher during those early years,” the article states. “The population grew and in January of 1900, school patrons built a new brick school house. It still stands today on old Hwy 85, also known as WCR 27, south of the town of Fort Lupton.”
    With a new school in town, Independence School assumed new identities, first as a house for migrant workers and then, eventually, a vacant building.
    In 1998, the Watada family donated the Independence School to SPVHS. The building was moved seven miles north to its present location. Volunteers restored it with the help of a Colorado State Historical Fund Grant.

Contact Ben Wiebesiek at
303-659-2522, ext. 205, or email bwiebesiek@metrowestnewspapers.com.