Rural school has left a big mark on Koehler family

Editor’s Note: The following is the first in a three part series about Bernice Johnson’s experience as a student at Hill School.

Bernice Johnson

Special to the Dispatch

In 1899, the year my father Rudolph was born, the Crooked Road to Hill School was a narrow wagon trail lined with elm, poplar, and oak trees. Their branches hung low enough to brush the head and shoulders of those who passed on horseback. 

The trail extended two miles between two longer roads that intersected it at either end. The school stood on a hilltop where the trail reached a crossroad that led to Perham in one direction and Big Pine Lake in the other.

Official records date the school house back to 1879. Unofficial records show earlier dates. A hand-written document says it was a socialist meeting hall at the turn of the century. 

In 1889, The Perham Enterprise reported that the January 25 Hill School night class for adults held a debate. They resolved, “that the negro shows more civilization and intelligence than the Indian.” No concessions to political correctness, not for negroes, not for Native Americans, and not for Finns and Germans, most of whom reviled and disdained each other. 

My father Rudy, my mother Taimi, my brothers Norman and Buzzer, and I all attended the small school. So did our parents’ brothers and sisters.

The first of us to make the trek was my father. From 1905 to 1911, he trudged the rutted dirt trail. He took lard or sauerkraut sandwiches with him. It kept him going: Two miles in the morning, two miles at night. Alongside him, in the woods, he said, wolves prowled. 

Six years. Then he was done. That was as long as his mother could spare him from working the fields and tending the cows on their 240-acre farm. 

Rudy was a slim and lanky German. He had already left Hill School when he met my mother Taimi at a house party. One meeting was enough. He knew right then that he wanted to marry the girl he described as “a pretty Finnish girl in a red dress.”

She was 11 years younger than Rudy and had attended school in Leaf Lakes before her parents moved to a home near Pine Lake. Then she began walking one mile east to Hill School every day.  

Taimi went to Hill School through eighth grade and graduated with a near-perfect scholastic record.  

She was just 15 years old in 1926 when she met Rudy at that fateful house party. They married in 1929. 

Brother Norman, born in 1930, was footing the Crooked Road to Hill School by 1936. In 1938, I joined him. Two miles in the morning, two miles at night. 

We walked through a forest so dense that little light filtered in. A thick darkness hung between the trees surrounding Frank Schmidt’s farm and the deep ditch we called the washout. Accompanied by croaking frogs and twittering birds, we trudged along the curving road next to the leafy elms, poplars, oaks, and pines that lined the trail. 

In winter, we tromped through snowdrifts up to our knees. On the coldest days, our mother tied wool scarves around the bottom part of our faces and pulled down our wool hats so only our eyes were visible. Our scarves got wet from our breath but the soggy wool was preferable to harsh winter winds battering our faces. 

I remember only one day that our dad thought the snow drifts were too high for our short legs. He hitched the horses to the sleigh, and we rode the two miles to school nestled into the straw-lined sleigh box. That may have been the year I got a perfect attendance award. It has disappeared in a jumble of old pictures and papers, but I still see it in my mind. A young girl with wavy brown hair leans on a table, humble yet smug, knowing she had earned an award. 

Norman and I saw no wolves during our walks to and from school. A farmer may have shot the one that had followed our dad. Yet we heard them howling at night, an eerie sound that made me feel oddly safe and snug in our log home near the Crooked Road. 

World War II was beginning. The German Army was marching through Austria, while the forests of north central Minnesota were stalked by farmers hunting wolves before they stalked and killed their chickens and calves. 

  In the fall, the washout next to Frank Schmidt’s farm filled with fallen leaves that grew musky smelling as they piled up. The smell grew deeper and muskier after we passed the washout and circled a big swamp on our right. Then down a slight hill till we reached a small creek, which we called the “crick.” Flowers bloomed along its banks, delicate white and lavender Mayflowers in  spring. Brilliant yellow goldenrod and red Indian paint brushes in fall. 

Next was the Holstein farm on the north side of the road, where two bachelor brothers lived. 

Finally, we came to the Big Hill on the south side of the road.  We turned left and climbed a well-trodden path through jack pines and around large mounds that my father said were Indian burial mounds. 

An historical group from Perham marked the mounds long after Hill School ceased to exist. One metal cross marks the graves of thirty-one “Indians.” Other mounds, scattered across the hillside, are marked “settlers.” At the top, there is now a more clearly defined cemetery, the one our dad had talked about. 

He said his sister Rosie, who died before he was born, lay buried there in an unmarked grave. I never veered far from the path because I did not want to step on her bones. 

There is another Rudolph Koehler buried there, too. His bones are also marked by a handmade metal cross next to the metal cross that marks Rosie’s grave. The Rudolph whose bones are interred on the hill was our father’s namesake, a fact that incensed our mother. 

She said, “They shouldn’t have named your dad after a baby who died.” 

Today, the land is called the Pine Lake Cemetery, and there is another metal-cross atop another Kohler grave. But, in the thirties and forties, when Norman and I walked the Crooked Road to Hill School, there were no crosses to guide us. We knew only that we should tread carefully. 

Most of the seven years I attended Hill School are now one grand painting on my mind. And all that remains of the one-room schoolhouse are a few foundation bricks. A rectangular metal piece also remains. It was probably an ashbin for the round-bellied, wood-burning stove that kept us warm in winter. Six different teachers served the school during the seven years that I was there. Two teachers are etched on my mind. My first and most loved teacher was Irma Brunko. She died in 2005, but how vital she was the day I first saw her in September 1938. 

I sat in the front row, the only place I could see the blackboard and Miss Brunko’s smiling face. There were fifteen of us in school that year, four girls and eleven boys, grades one through eight. Carlene Hermann was the only other girl in my class, but the only other person in the front row with me was Gordy Dertinger. We watched Miss Brunko use a chalk stick to create words. I knew some of them from reading Norman’s Dick and Jane book on our farmhouse steps with Aunt Marie.

I would like to will the rest of the words back into memory but cannot. “Farm” maybe, or “home.” “school,” perhaps. Gordy could not read. He picked his nose, ate the snot, and smiled at Miss Brunko, while exciting new word-pictures formed in my mind.

My beloved Miss Brunko married after she taught first grade and left—school board rules stated teachers could not marry during the term of their contract. 

Ruth Sundermyer was our next teacher. For some reason, she left no impression on me. Her name is all I recall. 

Then, in 1940 through 1941, we had the unforgettable Miss Tolppi, an exacting Finnish woman who assigned homework. 

In that year’s school photo, I stand in the front row, the shortest student save for Carlene Hermann’s little brother, Carl. He was a sweet-looking boy who as an adult, took a gun, shot up the family home, and spent the rest of his life in a mental institution. 

It must have been warm when the photo was taken. Springtime, perhaps. My long white stockings are rolled down to my ankles and my rolled-up long underwear is peaking out below my dress. A white barrette holds back my short black hair.  

Another 1941 photo shows Miss Tolppi alone, wearing a full-length black coat and a black hat tipped over her right ear.