We encountered this building a number of years ago while driving across South Dakota. I’d been hoping to see such places and so we’d driven the entire state on the grayest highways we could find on the road map.
We climbed out of the car into a landscape which mixed the serene with the surreal as effectively as any Hopper painting. Around and behind the building there was nothing but grass as far as you could see – a scene of such elemental minimalism that it was close to breathtaking. For me, finding these places has become the defining moments of many trips and I’ve never been able to walk away from them without engaging the camera.
Between the 1890’s and the 1950’s one room schoolhouses existed at regular intervals across the high plains. These were the same years when the middle third of our continent underwent a radical transformation – and as we all know, the changes didn’t come easy. If the prairie was easy to plow it was often harder to tame. The wooden grain elevators and other structures have now mostly faded into the landscape. Perhaps what remains is totemic, an expression of a deep-rooted simplicity that belongs to that landscape and belongs with us as a people. If the buildings stay with us, they will be the relics of an uncomplicated esthetic that existed before the arrival of modern clutter.
While I was taking this picture, my wife and two year old son played nearby in the grass. For me it was easy to conjure up the bygone recesses… running children in hand sewn-clothes, scolding teachers and fifth grade crushes. My son was oblivious to those thoughts because it was June and a good time for insects. The winds picked up and I walked around the building with my camera. Each side seemed to have it’s own game – four courts of light and four plays of texture. Above us the sky was strewn with clouds – distant, but at the same time appearing unusually close. My wife and son sat down on the doorstep and I took pictures of them. When we peered in the windows we discovered desks, shelves, furniture covered with blankets and a long-forgotten piano.
Yesterday I found a link to historic photographs of Kansas one-room schoolhouses. The site is an excellent example of an archive doing exactly what it’s supposed to do. My wife and I spent much time poring over the pictures, especially the class portraits. These were auspicious warm-weather events with kids in their finest clothes – days when everyone was ushered outside onto the grass to pose before the large camera. The children formed a group and their teachers were placed behind them. Everyone stood still and the exposure was made filling the air with the smell of magnesium flash powder. Behind the class the photographers kept it simple…always the school house and maybe a glimpse of prairie. You might find, as we did, that the faces of the children will unleash your imaginations with the details of their many possible stories:
More images of abandoned buildings from the Dakotas (and elsewhere) can be seen by clicking on this link: