Little schoolhouse on the prairie

Sunshine School District No. 70, in Knox County near Niobrara, Neb. Teacher Theola Mayberry stands next to the building. Her students are: (from left) Ruby Menkens, seventh grade; Barbara Hoferer, third grade; Dorothy Mayberry, first grade; and Ruth Arnold, seventh grade. The photo was taken on the first day of school in 1943.

The Sunshine School in District No. 70, in Knox County near Niobrara, Neb., was one of the last one-room school houses in the state, and therefore, in the country.

According to historian Matthew Spencer, in 1918, Nebraska had nearly 7,000 of these old-fashioned structures still being utilized. In 1986, there were still 385 one-room schoolhouses. In only two decades they would all be gone, due to department of education reclassification policies.

In 1943, the Sunshine School was run by the teacher Theola Mayberry. Her students were: Dorothy Mayberry, first grade; Barbara Hoferer, third grade; and Ruby Menkens and Ruth Arnold, both seventh grade.

“It was possibly the smallest school in Knox County at that time,” said Ruby Roberts (née Menken). “You could tell we didn’t have anyone to take care of the grounds.”

Ruby came from a ranching family in the area. She is one of two people in the photo who are still alive. The other is Hoferer, who currently lives in Bloomfield, Neb.

This school building was later moved into Niobrara and used as a shop area and storage building for the Niobrara School District, Ruby said.

Her sons, Keith and Kent Roberts, are both cattlemen. Their father had been a cattle feeder, she said.

“They didn’t like that at all,” Ruby said. Both boys had been in 4-H, and local leader raised Hereford cattle. “They liked that and became cattlemen.”

Niobrara is both one of the oldest towns in Nebraska, and one of the newest. That is due to the Missouri River.

“Niobrara’s history can best be summarized as being destined by the mighty Missouri,” said historian and author Robert Olson. “On whose banks it was founded and from whose reach it has continuously tried to escape.”

Just as the Missouri River was responsible for the original settlement of Niobrara, it was also responsible for the first move, explained Roberts. In March of 1881, the spring thaw produced one of the largest Missouri River floods on record.

On March 28, 1881, an ice gorge broke and Niobrara residents were greeted by a surge of muddy water. The water continued to overflow until the town was under three to six feet of water for more than a week. Most of the town was covered, forcing people and animals alike to seek the safety of higher ground.

Fortunately, no lives were lost, but this disastrous flood caused the citizens of Niobrara to pick up and move to a new town site west and south of the old site, Roberts stated.

Besides the danger of flooding, Mother Nature had other tricks. The winter of 1948-49 was one of the most severe in the town’s history. At times the only transportation in or out of Niobrara was by helicopter.

When the gates were closed on the Fort Randall Dam upstream from Niobrara, the periodic flooding which eliminated sediment buildup at the juncture of the Missouri and Niobrara rivers was ended. In April of 1952, the mighty Missouri again invaded Niobrara and much of the town and the surrounding area was flooded.

In the 1960s, it became apparent that the mighty Missouri would, again, influence Niobrara history. Silt from the Niobrara River, which began to accumulate in the riverbed, raised the ground water level in Niobrara and the surrounding area. Many basements became flooded with between six inches and three feet of water, requiring constant pumping and it was apparent that the problem would continue to intensify.

In 2019, flooding was so dangerous and fast it caused the Spencer Dam to wash away. In Niobrara, businesses were completely wiped out by the water, as was a major bridge that connects the two sides of the village.

Nebraska is a state noted for colossal natural disasters, said state historian John E. Carter. Prairie and timber fires blacken thousands of acres, tornadoes level whole communities in minutes, blizzards bring the entire state to a standstill.

“Nebraskans respond to these adversities with stoicism,” Carter said. “They clean up, dig out and rebuild.”

Jon Burleson can be reached at jon.burleson@lee.net.

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