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One-room schoolhouse a window to the past

Published: Tuesday, July 1, 2014 5:30 a.m. CST
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(Doug Oleson – doleson@shawmedi)
Jill Muirhead of Rivendell Alpacas shows Kiyah Jones, 6, of Cortland how to comb alpaca wool in preparation for spinning it into yarn.
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(Doug Oleson – doleson@shawmedi)
Libby Swedberg (left) and Leon Halatek were among the group tying up the maypole at the annual open house at the North Grove one-room schoolhouse on June 28, 2014. The weekend-long event featured a number of old-fashioned games like the maypole.
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(Doug Oleson – doleson@shawmedi)
The historic one-room North Grove School northwest of Sycamore opened to the public for education and entertainment June 28 and 29, 2014.
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(Doug Oleson – doleson@shawmedi)
Cousins Steph Irving (left) and Libby Swedberg pose for photos in a vintage buggy at the North Grove one-room schoolhouse's open house on June 28, 2014.
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(Doug Oleson – doleson@shawmedi)
Josie Halatek, 1, of Sycamore tries out the desks at the North Grove School northwest of Sycamore during the one-room schoolhouse's annual open house weekend June 28, 2014.

SYCAMORE – Carole Lichty remembers the first time she returned to North Grove School.

“I walked in and I felt like I was 7 years old again,” Lichty, of Sycamore, said. “It felt like home. These were people you grew up with. You were very comfortable with them.”

Lichty only attended the one-room school northwest of Sycamore for two years before her family moved to another rural school district. She said there were about 20 students at North Grove when she attended, half of whom were related to one another.

One was her cousin, Alice Whitney of Sycamore, who left before the sixth grade to attend a town school.

“It was kind of like family,” she said. “You were close to all the kids.”

The two women attended the seventh annual North Grove School Days last weekend. The two-day event offered free tours of the schoolhouse, old-fashioned games that students who attended the school might have played, a petting zoo, live music, crafts, lunch, and demonstrations of folk arts like rosemaling, a Scandinavian wood-carving art. This year’s theme was “Celebrating Education.”

T.J. Irving, president of the North Grove School Association, said the nonprofit association that leases and maintains the historic schoolhouse tries to add something new every year to make sure the one-room school is not forgotten.

Whitney said her great-grandparents were among those who helped to build the school in 1878. Her grandparents and parents attended the school before she did.

“I am proud of it,” she said.

Two other cousins, Steph Irving of Chicago and Libby Swedberg of Sycamore, said their families also helped built the school.

“We think it’s a treasure,” Steph Irving said. “We want to keep the community, especially the youth, involved.”

The two women represented two generations of North Grove students, with Swedberg in 1870s dress and Steph Irving dressed as a 1920s flapper. They took souvenir photos of people sitting in an old-fashioned buggy and a 1931 Ford.

Among those they photographed were Leon and Julie Halatek of Sycamore with their children, Josie and Lee. The family was visiting the school for the first time.

“It’s nice to have a family-friendly event,” Julie Halatek said.

According to T.J. Irving, the North Grove School was built by members of the Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Church to serve as a parochial school and a Sunday School. Before its construction, Swedish immigrants took turns holding classes in their homes. For years, classes at the school were taught in Swedish.

Association member Marcia Wilson, who led tours last Saturday, pointed out that the desks were of varying sizes to accommodate students in grades 1-8. The desks near the windows, she said, were for the younger students because they were smaller and wouldn’t block out the sunlight, while the older students sat near the blackboard. Teachers, who often lived with the families, were also responsible for cleaning the building and keeping it warm in the winter.

The DeKalb County public school system purchased the school in 1880, and it was sold to the Sycamore School District in 1949. The school, which closed in 1952, is still owned by the school district, which leases it to the North Grove School Association. The association formed in 1985 to foster an awareness and appreciation of the school, and to preserve, restore and protect its historical significance.

The building was used for storage from the mid-1950s until the 1960s, when the Natural Resource Center in Genoa held special educational programs there. In 1970, the school was listed in the Illinois Directory of Historic Buildings, and in 2012, the building was placed on the National Registry of Historical Places.

Wilson said North Grove is one of only two one-room schoolhouses left in DeKalb County, and is the only one on its original site. The other, the Milan Township schoolhouse, was relocated to the campus of Northern Illinois University in 1996.

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