Pioneer Struggles #16

Author’s note: I share the Neponset township stories because this is my home and I want the old stories to live on. I fully understand my narratives are transferable to Tiskilwa, Dover and Sheffield townships and towns. They all have Civil War veterans, one-room county schools, and long-established families. Please support your local historical societies.

Our early pioneers were busy folks building cabins, clearing prairies and timber for crops, raising families and livestock, providing all medical support and a church life all while understanding the value of education and stepping up to that responsibility as well.

The first log cabins served a tri-purpose: home, school and church. The next early buildings served as the school, church and community center. Our townships are normally surveyed into six mile by six mile squares, or 36 square miles. Each square mile is called a section and early Neponset settlers decided every four sections should have a school.

The concept was a child would walk no farther than a mile to school. As families grew, it was no problem filling up the schools. The first cabin in Neponset township was built by the William Studley family in 1837. This is where the Native American Sauk Trail cuts through the 4000A Barren Grove timber. The first classes were held in that cabin.

In 1853 a proper schoolhouse was constructed commonly called Kuster School. The 1859-60 school year had 14 boys and three girls enrolled. The teachers’ nine-month salary was $84.97 and total annual school expenses were $201.40.

August Albert Block served 18 years on the first school board as reported by his 91 year old grandson, Hugo Block. The Neponset school district consisted of 11 country schools, each location now marked with a large stone and brass plaque.

August Block’s son, Bruno, attended Kuster school and completed eighth grade in 1914. Farming, not high school, was in his future. His son, Hugo was one of the last classes at Kuster grade school before all the grade schools consolidated.

Neponset High School, was very good to Hugo Block (1949) and Mary Ann Christiansen (1950). After a lengthy courtship they married, farmed and had children. Somehow, he made time to be elected to many church positions, the Bureau County board, later serving as chairman.

He still serves as a Neponset election judge. He was recently elected to the Neponset Library board and teaches a weekly bible class at Church of Peace.

Mary Ann taught at Neponset High School. She is a natural teacher and after getting her masters degree and PhD, she retired as a college professor.

They have been married 67 years. Their son Clint Block, NHS 1977, married classmate Melanie Snyder. He is a lawyer and she retired as a nurse. They have been married 30 years.

Their son August Block graduated from Neponset Grade School in 2008, Kewanee High School 2012 and attended the University of Illinois. He manages a grass fed cow-calf and poultry operation. The Neponset education system has provided a solid academic and cultural foundation for hundreds of young men and women in the past 167 years.

Clint Block, Hugo Block and August Block.  Hugo's grand father was on the 1st Neponset school board.  Five generations graduated from Neponset Schools.

This is an excerpt from the Neponset History, published in 1996, page 98-99 written by Grace Bennett Cinnamon:

“I went to the Douglas county school, south of Neponset for eight years. In 1898, I graduated from Neponset High School and wanted to be a teacher. My parents did not have the money for me to go to college, but fate stepped in. The teacher at Kentville country school, two miles west of Douglas School had just quit and the school board offered me the position.

There was a senior teacher that would occasionally stop in to give me pointers, but that was it. I remember my salary was $75 per month. I still lived with my parents so I could walk to work. I taught English, arithmetic, writing and spelling to all eight grades, 15- 20 students.

The older grades also learned about grammar, history, geography and civics. Somehow music and art were worked in. My day always started early with lighting the coal stove, preparing lesson plans, posting assignments on the blackboard, bringing in water for washing and drinking. After school there were papers to grade, blackboards to clean, floors swept. Sometimes the older kids would help out.

The Douglas and Kentville (and Kuster) schools were very similar. Each consisted of an entrance door and a small hallway for the coats, boots and lunch buckets, mostly just syrup pails. One side was for boys, one for girls. A wash basin was on a bench and a pail of drinking water and common dipper. There was not a worry about germs then.

The classroom was a large room with windows on opposite sides. A single desk was in the front, blackboard, recitation bench, phonics charts and maps on the wall. The library was a large bookcase in one corner with well-worn books. There were rows of desks from very small to very large (Kuster School had a 4 year old begin school in 1873).

Desks could be moved around or even moved outside for community events. Outside there were two outhouses, boys and girls, a coal shed and well (some schools had a small lean-to for horses and ponies that may be ridden to school).

Other recollections include, recesses and playtimes, cooking potatoes on top of the coal stove and setting lunch pails around the stove so they wouldn’t freeze in the coat room; Christmas programs and decorating our Christmas tree with strings of popcorn and berries.

It was hard work to be a teacher, school counselor, school nurse, playground referee and janitor, but the love, respect and cooperation of the pupils and parents were the rewards.”

The excellence in local education continues today, as Neponset township celebrates one of the best K-8 programs in the state. The school is one of five grade schools that are part of Kewanee Unit District 229. All graduates finish up at Kewanee High School.

There are advantages of being 10 miles, two ZIP codes and one county away from Kewanee. Rather than the one room school model, Neponset K-8 molds all the educational requirements into a simple focused program.

In Neponset township,  section 5 , a plaque celebrating Kuster School 1853 - 1943. Hugo & Mary Ann Block home on same sight he attended school.

The student/ teacher ratio is 16:1 with teacher retention at 91%. They have half the truancy of the district and 100% of eighth graders pass the tough state algebra test. In the Illinois Assessment of Readiness, 49% of the Neponset kids meet or exceeded the requirements while the district was at 29%.

No wonder their enrollment grew by 14 last year to 146 students. Neponset grade school is gaining when many township grade schools are losing students. With the correct balance of community support, excellent staff and focused leadership, the program has a bright future.

Dena Hodge-Bates is the principal. She is a product of the district and is 1996 graduate from Bradley University with a double education major. Her Neponset grandparents were delighted when she accepted her first teaching job at the grade school.

Her relatives include the Nortons and Pickerings that helped settled the township, pre-Civil War. As she gathered experience and a master’s degree from Concordia University, she developed a firm understanding of the past and a clear vision of community education.

Nine years ago, she was the obvious choice for principal. She works with the parents, village leaders, businesses and the local American Legion for support and new ideas. She said her 26 years at Neponset have galloped by and she has no plans to leave.

August Albert Block would be pleased to see such a successful school in the township today and see his name sake and great-great-grandson August B. Block attending a Neponset grade school a few years ago. By the way, Dena was one of his teachers.

The old Kuster school was torn down many years ago and replaced with a comfortable ranch home. Hugo and Mary Ann bought the home from the original owner 22 years ago. He has two display cases of Native American artifacts collected over the past 90 years.

Please consider the Native American belief, that time is not a straight line, but rather a circle. Hugo’s home is on the very location where he began his education in 1936.

Lt. Col. Dick Wells (retired) lives on the Great Sauk Trail, Neponset. This is his 16th story in a series called Pioneer Struggles he began writing in 2020. His next focus will be on local soldiers who died and survived the Civil War Andersonville POW camp. There also will be a Neponset cannon dedication story.