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Informed Citizenship in the Country Schoolhouse


“The question, Money vs. Fame, was decided for the affirmative,” reported the Golden Valley Chronicle on the debate featured in the first meeting of the Belfield Literary Society in February 1908. But wait a minute, which was the affirmative, money, or fame? No matter, the society moved on with an announcement that its next meeting would debate the question, “Resolved that the United States should own and control the railways.” Never let it be said that our forebears a century ago were out of touch with the progressive issues of the day.


The literary in Belfield, we read, was “under the efficient management of our teachers, Mrs. Beebe and Miss Collins.” A previous Plains Folk essay described how the literary, the literary society, rose up in the 1880s and 1890s to become a fixture in prairie communities, enriching their cultural lives and focusing neighborly sociability.


It was no accident that the literary movement found its home in schoolhouses, for educators promoted the literary as an institution for improvement. “This organization has its place in every school district,” wrote one such authority in 1913, “as it provides a means whereby the people and the pupils can hold meetings once or twice a month in which the lyceum idea is dominant.


“The programs,” this writer continues, “should consist of addresses, essays, papers on practical subjects, debates on public questions, dramatic exercises, personal reports on conventions, and recitations and declamations. The influence of such a club is far-reaching, as it trains the people for competency and efficiency in public work.” In other words, informed citizenship.


The normal school over in Valley City was a training ground for literary societies. In the early years of the twentieth century four student literaries--the Atheneums, the Clionians, the E.B.C.s, and the Eclectics--vied for supremacy and for the Brownson Prize for the best society. Even over at the agricultural college graduates proudly declaimed their participation in the Athenian or the Philomathian literary society as a resume item.


And oh those debates, wherein local citizens went at it hammer and tongs, then afterwards joined in jolly camaraderie--the debates were the public favorite. Some of the questions, like the railroad debate in Belfield in 1908, were overtly political. Others were matters of more general civics. At Eaden Valley School of Williams County in April 1911, the question was, “Resolved that the American congress, in its two houses, is the most perfect form of legislative body.”


It was important to keep the proceedings grounded in country life, however, and so the next month’s question was, “Resolved that a small horse is better adapted to farm purposes than a large horse.” You have to know a little bit about agricultural history to understand that this question cut to the quick of the nature of farm systems at the time.


By 1920 agricultural debates were reflecting modernization and mechanization. The Bottineau Courant in February of that year reported that out at Bentinck schoolhouse, following a violin solo by Olay Sannes and a reading by Melvin Sannes, there was a spirited debate of the question, “Resolved that horses are more practical for farming purposes that traction power.” Cecil Spafford and Richard Steinhaus carried the night for the affirmative, but by a split decision of the judges.


And then the literati enjoyed a vocal duet by Elda Bronson and Ruth Talcott, after which Erick Sannes and John Talcott gave a demonstration of “mind reading.” I don’t know just what that was about.


Likewise I had to do some research to understand what was meant by reports of a “shadow social” at the Rose Hill schoolhouse of Williams County in 1912. In the spirit of the literary, shadow socials are worth exploring in a future Plains Folk essay.


-Tom Isern

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