How to Use
Reading 1: The Red Brick School
Just west of Homestead National Monument of America's visitor center, a red brick school stands in the Nebraska prairie. This is the Freeman School, constructed in 1872 to replace a log structure built the year before. The land it stands on measured 18 rods by 13 rods (approximately 1.47 acres). John Scheve either donated or sold the parcel of land to School District 21 to build a school. His adjacent neighbor was Daniel Freeman, the first homesteader in Blakely Township, and perhaps the nation, and upon whose land Homestead National Monument of America is located. Daniel Freeman and his neighbors helped to build the school.
Originally called the "Red Brick School House of School District 21," the school came to be known as the Freeman School. It is unclear if the school is named for homesteader Daniel Freeman or the brick maker, Thomas Freeman. Both men served on the school board of School District 21 and were highly regarded in the local area. The new school building was made of red-orange bricks from the kiln of Thomas Freeman whose land was in the southwest corner of Section 22 and who subsequently served as president of the school board. The overall size of the school is 26 feet by 20 feet. Its 12-inch thick solid brick walls rise from a fieldstone foundation to the height of 12 feet. There is one wood-floored classroom with an adjacent cloakroom inside. The interior brick walls were plastered and whitewashed.
In spite of its remote location, the Freeman School was furnished not only with locally crafted objects, but also desks manufactured in Indiana. The school provided textbooks for its students beginning in 1881, a decade before the state of Nebraska required schools to do so.
Many teachers lived with their students' families to get room and board. Students could be older than the teacher hired by the school board. In the one-room schoolhouse, students' ages did not predict their proficiency level. Some older students were just learning to read while some younger students who had more regular instruction were farther advanced in their studies.
The Freeman School operated from 1872 to 1967, and at the time of its closing was the oldest operating school in Nebraska. Many of the students who attended the Old Red Brick School were proud to have attended it. When students graduated, they carved their graduation date and initials in the bricks on the outside wall of the school. Some dates go back to 1875, while others are as recent as 1948.
The school became the focus of an important court case beginning in 1899. Daniel Freeman, the first homesteader in the township, asked teacher Edith Beecher to stop using the Bible as a textbook. She refused, pointing out that the school board had given her permission to conduct Biblereading, prayer, and hymns at the school. Freeman appealed to the school board to stop the ten-minute exercises, but the school board denied his request. Freeman then sued the school district in Gage County District Court. Defeated in that court he appealed to the Nebraska Supreme Court. The case of Daniel Freeman v. John Scheve, et. al. (John Scheve was officer of the school board at the time) was decided in 1902. The court ruled in favor of Daniel Freeman, agreeing that the religious instruction violated the separation of church and state provided for by Nebraska's state constitution. This suit set a precedent for later court cases involving the separation of church and state.
The Freeman School survives as the best example of a one-room school in Nebraska, in part because of restoration and rehabilitation. The National Park Service decided to save the school for future generations because of its important role in the development of this country. Between 1973 and 1975, the National Park Service restored the school to its pre1900 appearance. Restoration means returning a building to its form at a particular date as nearly as possible; authenticity often requires the removal of "non-period" elements. Some of the work done on the school included repointing the bricks (fixing and repairing the outer, visible finish of mortar between the bricks and stones of a masonry wall), rebuilding the chimney, bracing the foundation, pulling up the later floor to get to the original wooden floor, white washing the walls, and rebuilding the teacher's platform. Many people worked to restore the school. Some of these people were historians, architects, painters, masons, carpenters, and contractors. On the grounds of the school today are a one-story shed, separate privies or outhouses for girls and boys, and a water pump. Next to the school on the northern and western sides, is one acre of native tallgrass prairie.
Rehabilitation, the restoration of a building to a use that is similar to its historic use or does not conflict with the historic appearance of that building, has been accomplished in several ways at the Freeman School. Local school children visit the school and imagine the frontier past. They learn about frontier education and the importance of oneroom schools. School groups can also arrange to hold classes for a day in the historic Freeman School classroom.
Questions for Reading 1
1. How long did the Freeman School operate as a school?
2. There are many dates and initials carved into the brick of the school. Why would students carve their initials and graduation year in the bricks? Why would it be harmful for people today to carve or mark on these bricks? What is the difference between historic carvings and graffiti?
3. Quite a bit of restoration work was done on the Freeman School. What types of job skills did the people have who assisted in restoring the Freeman School?
4. Why would the National Park Service spend money to restore the Old Brick School to the way it looked before 1900? What is the school's function now?
Reading 1 was adapted from David Arbogast, Thomas Busch, and Richard Ortega, "Freeman Homestead and Freeman School" (Gage County, Nebraska), National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1975; the National Park Service's visitor's guide and Web site for Homestead National Monument of America, and other historical documents in the collection of Homestead National Monument of America.