The Cottonwood school was located about 2 1/2 miles west of Bigelow, and was in existence prior to the records which began in 1874. John H Duncan, who was born in 1854, attended the school when it was just a log building. A select school existed there in 1871 which was taught by L. R. Knowles. By 1874 a school house had been built.
The origin of the name of the school must have been because of cottonwood trees in its midst. In the late 1910’s and early 1920’s there were three beautiful, huge elm trees that adorned the school yard. No cottonwood trees were seen anywhere. On April 4, 1876, at the annual school board meeting, the school’s name was changed to Bel Air. This name remained until at least 1888 when it was changed back to the original name of Cottonwood.
John A. Rolland and his wife, Elizabeth, gave one-half acre to school district 51 (Cottonwood) in trust for school purposes. It was deeded on March 17, 1877. The deed was filed for record in the Recorder’s Office at Oregon, Missouri, on March 27, 1877. The board of directors at that time was Asa Turpin, George W. Seet, and Joseph Burge.
John Rolland had bought this land from George W. Smith and Nancy L. Smith in 1868. In 1883 Mr. Roland and wife deeded the property to Robert H. Asher and wife, Mary. In the same year Mr. Asher deeded it to Martin W. Gay, who in turn deeded it back to Mr. Asher. In 1885 Asher deeded it to Charles W. Stanley. Mr. Stanley deeded it to Mrs. Elizabeth Brick in 1894; she deeded it back to Mr. Stanley in 1901. Mrs. Lena Haer bought the land from Mr. Stanley May 26, 1902. In 1912 the Haer family gave another 1/2 acre for additional school site. The Haer family still owned the land when the school was closed in 1937.
In early days school was held in three month intervals, usually winter, spring, and early summer. Debating societies, spelling schools, and ciphering matches were important among schools. Cottonwood School patrons were always participants. One topic for a debate in 1889 was: Resolved, that gum is more detrimental than poodle dogs. The dog got left.
Cottonwood School in early days served as a meeting house for Sabbath school and church services. Always there was a full house. It was a common thing for young people to be rude and ill-behaved. Young men who chewed tobacco would spit on the floor, which showed no respect for the teacher who tried to have a neat-appearing room. Many newspaper articles appeared in local papers decrying the poor treatment of the school by young vandals.
On Friday, March 24, 1899, the school was destroyed by fire at the close of the day’s session. The buildings and contents were practically a total loss, with only a few textbooks being recovered. The building was insured for $300 by the Farmers Mutual Insurance Company of Holt County. On Wednesday of the following week, Jonas Whitner, president, and A. Crannell, secretary of the company, of Mound City, adjusted the loss. A new school building was ready for the fall opening of the school; this time the building was insured for $550.
Discipline was never a small problem in early days. Men were usually hired to keep order. There was a young lady, Selma Kahn, who taught the 1905-06 school year who could discipline as well as any man. One day during the school hours a 15-year-old boy strutted up to the front of the room to show her who was “boss.” She grabbed him, tripped him, and forced him down on his back. He kicked and flailed his hands and feet, but she held him right there and sat on him. Was he embarrassed! Miss Kahn lived with her parents on Big Lake. She had two brothers, Harold and Jess, who must have given her lessons on how to handle such bullies.
During the 1905-06 school year, the enrollment became so large that the school district decided to add a second story to the school house and hire another teacher for the next school year. The work was done by James Oyerly and his son Albert, with help from Frank Morris. School was a month late in starting as Mr. Oyerly had to finish a new home he was building for Dave Smith before he could work on the school building.
Two teachers were hired for the 1907-08 school year. Before the end of the school term, the district ran out of money, so only one teacher was hired for the next year. Miss Miss VanVickle had to wait for her money, but the Bank of Bigelow was kind enough to lend her two months’ pay. She was the highest paid teacher in the county, paid the great sum of $50 per month. She taught two terms – 1908-09 and 1909-10. The first year, school was taught downstairs, but the next term teaching was done upstairs as it was warmer and more comfortable. By the 1910 school year the district had more money and two teachers were hired again, continuing with two teachers every year until 1919.
In April 1914, a petition signed by 36 qualified voters to organize a consolidated school district was submitted to the voters of Bigelow and Community. The consolidation was to provide High school advantages for its youth. The proposed consolidated district was to consist of Cottonwood, 5000 acres, part of the other districts, namely: Summitt district 2,500 acres; Wild Rose, 780 acres; Kelso, 240 acres; and Elm Grove, 500 acres. The Bigelow district had 6,000 acres, which in all would total 15,020 acres.
A special meeting was held at the Woodmen of the World Hall in Bigelow on May 14, 1914 to vote on the proposition. The vote showed 90 for consolidation and 29 against. Then six directors were chosen for the new Consolidated District Number 2. They were: G.A. Conway, C.S. McKee, Frank Walker, William Troxell, G.W. Courier, and J.M. Wilson. The new board investigated the needs of the Cottonwood school and two teachers were hired – Robert Jackson as principal and Miss Mathilda Siekmann for the lower grades.
Two teachers continued to be hired each year until the year 1919. A decision was then made to install a four year high school at Bigelow, so it made it necessary to cut out one teacher at Cottonwood, letting all pupils above the sixth grade attend the Bigelow school.
Cottonwood continued as a one-teacher rural school until it closed its doors in attendance had dropped to seven students. The school director ordered its closing and transported the pupils to Bigelow school, as it would be more economical.
The schoolhouse continued to be a meeting place for 4-H Club and for the women who belonged to the Cottonwood Community Club. Finally club meetings became inactive and the building stood vacant, becoming in a deteriorated condition. The schoolhouse was finally advertised for sale and was sold to the highest bidder with cash in hand August 13, 1943 at 8:00 p.m. Henry Bickel was the highest bidder, buying the building for $230. It was torn down for the lumber and some of that lumber was used in the home of Mr. & Mrs. Pete Gabbert of Mound City.
This famous landmark became a part of Highway 118 two and one-half miles west of Bigelow in 1974. If the name Cottonwood is mentioned today, the question asked, “Where was it located?” Now it belongs to the ages.
Information for this article were compiled from information found in internet searches, newspaper articles, pictures, interviews and personal research archived in the Holt County Historical Society’s Genealogy/Research Center in Mound City, and submitted by Helen Morris Smith.