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The Portrait of Woebegone A Photo Essay on The Lost Education of the North Dakota Prairie

By Alicia Liebel


Today I shall tell the tale of the Woebegone. The Woebegone of the North Dakota Prairie. The Woebegone of the Education system that once was. The Woebegone of an era of perseverance and survival. The Woebegone of a life that is banished from return.


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Woebegone Woe Woebe W is this Woebegone? What By definition it follows the story o of the lost, the haunted, the aagony of defeat. Woebegone [ wĹ?-bi-gon also-gän] adj 1. sorrowful or sad in appearance 2. afflicted with woe

Woebegone - Beset by woe. Woebegone - Affected by wear; worn and broken down by long, hard use. Synonyms - creaky, decrepit, derelict, run-down


This is the tale of Woebegone as told through the schoolhouse on the prairie.


While the schoolhouse may appear as an abandoned force alone among the wilderness, it stands tall among a network of all that remains of a system which accompanied the settlement of the Louisiana Purchase. An army of erected structures designed to bring knowledge to the ‘uncivilized’ rural landscape.


Nearly 60 years later they remain among the prairie as old friends of nostalgia, aging together with nature and memory, standing erect until the nails rust out of place, structural strength is lost and the collapse of its frame gives way to dissolve into the soil which has held it for so long.


It is a vernacular structure, supported by mere stones and feble bricks, but it shouldered the education and future of a young nation of pioneers.


It is a slow and gradual demise, one which is intricately tied to the forces of nature. Moments so subtle, with changes so paramount that we live in oblivion until the day when we notice what has been lost. We awake from our monotony and stare at the face of what once was, wishing that we could return, knowing that we had been wrong to leave it behind.


These are the landmarks which still guide us along the matrix of dirt and country roads. They gave us direction and orientation before the infiltration of the handheld global positioning devices. As beacons standing above the flat and gently rolling prairie, they could be seen for miles, a sign of hope for the weary traveler that they were almost home, or could find refuge within its walls.


These are the places which show the remnants of what once was, and what has become. As the prairie grows taller it adapts to its remaining form and presence. One day these grasses will cover their ruin till no trace remains. As their history whispers away in the wind we wonder what their legacy will be once they are gone?


Even the foundation gives its secrets away, displaying the bitter end of this site among the stark and almost barren landscape. The observer stands gazing into the site and wonders, what did this building once look like? Did it carry the same form as all of the rest, or was it unique? Who once played here, where did they live, what did they become? Oh Woebegone, you have been lost and carried away among the blustery winds.


In their abandon some still cling to the symbolism of an era of school children reciting: ‘...indivisible, with liberty and justice for all’.


As the paint fades and its features start to break to the pressure of weathering, do personal liberties still hold the reverence that they once did? Does this empty flag pole outside this door signify the bare-bones approach that is starting to plague our society and its education of understanding?


When these doors were open they offered a world of new ideas and exploration for a globe which had not yet become intricately entwined. Does our ‘modern’ and ‘technological’ education allow us to break down the barriers which once restrained us from the pursuit of happiness and a life of fulfillment? Will the education of our future children inspire them, or confine them within the bounds of conformity?


As desolate structures they have become perch for the birds who scan the horizon – watching and waiting for signs of life which will never return. Yet it endures, hoping for restoration and the return of purpose, remaining as the face of an era where the strongest of pioneers fought relentlessly for the education and future of their children.


A chair with no desk, and a desk with no chair displays a disconnect of abandon. The loss of its connectors and the children that once filled them ushered in the moment when the child was left behind for the educational model of civility and modernization.


Even in their state of decay there are moments of beauty. Their art lies within the craft of construction and care that were given to structures tasked with such practical purposes. At this spot you feel the spirit of all who have walked here – you pause to reflect on how these pioneer school children forever changed your life because of the education they received under this roof.


These were buildings which stood for all and anchored their nearby community of neighbors serving as a base for democracy, prosperity, and the moments of entertainment. Not only did they educate, but they fostered friendships and loyalty for miles around.


This sturdy building was their Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, i-Phone, and Internet. This is where people came to connect to each other when other forms of communal communication did not yet exist. It was their platform for civic engagement.


Not too big and not too small, they were buildings of durable materials and reasonable construction. They were capable of adapting to a multitude of functionalities with the ability of transportation to a new site, if the reason existed. Together, these schools became one of the first models of sustainability in design and construction.


Even through the strength of their perseverance, this building, like so many others, cannot live forever.


Some stand in farm yards and have acted as storage sheds and places for kids to play pretend.


Some are shuttered shut, to keep unwanted visitors away, and yet they stand for reasons unknown. Is it too much of an effort to finally bury these old forlorn memories of days gone by?


There are echoes of children playing, their lost voices filling your senses. As you look, the thought fills your mind as phantom winds swing these little seats from side to side.


Their memory even outlasts the once mighty choke-cherry bush, which as been invaded by the web-spinning wormed pest. The diseased remains add to the haunted nature of the scene, making the bystander almost too nervous to approach - frozen by the fear of what may lie within the knee-high grasses and ghostly interior.


This unassuming and common facade is a stark contrast to the environment in which it stands, a remnant of the land and the materials garnered from it for its construction. Yet their walls were assembled in a land devoid of trees. Despite its abandon, this building will one day meet the same fate as the others that have perished before it. It keeps watch over our landscape, holding its ground until the strongest of powers bring it down. Oh Woebegone, your fate is now in the hands of nature.


Despite their commonalities they display a silent and almost forgotten history. Even though it stands beside this marsh, there are still those who remember that this schoolhouse educated a murderer. This man is likely to forever hold the distinction of being the last man to be hung without trial or jury in the state of North Dakota. As the building waits in ruin, it shoulders the reminder that an education is not immune from severe transgressions against humanity or due-process.


These buildings were common place and were repetitive in their design and yet there were small traits which help to serve as a reminder of what once was. This building is now a ghost, not even the foundation or long-dead tree remain. It is one of the last features of what once was the county seat in the area. Its prominence left years ago. It no longer stands. All that remains now is the jail house from which the murderous man was dragged from before his death by hanging.


Oh Woebegone, in your wisdom you knew that one day we would long for you.


Even among their dismay the symbol of endurance and the ‘never say die’ mentality stretches from their decrepit facades. The school which then became a tool shed has now been in a battle for land tenure with a horse and a beater of an old truck. The history displayed in this photo is subtle, but within it you see the demise of it as a place of education with the old pickup (which replaced the horse-drawn carriage), the petrol which set us in course with our automobile lifestyle and the rubber tires which sail us down the road of tunnel vision to our destination. The distant school which taught Henry Ford brought us to this, a broken education system and an overwhelming dependence on oil.


And yet, in the process to re-use and adapt the abandoned educational structures, one was altered to house the very thing which caused its demise - the automobile. The trend of scattered discarded machinery and petrol products is seemingly common among the remaining structures of this North Dakota county.


Their purpose was lost with the consolidation of the education system. Their usefulness gave way to the permeation of the automobile and the ability to travel farther, faster. Their status, replaced by one that lacked modernization and the civil life that people were ‘supposed’ to live.


What does education really teach us? To not relive the mistakes of those who came before us? A scene such as this one begs us to re-evaluate our obsession with the latest and newest gadget. It shows us that things we throw away do not disappear as quickly as we dismiss them. They endure, and wither away at a painfully slow pace, taunting us with a stern face of, ‘you cannot get rid of me that easily’. These outcasts, the misfits of our society, will remain to remind us of the price we are paying, the price that we have chosen to ignore. We ignore it because we see no other alternative.


Upon their faces you can see its story unfold; the times of change, the attempts to provide a barrier from the harsh winter cold and the stove-warmed interior. These buildings are a testament to a life of adaptation and survival. The two enduring factors of the ancestors who chose to settle down to life on the unforgiving prairie. It is also the face of a world which is bound to the slavery of an unsustainable dependence on our vehicles and the natural resources required to fuel them. They pollute the horrizon in the distance, foreign and alien.


Their importance came in the form of grooming future leaders, especially the one which educated a future Congressman and Governor for North Dakota - the man who would set the standard for energy exploration in the state, a man whose efforts have been blurred by a rapid expansion of oil exploitation.


The Woebegone, is a schoolhouse and its model was abandoned at the hands of faster transportation and the excitement of modernization. Its dismay now shares its landscape with the very instrument which scars the earth to fuel the vehicles that the nation is so dependent on. It is a distant reminder of the price of prosperity and the delicate balance of negotiation that must accompany it to avoid our own ruin.


Oh Woebegone, your enduring presence helped to give me the countless commodities that I take advantage of everyday. Oh Woebegone I thank you for the life that you have lived in humble humility, void of glamour, and prestige. You have endured neglect and abandonment, yet you maintain your dignity at your place among the prairie. Oh Woebegone, take me back to the day when an education was a valued privilege instead of a mundane necessity. Take me back to a time when grades were earned from merit rather than an overbearing, tantrumthrowing obsessive parent. Oh Woebegone, my dear friend, you have been by my side through countless journeys along the dustfilled roads. You have been the landscape that I absorbed when no electronic devices existed to detract my bored mind. Oh Woebegone, I have watched you age, I have watched you move, I have watched you die. I have traveled by you countless times, and even through all of the times when I failed to see you, you were always there, patiently waiting for your day of recognition.


Oh Woebegone, it was one of the great pleasures of my life to have the chance to spend time with you, to learn from you, to freeze you in time with the captures I got of you.


Oh Woebegone, may you rest in peace.


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Afterward The images seen were taken in the immediate area of McKenzie County North Dakota in the summer of 2010 during my time as an intern with the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Over 10,000 miles were driven along county and gravel roads in search of these remaining beakons of a pioneer education. Thank You for sharing this tale of Woebegone with me. Best Regards, Alicia Liebel


Š Alicia Liebel 2010, 2012

The Portrait of Woebegone  

A collection of images of a Western North Dakota School House Survey

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