History: The consolidation of Mason County’s school districts.

December 10, 2019

Construction of Mason County Central High School in 1959.

History: The consolidation of Mason County’s school districts.

By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief.

Editor’s Note: MC History Spotlight is a regular history column brought to you by Ludington Woods Assisted Living and Memory Care.

Prologue: This is a continuation of MCP’s series on the histories of Mason County’s public schools. Today, we talk about how our modern school districts came to exist.

Some terms to be aware of: “fractional” means that the district was split between at least two municipalities; the terms annexation, redistricting and consolidation appear many times in this article. Annexation took place when a district chose to send its students to another district. Redistricting took place when the boundaries of a district were actually expanded. Consolidation was the total dissolution of a school district by combining it into another district. While some school districts did consolidate early in the 20th century, most of the county’s district’s did not formally consolidate until 1966.

Amber Township District No. 6, Scottville School, built in 1888; consolidated into MCC in 1956; became  junior high from 1959 to 1976.

The schools of Michigan came into existence as a result of the first act for the establishment of schools in 1809. This act provided for the subdivision of judicial districts into school districts. This was a system that was in place in Mason County until the last of the rural school districts closed in 1966.

The first records of public schools in Mason County date back to when the county was organized in 1855. Some of the first schools were established in modern Pere Marquette, Custer, and Victory townships.

Schools were established in the center of populated areas, with the intention that children wouldn’t have to walk more than two miles to get there. Essentially, each rural school building was its own district with each having a three-person school board.

By the early 20th century, the county had 69 separate school districts with 74 buildings (Ludington Union School District included a high school and four elementary buildings).

The early 1900s saw improvements to transportation and roads while populations shifted. Some of the rural school districts started to annex and redistrict into other districts. As the century continued, conversations were held about consolidating schools. Victory Township was the first to do so in 1939 by creating the Victory Township Unit School District, which combined that township’s seven districts.

The United States entered World War I in 1916 as a fairly isolated, agrarian society. In this same era, manufacturing began to change with the increase in popularity of the automobile and aviation. The nation was no longer an island and the world was changing. Education also needed to change and a push was made for children to receive a secondary education.

Ludington Union School District No. 1, Central School (high school); built 1887, 500 block of East Foster Street. Oriole Hall and addition built in 1925. Original 1887 building razed in 1957; 1925 addition and Oriole Hall became junior high school in 1957. In 1969 became Foster Elementary following demolition of original Foster Elementary.

Michigan Public Act 117 of 1935 made the creation of county school districts and a county board of education mandatory in counties with a population of 250,000 or more. At that time, Wayne County was the only county that met the criteria, but it established a pattern

In 1941, Scottville School Superintendent Arnold O. Carlson submitted his University of Michigan master’s thesis titled “A Study of School Organization in Mason County, Michigan.” An interesting side note, Carlson’s professor was Dr. Arthur B. Moehlman (1889-1952), who authored several books and manuscripts about public education, particularly in Michigan.

Carlson (1905-1981) was born and raised in Brooks Township, Newaygo County. He was hired by Amber Township School District No. 6, Scottville School in 1927 and served as superintendent from 1934 to 1967.

From his actions and his writings in his master’s thesis, it was evident that Carlson was passionate about education. By the time he had submitted his thesis in 1941, the conversation of consolidation was in its early stages, though some districts had closed their buildings.

Arnold O. Carlson

Carlson defined the categories of public schools in Michigan at that time. They included primary schools districts, graded schools districts, township unit school districts, rural agricultural school districts and city school districts.

  • Primary school districts: This type of district came into being as a result of the original enactment of 1809. The territorial council legalized the division of the township in 1827. The practice was continued by the state legislature through the provisions of 1837 and provided for the subdivision of the township into school districts.
  • Graded school districts: Legislation was passed in 1859 to permit primary districts to reorganize as graded school districts. Under the law at the time of Carlson’s thesis any school districts having more than 75 children of census age and a total population of less than 10,000 may elect to become a graded district. This is similar to what most modern school districts look like now with elementary and secondary schools.
  • Township unit school districts: The first legislation to permit the formation of this type of school district was enacted in 1891. It was originally intended for use in the Upper Peninsula but the privilege was extended to the Lower Peninsula in 1909. This priority accounted for the large number of township units in the Upper Peninsula. Any village or city exceeding 15,000 in population was exempt but could become a part of the township unit by majority vote of such incorporated village or city and the remainder of the effected territory.
  • Rural agricultural school districts. Legislation was passed in 1917 and later amended to permit three or more contiguous primary or graded districts to reorganize and operate in this manner. A majority vote of qualified school electors of each affected district is required to affect such reorganization.
  • City school districts: In 1842 the city of Detroit allowed to unite all school districts in its area into a single district. This procedure was later extended to other cities. Districts were classified as third, second and first based on population — districts having a population of 10,000 to 125,000 were third class, those having 125,000 to 500,000 were second class and those having a population exceeding 500,000 were in the first class. Detroit was the only city in Michigan with that latter classification.

Free Soil School, built in 1913.

As of 1941, Mason County had 57 primary districts, five graded districts (Ludington Union School District, Amber Township District No. 6 (Scottville), Custer Township District No. 5 (Custer village), Sherman Township District No. 7 (Fountain), and Free Soil), and one township unit.

Carlson stated in his thesis that he was not a fan of the township unit school district. However, in the 1940s other townships followed Victory Township’s 1939 lead, including Free Soil, Pere Marquette, Summit, and eventually Riverton.

His views on the need to consolidate the schools was not isolated. It was a movement seen throughout the state and country, and it was brewing and it was highly controversial..

In January 1934, Free Soil resident Etta Stephens wrote a letter to the editor in the Ludington Daily News expressing why Free Soil and Meade townships should consolidate their school districts.

“Free Soil village with its fine school building and prospective gymnasium being centrally located is the logical point for a consolidated school and now, when CWA aid is available, is the logical time to consolidate because any additional space needed for a consolidated school may be provided without local expense.”

H.C. Clement of Fountain, disagreed about consolidation. In March 1934, he wrote a letter to the editor stating some cases against. He used the claim that not all roads were in proper condition for children to travel longer distances; the CWA funds were about to end. He then listed several other incomprehensible reasons why he was against combining the schools.

Carlson admitted that the prospect of consolidation was controversial but needed.

“The present school district boundaries of Mason County have changed very little since the original district lines were established. In a few instances small parcels have been set over form one district into another on petition of the respective property owners,” Carlson wrote. “No program of change has been planned or attempted to more adequately fit our educational program to the times. On the other hand, a shift in our technological pattern has forced large numbers of our youth out of productive employment.

“In many cases buildings are inadequate and crowded. Graduates of rural eight grade schools find it difficult to obtain a high school education. High school graduates lacking sufficient resources find it impossible to attend college.”

Custer School built in 1886.

He acknowledged that the school played an important part as the center of many communities.

“The school plays an important part in the culture of the county. The city schools with their adult education groups, Future Farmers, and youth clubs, and the country schools with the Parent-Teachers, 4-H, and handicraft groups have a great deal of influence on the cultural life of the county.

“There has been some opposition on the part of rural districts to closing the upper grades to qualify for transportation aid. The general feeling is that this is one more step in the direction of closing the rural schools. It appears that school administrators in the county could do much to enlighten rural residents to the need of the schools. A comparison of per capita cost indicates that some schools should be closed. In other cases school districts have sufficient taxable property and children on census and are financially able to maintain a good school.

“At the present time there are no large school units operating in Mason County other than the township unit of Logan #2. The history of attempts to organize larger units shows that the measures were defeated by large majorities which represented the votes of residents of primary districts outside the limits of the districts submitting the proposal. In no case has the initiation of the measure originated or gained much support in the primary districts.

“It is true that such reorganizations as proposed were of the township unit type which with its adherence to township boundaries would not constitute the most satisfactory plan for change. The reasons for defeat, however, were not because voters recognized any inherent weakness in the township unit form of reorganization. The true reason why these attempts were futile lies in the field of public relations. This should be a lesson to future proponents of any plan for change. Rural people, with few exceptions, do not wish to lose either the identity of their own primary schools or the control of them.

“A plan of reorganization under the community plan is for administrative and taxation purposes only. Such basic changes as are necessary should be made in terms of educational efficiency. Not all the rural schools would be closed and those that are closed could only be closed by vote of the people in that community.

Custer Township District No. 4, Menninger, founded 1870, closed 1959; became part of MCC, 1956. Located on northwest corner of Hansen and Tuttle roads

“Change must be gradual and proceed along such channels as appear logical and well established. Transportation with its benefits to the rural student should be one of them. Legislation to make mandatory the closing of schools with less than 10 students in membership might be of some help.

“Efforts on the part of the city and village administrators to plan a program to meet the needs of rural youth would be in step in the right direction. The practice of holding round table discussions with Farm Bureau organizations, as carried out in Mason County last winter should be continued. The inclusion of such units as farm home electrification in the physics and farm shop classes is worthy of mention and should be expanded in other branches of the curriculum.

“The future school district must be large enough to furnish the essential program of education economically. It must be small enough to permit the retention of popular control and the maintenance of the schools close to the people. It should be organized in accordance with our tradition, independent of politics and intermediate officials, responsible directly to the people. For these purposes the so-called natural community seems most desirable.”

Carlson defined the natural communities as the central towns in each region of the county.

“A program of reorganization for the county must be a planned program and should be inclusive enough in scope to meet present day needs. Provision should be made for a continuing program of education beyond the present 12 grade program. The inclusion of grades 13 and 14 must be considered as an essential part of the reorganization.”

Ultimately, Carlson proposed the creation of three school districts in Mason County: Ludington, Scottville-Custer, and Fountain-Free Soil. Logan Township Unit School would become part of the Baldwin school district.

The plan called for Ludington schools to house grades kindergarten through 12th grades, along with what he called a 13th and 14th grade, the modern equivalent of an associate degree program at a community college. At that time, the Mason County Normal School was operating in Ludington. The school provided training for those entering into primary and secondary education.

“A program of reorganization for the county must be a planned program and should be inclusive enough in scope to meet present day needs. Provision should be made for a continuing program of education beyond the present 12 grade program. The inclusion of grades 13 and 14 must be considered as an essential part of the reorganization.”

Scottville Elementary, built in 1951.

Grades 13 and 14 at Ludington would serve the entire county while the other grades would serve the western portion of the county, essentially the modern school district boundary.

At that time, the assessed value of the Ludington school district would be $8,757,455 ($153,312,654 in 2019 value, adjusted for inflation).

Carlson did not go into a lot of detail regarding further consolidation plans for Ludington. School districts north and south of the city, were already starting the pattern of combining.

In the early 1900s, Pere Marquette Township combined Phillips, Sutton and Marchido to form Pere Marquette School District No. 1, but still utilized all three buildings. By 1956 the township would build Pleasant View School on the same land that housed Marchido school on Hesslund Road.

Summit Township was in the process of forming a township unit. By 1944 it would close Fairview School on South Lakeshore Drive and move students to French School on US 31 (now Pere Marquette Highway) at Hawley Road, and Nickerson School on US 31 (now PM Highway and Anthony Road). South Summit School would be built in 1960.

Hamlin Township’s districts No. 1 and No. 2 would continue to operate autonomously. District No. 1 changed its name to South Hamlin in 1953 and opened a new building at its location of the northeast corner of Decker and Lincoln roads in 1954, replacing the building built in 1895. District No. 2, Nordhouse, received a new building in 1941 after fire destroyed the previous building, which had been built in 1894. In 1962 four additional rooms were added.

Amber Township No. 7, Lincoln Valley, located on Hansen Road just west of modern Nickelson Tree Farm, would operate until 1947 when it was annexed by Ludington. Amber Township District No. 8, Eagle School, burned in 1947 and combined with Amber Township District No. 4, Star School. That school remained open until 1957, a year after it was re-districted with Ludington in 1956.

By 1966, South Summit, Pleasant Plains, South Hamlin and Nordhouse, Star, and Lincoln Valley were consolidated into Ludington Area School District.

  Likely the most controversial part of Carlson’s plan, which is still a hot topic, was the creation of the Scottville-Custer district. The combination would have created a district with a valuation of $4,334,640 ($75,884,507 in 2019 value, adjusted for inflation).

“The present community of Custer cannot hope to operate a satisfactory program with the present low valuation per child,” Carlson wrote.

The proposed school district would operate as a K-12 district.

“The present building in Custer can accommodate grades kindergarten through the sixth with very few changes in physical plant,” Carlson wrote. “Secondary grades would be transported to Scottville. Grades 13 and 14 would be transported to Ludington.

“The present building at Scottville is overcrowded and plans for a new building have already been considered. Under the proposed plan the present building would be remodeled and would accommodate grades K – 6. A new high school building would be erected.”

The present building Carlson was referring to was the Scottville School building that was built in 1888, and still stands on North Main Street. Officially Scottville was known as Amber Township District No. 6 and was formed in 1877 before Scottville became a chartered village in 1889 (and later a city in 1907). A new front was added to the building in 1903, north-south wings in 1911 and a gymnasium in 1927.

Carlson would not get a new building until 1951 when Scottville Elementary was built. In 1959, the new high school was built, making the old high school a junior high until 1976 when a new middle school was built.

His proposal of combining Scottville and Custer districts did not come to be. Instead, in 1956, the Mason County Central School District was created and essentially surrounding a majority of what would later become the Mason County Eastern School District, as many of the rural districts on the far eastern portion of the county would choose to join the Central district.

First kindergarten class at Scottville Elementary, 1951.

Custer Township District No. 5 was located in the village of Custer. Its building was built in 1921 against the wishes of surrounding districts, according to Carlson.

“The present building was constructed in the year 1921. This structure was to provide sufficient plant and equipment for a proposed consolidation. Contrary to accepted practice plans for the consolidation were not announced until the building had been completed and practically equipped. Dissatisfaction with the building, equipment and proposed plan for consolidation were in part responsible for the defeat of the measure. The Custer school district known as Custer No. 5 was left with a building much larger than the districts could afford as well as one whose capacity far exceeded their needs. Over a period of 13 years the tax rate for the school has been as high as 40 mills. During the year 1939-40 it was 5.9 mills for operation and 12.67 mills for debt.”

Fountain-Free Soil would combine the school districts in Free Soil, Meade, Sherman and Sheridan townships. It would have a valuation of $1,180,455 ($20,665,496 in 2019 value, adjusted for inflation).

“Neither of the present districts of Fountain and Free Soil can hope to maintain an adequate educational program under the present system,” Carlson wrote.

Carlson suggested the district would hold grades K-6 at the Fountain school building (Sherman Township District No. 7) and secondary classes, 7-12, at the Free Soil school building.

The Fountain School building had been built in 1893 along Main Street in the village of Fountain, replacing the original Sherman No. 7 building, that was built in 1883 on Millerton Road at the railroad tracks, known as Poff’s Crossing. The building was remodeled in 1931, making it a three-room building. Between 1917 and 1939, grades K-10 were taught there.

The original school in Free Soil village was built in 1870. A new building was built in 1903. That building still exists on Democrat Street, but the majority of that building was built in 1913, with only remnants of the 1903 building remaining. The 1913 building included four rooms that housed 50 students. A gymnasium was built in 1935 with funds from the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

Carlson reported that Free Soil faced obstacles. While Ludington, Scottville, and Custer had various degrees of state accreditation, Free Soil did not.

“The high school is not accredited and students who wish to attend an accredited high school must go to one of the accredited schools in the nearby communities. The condition of the present structure is one of the main obstacles to accrediting of the school. Lighting, heating, sanitation and equipment were mentioned in the last reports as being far below accepted standards.”

Like the Scottville-Custer district, students wishing to attend grades beyond 12th, would be transported to Ludington, Carlson wrote.

As is evident with the modern school districts, Carlson’s ideas did not completely come to fruition. However, he remained a strong advocate for improving the quality of education in Mason County. It is likely that World War II slowed down the push to combine school distircts. But, the movement escalated following the war.

Ludington Union School District No. 1 Fourth Ward School (Pere Marquette); built in 1886, razed in 1967; located on northeast corner of Fourth and Adams streets. Replaced by Pere Marquette Elementary in 1967.

In 1950, the high school superintendents of Mason County, along with the county superintendent of schools, led the way to form the School Area Committee. The state had put the pressure on local units of government to connect the rural schools to high school unit districts. The committee was charged with finding a solution. It’s goal was to report back to the community in two years.

Those superintendents included Oliver J. DeJonge of Ludington, Arnold O. Carlson of Scottville; Charles Harley of Custer and Max Carey of Free Soil, along with Elna Hansen, the elected county superintendent of schools.

The committee consisted of representatives from each of the remaining 49 school districts. In 1953 it reported back to the community with its recommendation of the creation of nine high school units: Custer, Fountain, Free Soil, Hamlin, Ludington, Riverton, Scottville, and Summit.

The committee chairman had a different idea for the schools.

“In our school problems right now, we are going through the same stages the 13 colonies went through over 175 years ago,” stated committee chairman Norman L. Wittkop of Custer in a March 18, 1953 article in the Ludington Daily News. “In union there is strength, efficiency and democracy. In unity we have everything to gain and nothing to lose.

“As I view this county school situation, I am thinking one school district could take care of the school needs of Mason County just as easy as one school board in a city of several million takes care of its school problems.”

The advice of the committee or its chair was obviously not taken.

What many modern readers may not understand is that public education wasn’t necessarily free back in those days. If you did not live in a high school unit district, or a district that had been annexed to a high school unit, you did not go to high school for free. You had to pay tuition. This tuition was often covered by the school district you lived in or it was paid for out of pocket.

In 1957, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that high schools were not required to admit non-resident students.

Branch Township District No. 7, Walhalla; opened 1904 at corner of US 10 and Benson Road. Moved to First Street in 1918. Closed in 1955.

“The Supreme Court decision recognized that the school district has the sole responsibility for the education of the children in its district,” Roland Strolle, chief of School Facilities Division of the Michigan Department of Public Instruction said.

In view of the decision, Strolle said, primary schools had three choices:

1. To provide high school facilities of their own.

2. Join a school district of their choice that would provide high school facilities.

3. Send their students on a tuition basis to a high school district willing to accept them.

“High school districts are becoming more reluctant to take outside tuition pupils because of overcrowding,” Strolle said.

Overcrowding was an issue facing several schools. In May 1956, Carlson addressed the issues of non-district school students attending Mason County Central.

“If additional high school facilities are not provided for this immediate area, we will be forced to go on half day sessions or turn pupils away from high school or adopt both measures,” Carlson stated.

“Starting next year, because of overcrowding in our high school, we will have to turn some pupils away on the ninth grade level. The school board has taken no action as yet but we must first take care of all the students in the Mason County Central district. After that we will accept pupils from other districts as there is room for them.”

It’s important to note that while several districts still remained, many had already closed their buildings.

Opening of South Hamlin Elementary School in 1954. Started as Hamlin Township District. No. 1, fractional in 1895 in Lincoln village on Lincoln Lake. New building was built in 1914 on northeast corner of Decker and Lincoln roads. Name changed to South Hamlin School District in 1953. Building torn down and replaced in 1954. Consolidated with LASD in 1966.

Mason County Central School District held its first school year in 1956. At that time, several rural districts joined Amber No. 6. They included Amber districts No 1 (Jones),  No. 2 (Amber Station), No. 3 (Rickey), No. 5 (North Amber), Eden Township districts No. 1 (Marbel, district divided between Central and Eastern), No. 2 (Major), Victory Township Unit, Grant districts No. 1 (Freeman), No. 2 fractional (Pelton), Custer districts No. 4 (Menninger), No. 7 (Wilson, closed in 1952), Riverton District No. 1 fractional (East Riverton), Branch District No. 7 (Walhalla), Sherman districts No. 1 (Elm Flats, closed in 1945 and split between Central and Eastern), No. 6 (Lincoln River, closed in 1951 and combined with Sugar Grove), No. 2 fractional (Sugar Grove), and Logan-Lake No. 2. 

Several of those buildings were utilized though they were becoming antiquated. The Victory School building was the newest, built in 1956, preceded by the Scottville Elementary building in 1951. The rest were built in the late 1800s or early 1900s. In 1959, the new high school was built and over time, the older buildings were closed. In addition Riverton Township Unit would consolidate with Central in 1966.

Also in 1956, Mason County Eastern held its first classes. Joining Custer No. 5 were Branch Township districts No. 2 (Tallman fractional, closed in 1956), No. 5 (Comstock, closed in 1943), Custer Township districts No. 1 (Weldon Creek, building closed in 1949), No. 2 (Resseguie), No. 3 (McClellan, closed in 1948), No. 8 (Riverside, closed in 1943), Eden Township districts No. 1 (Marbel, district divided between Central and Eastern), No. 3 (Fern), No. 4 (Jenks), Sheridan Township districts No. 1 (Round Lake/Holmes, closed in 1943), No. 3 (Millerton fractional, closed in 1921), No. 4 (Bachelor, closed in 1943), No. 5 (Ford Lake, closed in 1946), Sherman Township districts No. 1 (Elm Flats, closed in 1945 and split between Central and Eastern), No. 3 (Mills), No. 4 (Reek, closed in 1944), and No. 7 (Fountain).

Sheridan No. 2 (Stewart), located at the northeast corner of Morse and Millerton roads, was of the last one-room schools to close and finally consolidate with Eastern in 1966.

Victory Elementary first grade class, 1958 with teacher Esther Weinert. Victory School was built in 1951 by Victory Township Unit School District. Joined MCC in 1956. Consolidated in 1966.

Free Soil Township Unit would combine with Meade Township District No. 1 fractional, which closed in 1941. Meade Township District No. 2 (New School), which was located in the northeast corner of Meade Township, would become part of the Norman-Dickson School District No. 6 in Manistee County (now Kaleva-Norman-District Public Schools).

The boundaries of the public schools remained the same until the closure of Free Soil Community School in 2013. At that time, the former school district was merged with Mason County Eastern.

Sources: Mason County Historical Society, Mason County Press (newspaper), Ludington Daily News, master thesis of Arnold O. Carlson, master thesis of C. Howard Hornung, Mason County Central School District.

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