Preserving The Past & The Grand Reopening
Many years ago, I was asked to help revive an abandoned one-room schoolhouse made of limestone, hidden in the hills of Galena. I passed it many times on my hikes through the woods. It sat so alone, dilapidated, but strong. One could tell it was rich with history and if its walls could talk, it could speak volumes. Belden School was waiting to be rediscovered.
I took on the challenge. I was given the name of an elderly gentleman farmer from Stockton, Illinois who had knowledge of the area. Many years ago, he pulled school journals from a dumpster. He was able to retrieve journals from 1871 and 1921 of Belden School. I was able to read those journals and that enabled me to begin my journey. It was a journey that opened many doors and would change my life forever.
Our farmer ‘Big Bob’ gave me names of a few surviving students of the 1930s and 1940s. I was able to contact the elderly students of Belden School and interview them. Many told tales of their antics at Belden School, their jobs on their family farms, and their long walks through the hills and valleys staying clear of rattlesnakes. Many had fond memories of their teachers and assignments given to them during those years. They also spoke lovingly of the school that was their friend as it was the center of their life. The meetings the adults had at the school, the plays given by the children during the holidays, the games played out by the creek at recess, and the constant upkeep of Belden were part of their life. I was given first hand stories by students of the past. It was oral history in its finest form.
As my journey progressed, many articles were written in local papers about Belden School and about Big Bob’s contributions. A proposal was made to the Galena Territory Association as to how best to preserve and utilize Belden School in today’s world. A miniature model of Belden School was made and used as a teaching aid when I traveled to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Rome, Georgia to speak about Belden School’s history and restoration for the Country School House Association.
A committee was formed to take on the daunting task of preserving the 1859 limestone schoolhouse set deep in the woods of the Mississippi Valley.
After numerous fund raising events, and donations of time and purchased bricks, meetings with historians and experts about restoration of historical buildings, and several reunions of the elderly students of the past, Belden School was reopened in September of 2009 to an audience of 300 people. Such a celebration, I believe, Belden School has never witnessed, but it was well deserved. Belden School has now been reborn and is educating of today. Keeping alive its spirit, Belden School is open in spring, summer and fall on weekends conducting lessons of yesteryear for those who come through its doors.
But wait… there is more to the story! How did the Belden Boy Series with Peter McDugal come into the picture? I needed to breathe life into the many artifacts that were accumulated, the stories told by historians and elderly students, the wooden model built of Belden School –all of these things needed a voice, a narrative. I wanted the history and the community of which Belden School was once a part to come alive again and for generations to come.
And so, along comes Peter McDugal—a young boy who lived in the late 1800s, grew up on a family farm in the Mississippi Valley and attended Belden School. While many of his experiences at Belden School are rooted in actual history, Peter’s story gives us a sense of what it was like to be a young boy living in our country’s rural past. Peter tries to handle Franky, the school bully, a timeless situation repeated throughout generations. Miss Bishop, the teacher and Peter’s mentor, witnesses the bullying and tries to guide Peter toward peaceful resolutions. All the while, Peter enjoys the daily activities of school and pals that make for a playful, enjoyable historical fiction novel for all ages.
Children can relate to these stories whether in first grade or sixth. Belden Boy-the Adventures of Peter McDugal and My Sometimes Pal are told from the perspective of Peter, the victim. Backwoods Bully is told in Franky's voice, the bully, who doesn't understand why everyone calls him a bully. Belden's Girl, Annie’s Tale, is told from a strong girls' perspective as the bystander. She has her own disabilities, but that doesn't keep her down as she tries to pull her new pals together at Belden School. The students new Schoolmaster Mr. Cobb is also a bully. The five time award winning anti-bullying series not only is enjoyed by children, parents, and grandparents, school districts are now using the series for book groups and Bully Task Force Programs within their elementary schools. Author, P.J.HarteNaus, presents at schools with her program titled “What’s Your Story?” speaking to personal bullying stories when she was in fourth grade, research in developing the Belden Boy Series, and the writing process itself. Now in its seventh year, the series has created Belden Boy Writing Camp, a unique 3-day summer writing camp for children who want to write and illustrate their own hard-covered book !
Belden School just received a sprucing-up in the Spring of 2019 and celebrated its 160th Birthday in September, 2019.