- Associated Press - Sunday, August 24, 2014

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - Betsey DeLoache traces her roots in America back to 1632, when her relative, James Babson, crossed the Atlantic and settled the town of Gloucester, Massachusetts. She spent her early days walking and bicycling past haunts once popularized by Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson. DeLoache knew of the significance of landmarks such as Walden Pond but the importance of history streamed right off her, as though her head were a new city roof.

“Although history was a part of my background it wasn’t all that important at the time,” she says. But today, DeLoache’s studio in Pierre is teeming with historical images - and she thanks South Dakota for that. It’s a lesson she learned from rural schools, the Pierre Capital Journal (https://bit.ly/1mPnNvs ) reported.

DeLoache moved to Pierre in 1999 after living in Virginia and South Carolina. Since she’s been in South Dakota, she’s experienced hospitality she hadn’t felt while living on the East Coast.

“People out here smile and wave at you,” she says.

When she moved to town, she converted her garage into a modest studio and nowadays the art-filled garage is where she spends most of her time. Although she retired from her job working for state government in 2008, she keeps busy as she crafts special order frames for customers, at least when she’s not working on another project - her effort to compile her own colored pencil drawings of country schools and interviews with people who attended or taught in such schools.

Her latest endeavor unofficially began after she worked to overcome a long bout with cancer. Originally diagnosed with colon cancer in 2008, she began losing strength and weight but had no idea why. She thought the cancer had gone into remission. When she went in for an examination doctors discovered she had additional tumors. She underwent surgery in March 2013 and spent five weeks in the hospital recovering.

Lying in her hospital bed, she could hear people who were older than she walking around the hallways. She was determined on recovering. “It changed my whole approach to everything,” DeLoache says today, hopeful that she has recovered from her battle with cancer that has altogether lasted more than six years.

“Once you’re a survivor you look at life differently. I just want to go with every possibility that comes along and make the most of it.”

One such possibility arose after she gained enough strength to begin working on art once again. She had a background in it; she made cross-stitch patterns of churches and historic buildings upon request while living in South Carolina. That’s when she started Red Bird Studio, which has remained a constant over the years.

At one point DeLoache was asked by an author to illustrate a children’s book about the Civil War. She had little to no experience drawing, let alone the knowhow to illustrate the donkeys who would serve as the main characters of Barney’s Blessing. But she learned. The author, Linda Timberlake, liked her drawings so much she asked DeLoache to illustrate another project. But instead of donkeys, she drew buildings - historic ones. The history of Cheraw, South Carolina, provided her a crash course on chronicling the past.

Today, DeLoache no longer does cross-stitching - she admits she doesn’t have the patience it requires - nor illustrations for other authors. Instead, she illustrates for former teachers, students and residents who once filled South Dakota’s country schools. They live in places like Nisland and Newell, Milesville and White River. And their eyes light up when they reminisce about their time at a country school.

“There’s just such a passion,” she says. “They’re alive to tell me their stories.”

She got started with the idea of creating a book chronicling tales and hand-drawn images of country schools after entering a drawing of the Plum Creek School in Haakon County into an art contest.

Although the drawing was a modern-day depiction of the now rundown school, the rendering was a catalyst for many fruitful conversations. She showed the picture to a few people and before she knew it, DeLoache was invited to visit the still-functioning Cheyenne School in Stanley County. She drew the building as it looked today.

A friend eventually suggested she write a book, to which DeLoache immediately said no. “That was not on my radar at the time,” she says.

But after talking to more people about country schools and delving even further into her drawings, DeLoache changed her mind. She formed a questionnaire for people to fill out, hoping to provide a platform to relive old memories. Instead of drawing decrepit buildings, she listened to people who had frequented schools like Tuthill School in Bennett County and William Hamilton in Hyde County. They told her where exactly the flag pole was positioned or what the swing set looked like, allowing her to recreate the historic buildings on paper. She gave new life to old buildings.

“If I ever planned it, I probably couldn’t have pulled it off,” she says now, after interviewing hundreds of people.

Along the way, DeLoache has become privy to the hospitality of what she calls country culture. She’s been invited to stay in people’s homes and toured their land - learning every step of the way.

She’s discovered when folks say this country it refers not to the United States but to a tract of South Dakota that’s been passed from generation to generation. She’s learned that this is a place where a stone boat is not an oxymoron but a real means to move things around - rocks, hay bales, maybe even buildings.

When she’s been invited to attend some schools - like the Deep Creek Elementary School in Philip - the locals turned her appearance into a social event. After visiting with the students at the still operating school, men and women gathered at a community hall, sitting at opposite ends of the table. DeLoache didn’t understand why there was a barrier based on sex. She discovered it was because the couples spent all day together and the country school discussion was a social event for people who don’t often gather.

“Everyone from a 10-mile radius showed up,” she said.

As was the case with her experience in Philip, DeLoache learned that country schools used to often provide a social environment for people living in rural areas. Whenever consolidations occur, she says, the result is a fragmentation of the community.

And while country schools can still be found in South Dakota today, they seem to be dwindling each year. This year, the Stanley County School Board is discussing the possibility of formally closing Hayes and Orton schools.

“It’s a shame it’s no longer practiced,” DeLoache says. “It’s an exceptional way of teaching and learning.”

Rural schools are different and could leave students at a disadvantage. At least that’s what DeLoache used to think. She comes from an elite background: her father graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; her classmates’ parents taught at schools like Harvard and Yale.

“We were very competitive students,” she recalls. There was no sense of cooperation in school - it was a dog-eat-dog setting.

Upon delving into the country schools project, she thought the students would have significant drawbacks compared to what she experienced. She was surprised at what she discovered.

The close-knit environment of country school education requires students - old and young - to look out for each other rather than compete against one another, she learned. When the boys hear a certain scream from a girl they grab a hoe and search for a slithering snake.

The propensity to offer a helping hand seems to go hand in hand with rural living, she says. “These farmers and ranchers are really isolated. If something happens to one, others will go and help with their work.”

With cooperation being ingrained from the very beginning, the children who attend country schools seem to take ownership of the school. That’s something DeLoache admits she never felt during her early days of education.

“The families in these areas depend on each other and it’s the same in school. Everybody’s important.”

That environment has created pillars of communities, DeLoache says. She says many people who attended country schools have leadership skills that she only learned later in life - not during her years of childhood education.

One aspect of her forthcoming book that DeLoache hopes to focus on is a generational comparison. She says kids in some schools today are playing games like Fox and Goose and Pum Pum Pull Away, which were also played ages ago.

She’s also found through conversations during rural gatherings there is respect for both the elderly and youth. She learned this while listening to three different men - a son, father and grandfather - swap stories about rattlesnakes.

“There’s a mutual admiration going on,” she said.

She’s also learned through her interviews of current and former country school students how rural life sort of forces children to be resourceful. It’s a place where tumbleweeds are gathered and turned into a game; where pouring water down a gopher hole to flush out the furry critter would result in a monetary prize from your teacher - if you killed the gopher, of course. That’s sort of unimaginable to DeLoache but then again, so are other elements of country school living.

“I don’t know if I would’ve wanted to go to an outhouse.”

After having another surgery in April of this year, DeLoache hopes her battles with cancer are a thing of the past. Her strength and energy are back, along with a spring in her step. She’s been rejuvenated by the tales shared by folks who occupied these dwindling and aging country school buildings.

Along the way, DeLoache has visited schools that are still operational, as well as ones closed long ago. She’s even been vital in renewing interest in the restoration of the Sansarc School, which is now located in Fort Pierre. The school will open as a museum during the Dakota Western Heritage Festival in mid-September. In the coming months, she hopes to sift through her interviews and drawings and publish them in a book later this year.

Thinking back on where her journey has taken her - from the historic roads of the East Coast to the confines of a hospital bed and finally to the gravel roads of South Dakota - she seems somewhat surprised.

“What I’m doing is preserving this history, even though I had no intention,” DeLoache says.

But it all comes in stride for someone who is drafting rich images and capturing tales by breathing new life into South Dakota’s old schools with pencil, paper and most importantly, people.

___

Information from: Pierre Capital Journal, https://www.capjournal.com

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