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MEMORIES IN FOCUS: Before there was a Bown-Corby school . . . years ago

UNDATED POSTCARD PHOTO

In what at the time was a heavily wooded area, now the parking lot for Bown-Corby Apartments, sat one of Marion’s historic school buildings, Valley School, which served for more than half a century, from 1874 to 1928.

In 1872, when Marion built its historic Hill School, which still stands as the oldest schoolhouse in continuous use in Kansas, some residents thought it was excessive.

“It was far ahead of the town,” the Marion Record wrote 10 years afterward. “When the small handful of pupils were all assembled, the big building looked like some banquet hall deserted.”

It took little time, however, for education to catch on. A decade after the Hill School opened, it was hardly deserted.

“Now the rooms are crowded with scholars, and more room seems to be an absolute and immediate necessity,” the Record wrote. “As large and commodious as is our city school building, it can no longer accommodate the growing demand upon it.”

Indeed, Hill School — just half its current size, before the northern half of the building was added — housed 243 students and three teachers in 1882.

Two classrooms for grade school were on the first floor, and the high school was on the second floor.

So crowded was the classroom for lower grades that classes had to be conducted in half-day shifts — one group of students in the morning, and the other in the afternoon.

In response, the city’s school board voted to spend $7,500 — the equivalent of almost $160,000 today — to construct a second school building in the valley.

Construction on the new building, known as Valley School, began in 1883 but took longer than expected.

“The so-called new schoolhouse still drags along in its incomplete existence,” the short-lived Marion County Independent newspaper reported in October 1883, adding that, when completed, it “will be a handsome structure.”

By year’s end, the building still was unfinished.

“The new schoolhouse, for which bonds were voted and liquidated over a year ago, still drags its weary length along,” the Independent reported. “The rafters are being put on, but from present appearances it will not be completed so as to be occupied before next fall.

“Mr. O’Bryen, who had the contract for doing the stone work, has been quite severely criticized for not pushing the work more rapidly, but it is our opinion that Mr. O’Bryen endeavored to rush the job as fast as possible.”

Even when the school opened, it became a target for criticism.

Another short-lived newspaper, the Marion Register, reported in 1886 “considerable dissatisfaction prevalent among a portion of the patrons of the school as to the manner in which the Marion district has been apportioned.”

Students living north or west of 3rd and Santa Fe Sts. were sent to Valley School. Students south or east of that corner were sent to Hill School.

“Many who lived far back on the hill, under the apportionment, were compelled to send their children to the lower school building, and many of them being quite small, the parents thought it too long a walk for the little folks,” the Register reported. “It was the same with a large number of those who live in the bottom who were compelled to send their children on the hill.”

In bad weather, parents threatened to keep their children home.

“It would not be so very bad as long as the sunflower blooms,” the Register wrote, “but when winter comes and the weather turns bitter cold, many parents would not send their children to school for fear of exposure in the long tramp.”

The problem was solved in 1886 by transferring some teachers and making new boundaries. Students living on the hill would attend the aptly named Hill School, while those in the valley would attend the equally aptly named Valley School.

Valley School continued to be a key part of education in Marion until 1928.

“Marion has always been proud of its schools, and now with its two large, fine school buildings and efficient corps of instructors offers excellent educational advantages to those seeking a home where their children can be properly educated,” the Marion Record wrote.

Just five years after Valley School was completed, however, additional demands on classes — some grades of which had as many as 83 students in one room — led to expansion of Hill School to its present size.

During construction, all classes were conducted at Valley School on a half-day schedule — normal Valley School students in the morning, Hill School students in the afternoon.

In 1925, another round of overcrowding led construction of the current Marion High School building. Grade school classes on the hill were shifted to the Hill Building, and school capacity once again was not a problem.

Three years later, however, Valley School began deteriorating and was condemned by the state fire marshal as no longer safe for occupancy. The school district responded by building a new school, just a few feet south of Valley School’s location, and naming it after longtime Valley School teachers Anna Bown and Jenny Corby.

Bown-Corby, which like Hill School is listed on the National Registry of Historical Places, continued as a grade school for valley students until 1961, when Marion Elementary School was built. It continued housing grades through third grade until 1992, when Butler Community College took over the building.

The building was converted into apartments in 2015.

Last modified Sept. 4, 2019

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