Old school houses story sparks family memories for Wisconsin woman

Polly Walgren displays a souvenir her grandmother Amelia Burkey gave to her graduates from the Class of 1911. Burkey taught for two years at South Bunker Hill School,  an old one-room schoolhouse on County Road 77 in Holmes County near Berlin.
Polly Walgren displays a souvenir her grandmother Amelia Burkey gave to her graduates from the Class of 1911. Burkey taught for two years at South Bunker Hill School, an old one-room schoolhouse on County Road 77 in Holmes County near Berlin.

MILLERSBURG - On a trip to Ohio a few years ago, Polly Walgren of Wales, Wisconsin (30 miles west of Milwaukee) couldn't resist the temptation of entering the old one-room school house where her grandmother once taught.

"I imagined my grandmother, Mom Burkey, standing there teaching the children. It was an amazing feeling," Walgren said on a recent return to Holmes County for a cousin reunion. "My roots are here, and I get compelled to come back and visit with family and enjoy this beautiful country. Seeing buildings on what used to be farm fields is progress, I know, but to me it's sad."

Walgren explained that her great-grandfather Amos Burkey was the son of a veterinarian. Her grandfather Albert Burkey lived on a farm on County Road 77 near the current home of the Amish Heritage Center in Holmes County. The South Bunker Hill School was a one-room schoolhouse located just across the street from the Burkey family farm.

Mary Louise Brand was her great-grandmother and Amos Burkey was her great-grandfather. They were classmates in the Bunker Hill School in 1877. Amos was a 20-year-old student. During that time, young adults often went back to school in November after the crops were in, Walgren said. Amos and Mary eventually married and Walgren's grandfather, Albert Burkey, was born. He was the eldest of 10 children.

Amos and Mary Burkey had 20 grandchildren and 40 great-grandchildren. Walgren noted that she is the oldest of the 40 great-grandchildren, and her mother was the oldest of the 20 grandchildren, just as Albert was the oldest of his family.

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There are only two cousins from the second generation of the Burkey family still living, including Mary Lou Gindlesburger of Millersburg, and Sue Miller of Columbus. Gindlesburger enjoyed reminiscing with her cousin Walgren.

Gindlesburger had sent Walgren a copy of The Daily Record article about the 100-year-old school houses in Holmes and Wayne Counties that ran in December, which led to Walgren reaching out to the newspaper to share some of her family history.

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Grandparents were born educators

Her grandfather married Amelia Lenora Saam on Aug. 3, 1911. Saam went to school at the Benton Schoolhouse, and she taught in the South Bunker Hill School. She was hired by Albert Burkey, who became an educator at a time when a lot of people didn't even go to school, Walgren pointed out.

His career included 10 years in Killbuck from 1915 to 1925, before moving to McDonald near Youngstown. It was a small town with a steel mill and he was brought in to start up a school system there. McDonald is where Walgren was born.

"While teaching in Holmes County, he earned his master's degree and Ph.D.," Walgren said. "He was instrumental in helping develop the Ohio High School Athletic Association. When he moved to McDonald, he lived on three lots, two of which were dedicated to gardening and raising rabbits and chickens for slaughter. I grew up in McDonald, and my two brothers spent their summers working in the garden with grandpa."

Walgren added that her grandmother was called "Mom" because while growing up, she heard her own mother call her that, so she did as well.

"She was never grandma to us. She was Mom Burkey," Walgren said. "When she graduated from high school, she was too young to get a teaching job. But after working for a year at the Painter's Children's Home, she gained experience. She then took the teacher's exam and passed. There was an opening at the South Bunker Hill Schoolhouse. The biggest concern was if she would be able to handle the bigger boys when they came in from the field. She convinced them she could. She got the job."

A story shared by William Schrock, another cousin, told of his Aunt Amelia's (Mom Burkey's) attempts to discipline one of her students, but when she came around with the paddle, he sidestepped and she missed. On each following attempt, the student sidestepped, making the teacher more angry. "She finally gave up in disgust," the story read.

She taught at South Bunker Hill for two years, from 1909 to 1911.

"After Mom Burkey got married in August, 1911, she was done teaching, because at that time, when you were married you didn't teach anymore," Walgren said. "She taught some of my grandfather's younger sisters."

Walgren said when she returned home (to McDonald) to visit her parents years ago, she would visit with her grandmother, who shared stories with her that she tape recorded. She has had the recording stored as MP3 files on a thumb drive to enable family and others to listen to Mom Burkey's stories.

She hopes to organize all of her family memorabilia and have it all put together in some sort of  media presentation. She donated much of her collection of family history to the Amish Heritage Center.

Walgren's grandparents and mother and father are all buried in the Oakhill Cemetery in Millersburg. She hopes to have her ashes buried there as well.

Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center director: 'An amazing gift to the community'

Marcus Yoder, director of the Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center in Berlin, met with Walgren on her latest visit to Ohio and she left many personal items, such as photos, letters and other information, for Yoder to share with visitors to the heritage center.

"The material she has collected from her family is an amazing gift to our community," Yoder said. "It allows us to see this corner, this particular place in Holmes County in a different light, with the Burkey material and different pictures, and also the records of the South Bunker Hill School.

"We're going to digitize what she gave us," he continued. "She said she has more that she plans to bring to us and donate it to the library. Her collection is a special part, of particular importance to this very spot. The material she brought us is a valuable addition to this community."

This article originally appeared on The Daily Record: Great-granddaughter of Amos Burkey shares Holmes family history