In 1907, a railroad spark was carried on a strong, northward wind through downtown Kent City, starting a fire that devastated many of its buildings north of the railroad tracks.
Among the few surviving structures was a house that later belonged to Kent City Historical Society volunteer Karen Wilder Seites’ grandparents, when they moved to the town in 1925.
With help from Seites and other volunteers, a group of fifth-graders have become experts on the fire, the town’s two-year reconstruction and the origins of their school.
From single-room schoolhouses to the formation of athletic programs, teacher Billie Freeland’s students are researching pieces of their hometown’s past to create a book that will bind it all together, available for students to read in the school library.
“Maybe people in 100 years will read our book,” said Yahir Vargas, a yearbook propped on his knees, his pencil in the air.
Yahir and his classmates spend their research time pouring over yearbooks in search of the first of each sports team, or the first school play.
“For the sports it’s harder, because it’s a bigger topic,” said Damien Wiggins. “All the yearbook gives us is names and positions. If we’re searching for a disaster, it’s easier to research on and easier to write.”
Events from tornadoes to varsity basketball games appear in faded newspaper clippings from the 1960s. With these documents spread across the historical society floor, the students try to connect the dots, taking notes as they get closer to when it all began.
Better luck has resulted from interviews the students conducted with longtime residents of Kent City, including a 92-year-old man who attended a very different kind of school from the one they attend.
“He had a lot more details than what I would have found in a book, how he lived,” student Leslie Bockheim said.
Freeland began the project during the 2011-12 school year, having the students focus on local businesses and the next year, the residents. This year, the emphasis is the school and its sports programs. Exploring their local history, as opposed to the standard Civil War research paper that preceded the project, gives the students a more authentic learning experience, Freeland said.
“It gives them a deeper appreciation for the people who came before, and thinking deeper about what came before and ‘how did it get here.'”
Three residents interviewed by the students in the project’s first year have died since the first book was published. Freeland said the deaths have made her realize the importance of documenting and recording their memories – and the lesson that provides for students.
“I think they develop an ownership of their town and the history of it, and a really strong connection with the people they’ve met,” she said.
Learning how their school programs came tobe helps students appreciate what they have, Freeland added, which can have a humbling effect.
“Not to take for granted that we have sports or activities or band,” she said. “Realizing that a person started it and it’s connected to the people of the town.”
The Kent City Historical Society is commissioned by Tyrone Township to supervise and maintain historical information and artifacts.