You can almost imagine a schoolmarm in a one-room school scrawling the words across the chalkboard: "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again."
Now fast forward a century and that adage best describes how the Buffalo Bill Museum and its leader Bob Schiffke persevered to re-create the country school experience in a new exhibit at the LeClaire history museum.
Schiffke, the museum's executive director, long had envisioned moving an actual circa 1877 one-room school the museum owns, known as Pleasant Hill, from its location on nearby Territorial Road to the museum's riverfront grounds. But the idea was scrapped after construction issues arose with an unexpected storm sewer line underneath the proposed site and building setback requirements didn't allow for another location.
So Schiffke, a retired Davenport science teacher, and the museum board moved on to "Plan B" — construction of museum addition to house a replica 1920s-era classroom and recreate the school's vestibule entrance. Just completed, the exhibit will officially open to the public Sunday, Sept. 16, with an open house and free admission from noon-5 p.m.
"This is the same size as the original schoolhouse so we could make it as accurate as possible," he said during a tour of the nearly 20-foot by 25-foot expansion.
The museum board appropriately named the room after the 83-year-old Schiffke for whom the project was truly a labor of love. A sign at the door marks The Robert Schiffke 1920s Era One Room School House Exhibit.
Added onto the upriver side of the museum, the actual expansion was constructed by Build-To-Suit, which built two previous Buffalo Bill Museum expansions. But the finish work was Schiffke's handiwork from the painted shades of green on the walls to the gray plank-looking vinyl floor, a raised wooden platform built to hold the teacher's desk and decorating with authentic period pieces. The white "tin" ceiling tiles, he said, are actually plastic tiles and the only plastic "allowed in the room."
"I patterned it after a 1920s schoolhouse because they would have had electricity then," he said, adding that one of the benefits of new construction over relocating the actual school is modern-day amenities: electricity, heating and air conditioning.
Walk into the replica school house and its details are a combination of the Pleasant Hill School and many of the other one room schools that once dotted Scott County and Iowa. The windows mirror those of the original school with three of them disguising the museum's original exterior wall to which the addition was attached. Color photographs sit behind these window panes to show country scenes of a babbling brook, a field of horses and an outhouse.
Schiffke said the room's artifacts, which visitors can touch and inspect, are a mix of things donated or collected by museum volunteers over the years. In fact, during construction, "old desks just kept showing up," he said. A mix of 17 wooden desks of yesteryear now fill the mock classroom.
Asked about his favorite find, he quickly points to the wood-burning stove and chimney located in the middle of the room. It was donated by Bruce Peterson, the mayor of cross-river neighbor Port Byron, Illinois.
Other treasures include a small framed, black and white photograph of Elva Smith with her Grassy Lane School students and a framed eighth grade diploma. In the recreated vestibule hangs a salary report from the Princetown Township School showing how teacher Mary Buckley earned $43.75 a month for the 1917-1918 school year as well as the notes left from one teacher for the next.
A chalkboard taken from the Pleasant Hill School lists names of students who attended from 1910 to 1957, when it closed.
"This keeps me young," Schiffke said of all the work involved. A LeClaire resident for 18 years, he has been involved with the museum for 16 years and led it for the past eight. "I'm fortunate I'm in good health and can still do all these things," he added.
He thanked an all-volunteer staff of about 25 for keep the museum doors open year-round to greet, on average, 20,000 visitors a year. Each month, their visitors also represent as many as 20 foreign countries. While he knows the Buffalo Bill name draws them in, he wishes "regional history" could be included in the museum name.
Meanwhile, the original school remains housed on Territorial Road where its previous owner moved it from Princeton. The late Cecil Fletcher of LeClaire, a farmer and keeper of history, acquired it in the 1980s with the idea that today's children could experience what school was like in his time. After his death in 2002 at age 84, the well-known LeClaire resident and historian initially donated to a church, which later donated it to the museum.
"So many of these schools have been torn down and destroyed," Schiffke said. "I don't know what we're going to do with that one. But as long as I'm around, we'll maintain it."