Jean Keppel, left, and JoAnn Gadicke, a volunteer at the Heritage School of 1876,
located next to Longfellow Elementary in Sheboygan, ponder the exact function of a
numbered board that was a teaching aid. Photo by Sam Castro/The Sheboygan Press
The mysterious wooden board of numbers that was built more than a century ago has baffled Jean Keppel.The 57-year-old - who retired from teaching second grade at Wilson Elementary School this summer - stopped last week at the Heritage School, a restored two-room schoolhouse from 1876.
There, the worn wooden board - a sizeable 28 inches tall, 18 inches wide - sits propped on a window sill. It features 12 rows of seemingly random numbers: 3, 4, 2, 1, 3, 1, 4, 2, 9, 2, 3, 8, 7, 4, 9, 5.
The faded green paint has chipped away on the sixth row, leaving most of those numbers indecipherable. A tiny typewritten patent date on the bottom of the board dates it back to Jan. 4, 1881.
A note next to it pleads: "If you know how this number board … might have been used, please share your knowledge."
Even the seasoned teacher was stumped.
"Three, four, two one. Three, one four. Oh, OK. These are the numbers that are actually just -," Keppel said before cutting herself off. "Hmm."
The solution to the numbers board was likely lost sometime after the school closed down in 1932.
The Third Ward School was built in 1876. Seven years later, 176 students filled the small schoolhouse for half-day classes.
After it closed, the city health department operated out of the building for 43 years. Then in 1978, someone proposed that the Sheboygan Area School District restore the empty building to a 19th century schoolhouse.
The 1876 Historic Third Ward School opened its doors in 1992. Now, the space is split in two, part destination spot for fourth-graders who want to recreate a 19th-century classroom and part museum.
Classrooms from across the region visit throughout the year, often in costume, and follow an 1876 curriculum of reading, arithmetic, recess, geography and a spelldown.
The students perk up with particular amusement when they see old-fashioned punishments. Misbehaving children - or, in today's re-creation, volunteers - wear a dunce cap, hold their nose to a circle drawn on the chalkboard or balance on a block.
"They really are like little sponges when they're here," said JoAnn Gadicke, 59, a retired teacher who now volunteers at the Heritage School.
"When you see how excited the kids are just one time, you're hooked. That's why we're interested in preserving this."
The second room of the schoolhouse is now a museum, homage to an era when male teachers could not be caught drinking alcohol or getting a shave in a barber's shop. He could only go on one date a week, or two if he was a regular churchgoer.
The 1897 diploma for Clarence Edmund Garton hangs on the wall. The 1911 report cards of Robert Chesebro are tacked to a board.
And the room is also home to the mysterious wooden board.
A label on the back is so worn that only a few words - "figures," "next" and "sum" - can be made out. The words "Heath and Co." can also be made out, likely a reference to textbook publisher D.C. Heath and Company.
But even the publishing company didn't recognize the description of the wooden numbers board. "I'm sorry, but no one here knows what it is either," spokeswoman Amanda Ayotte said.
Those who see the board craft their own theories - a calculator, a slide-rule, a gambling tool, even a predecessor of the numbers game Sudoku.
Last week, in an attempt to solve the decades-long mystery, Keppel began formulating her own theory. "You can make up numbers using three digit numbers," she said.
Then she modifies her premise: Students practice their greater or less than skills.
"OK, so here you have six, seven, four, five," Keppel said, before again giving up. "I have no idea what to do."
About the Heritage School
The 1876 Historic Third Ward School is an authentically restored two-room schoolhouse. The school, which is next to Longfellow Elementary School, is at 1208 S. Eighth St. It is open during the summer on Tuesdays from 1 to 4 p.m. Entrance is free.
Sheboygan Press Article - Kate McGinty