By Frances Edstrom
February will be a big month at Washington-Koscuisko elementary school, affectionately called W-K. On February 4, the school will celebrate the birthday of Thaddeus Kosciusko, one of the men after whom the school is named. And then at the end of the month comes Presidents’ Day, when we honor George Washington, the other man the school’s name reflects, and whose birthday is February 22. Both men are heroes of the Revolutionary War.
When W-K was built on Mankato Ave. and opened in 1935, it replaced three schools — Washington, Kosciusko, and Sugar Loaf. Sugar Loaf started as a country school, and didn’t become part of the Winona school system until 1891. Washington was built as the fledgling town was growing, and by 1888 the schools were so crowded that night classes were being held, and the age of starting school was raised from 5 to 6. Even in 1937, there were more than 100 country schools open in Winona County.
The Fourth Ward schools became more and more crowded, so in 1889, the Polish Stock Company Hall was converted to a school. By 1891, that school was called the Mankato Ave. School, unlike the others in town not a U.S. president’s name, reflecting the school board’s hope that it would be a temporary building. (Jefferson, Madison and also a Jackson School were on the West End.)
After a lot of wrangling, in 1892 the school board knew they couldn’t accommodate the growing population in their present schools, so voted to build an East End school at Sanborn and California streets. (That is according to the 1913 History of Winona County, but that was either a misprint, or the name of the street was changed later to Chatfield.) The school cost $25,000 to build, including the lot, and was dedicated in 1894, after the city was redistricted.
It was about that time that the school board installed a telephone in each school. Perhaps the wires were burning up with talk of the argument over what the name of the new East End school should be. Finally, with Benard Stoltman and Joseph Winczewski as Fourth Ward representatives on the board, Kosciusko was chosen over Columbia.
The school population continued to grow, and the school board continued to talk about building more schools or adding on to existing schools. But some warned that when the Catholic parishes built their own elementary schools, as they were talking of doing, there wouldn’t be a need for a Kosciusko school if St. Stanislaus parish built a school. In fact, when the parishes did open their own schools around 1913, the public school population fell by 1,000 students.
Kosciusko (pronounced Kos-chew-skoe, according to Paul Libera, quoted in a newspaper article in 1973) was born son of a nobleman in 1746 in Poland, where he attended at the King’s Corps of Cadets, with military studies as well as the liberal arts. He then studied for five years in Paris. When he returned home, there was no post for him in the greatly reduced Polish army, as the country had been divided up by the Russians, Prussians and Austrians. He left Poland in 1775, and in Paris heard about the American Revolution. He came to America, served as a volunteer in the new army, and in 1776 was named a Colonel of Engineers in the Continental Army. He went to work building forts to protect the army from the British. It was Kosciusko who designed West Point, at the behest of George Washington (Benedict Arnold tried to give the plans to the British). He then traveled south to join forces there, and for the first time encountered chattel slavery, which he grew to abhor (he gave his army salary to Thomas Jefferson, and instructed him to buy slaves with the money, free them and educate them. He freed his own serfs in Poland before his death.)
After seven years of distinguished service to the American Revolution, Kosciusko was promoted by Congress to the rank of brigadier general. He also received American citizenship. He returned to Poland to fight against the Russians, who had invaded. But the Polish army was woefully out manned, and Kosciusko surrendered to the Russians. He then fled Poland, and joined a group planning the ouster of Russia from Poland. But the cause failed, and Kosciusko was captured by the Russians and imprisoned. It wasn’t until 1796 that Kosciusko was freed. He declined to fight with the Napoleon-allied Polish Army, and rebuffed overtures from the Russians to build a Kingdom of Poland, a small and ineffectual plan that Kosciusko called a joke. He died in Switzerland in 1817 of typhoid. He is a national hero in Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and the United States. Winona Post