NEWCASTLE — The large school bell sitting outside Newcastle Public School acts like an artifact for the old school building, which burned down in 1922.
Almost every person who saw the building burn down has passed away, except for one long-time Newcastle centenarian, who watched the school bell fall from the flaming bell tower.
“My family all ran out that night to help put out the fire,” 100-year-old Cozetta Rohan said. “I watched the old schoolhouse burn.”
Rohan, who was born Nov. 23 1916, has lived either in Newcastle or not far outside the town almost her entire life, with the exception of her secondary and college education.
After graduating in 1934 from a boarding school in Emerson, she earned her bachelor’s degree in education at the College of Saint Teresa (now closed) in Winona, Minn. Afterward, she taught high school at Wynot Public School from 1938-1939.
Cozetta married a Newcastle farmer she knew growing up, Louis Rohan, in 1941. The two had barely started to get onto their feet when their future was put in doubt by the Pearl Harbor attacks.
“People were just [starting to] get over World War I, then that year we saw the Japanese come in at us,” Rohan said. “The first couple years were kind of jumpy for Louis and I, we just didn’t know if he’d be called into service.”
Rohan said her husband was never drafted, and the two went on to raise seven boys and four girls together.
After the war, she said Newcastle was provided electricity by the Nebraska Rural Electric Association, a transition she said that was at first awkward for area residents.
At the time, electric tools and household devices had become a booming market in America.
“The [people] were gradually getting used to the idea of something better than kerosene lamps,” Rohan said. “Of course it was a delight. We got a toaster and an iron first.”
She said their neighbors were among the first people in Newcastle to get a television when they were first introduced to the market. Her kids used to beg her to get one, but she and Louis didn’t see the point. Still, she said her neighbors used to invite them and other residents over to watch television.
“The reception wasn’t worth it,” Rohan said. “Our kids were farm kids, they had something to do besides look at the television.”
Another big change also took place in the 1950s. That’s when Newcastle area residents saw the implementation of indoor plumbing.
“That was a big plus,” She said.
Rohan’s husband passed away in 1978, and she said she moved back into town that same year. Not quite ready for retirement, she worked as a baby sitter, a store clerk and as a Newcastle correspondent for the Ponca-based Nebraska Journal Leader newspaper. She also traveled around the country to take care of her many grandchildren.
“I traveled a lot, coast to coast,” Rohan said. “I enjoyed that.”
Rohan said schools have changed since she was a teacher, particularly that many local village schools have consolidated with other school districts.
“All these country towns, they all had their own little country schools,” Rohan said.
She also said she noticed the standards of living have come a long way as well.
She said the first things she noticed when she moved back to town were how many cars the average family owned and how often they used them.
“Everybody had at least two cars, and the schoolkids didn’t know how to walk to school,” Rohan said. “In my day, the country kids would walk to school if they were just a mile away.”
She said Newcastle Public School had also recently started serving hot lunches at school when she moved back. She said students would go home for lunch when she was younger since the schoolhouse usually wasn’t far from their homes.
“Nobody thought of going home for lunch,” Rohan said.
After living in Newcastle for nearly 100 years, Rohan said she noticed the town’s small size allows its unique personality to shine through. She said the citizens are much more active in the community and in the lives of the community’s students than in other towns.
“When we’re active in something, we’re active,” Rohan said. “People are paying attention to what the kids are doing, they follow along with stuff like the music program. They’re keeping people active. Everybody goes to see what the kids are doing.”
She said the town used to have a number of services that have long since closed. Newcastle’s hospital closed after its doctors either passed away or retired, a story shared by the town’s cafe. Rohan said not enough students are returning to the community after they graduate.
“There has to be something going on to keep people active. If it’s a hole in the wall, people just move away,” Rohan said.
Rohan hopes the Newcastle community will start to grow in the coming years. She said she hopes people will try to strengthen their family ties and try to attract people to the town.
“It’s a nice, quiet place,” Rohan said.