“A few minutes later, Mary, Catherine, and Ruby entered his room. ‘Dad,’ Catherine said, ‘Mr. Henning, Mr. Roberts, and the others are doing our milking so that Ruby and I can get to school.’”  ~ Bittersweet Harvest


Harold’s Favorite Places: Avoca School


In Bittersweet Harvest, two of the O’Shaughnessy girls — Catherine and Ruby — attend high school in Willow, Wisconsin.

Willow is the fictional name, in the O’Shaughnessy Chronicles novels, of the real-life community of Avoca, Wisconsin. Avoca, with a population of about 650 today, is in northwest Iowa County, along the Wisconsin River, about 25 miles west of Dodgeville. (Open map in new window.)

In real life my mother, Laura Annette Fitzsimons, graduated from Avoca High School in 1924. Her sister, Alice, graduated in 1923. In my novels the sisters are fictionalized, respectively, as Catherine and Ruby O’Shaughnessy.

The two-story, beautiful Italianate school at 403 W. Wisconsin Street, that my mother and her sister attended, still stands today. Its twenty-inch-thick limestone walls, now 156 years old, were built to last.

Avoca School Building

An old Fitzsimons family photo of Avoca School. ©2014 Harold William Thorpe

The south wing of the building was constructed in 1858. The north wing and second story were added in 1876, the same year that a high school was established in Avoca.

Avoca Union Free High School was one of 42 free high schools established in 1875 and 1876 in Wisconsin, immediately following the 1875 passage of a law that allowed for the establishment of Wisconsin’s Free High School System. More high schools quickly followed; by 1900, there were 219 in Wisconsin. The 1875 law also set up a state funding mechanism for the support of high schools.

1912 Avoca School class. Courtesy Village of Avoca

1912 Avoca School class. Courtesy Village of Avoca

When my mother and her sister attended high school in Avoca in the early 1920s, the idea of automobile transportation was just taking hold. They drove a buggy in from their farm east of Avoca each day, stabling the horses in a little red barn across the street from the school. Years later, they returned to Avoca and took photos in front of the school and by this barn. The barn has since been torn down.

Harold’s mother and Aunt Alice outside the stable in Avoca, where they kept their horses while attending school. ©2014 Harold William Thorpe

Harold’s mother and Aunt Alice outside the stable in Avoca, where they kept their horses while attending school. ©2014 Harold William Thorpe

The last Avoca high school class, with nine graduates, was in 1960. Since 1960, teens from Avoca have attended high school in Muscoda, six miles to the west. Muscoda became part of the Riverdale School District in 1967.

Further additions to the Avoca school building were made in 1963 and 1976, when it was an elementary school.

The building remained an elementary school until 1996, when it finally closed for good as a school. Since 1996, all Avoca children have been bused to Riverdale School District schools in Muscoda.

Today, the building belongs to the village of Avoca. The first floor houses the Avoca village offices and police department; a gym and a kitchen that are available for rent; a reading room; a board room; and a historical museum. The second floor is vacant, used for storage.  Village Clerk Suzie Ziebarth says the second floor still retains its historic classroom layout.

Some historical photos of Avoca School from the Wisconsin Historical Society:

Avoca School Photo Gallery:


If you like this you'll love the O'Shaughnessy Chronicles!

When a sibling unexpectedly inherits his grandfather’s dairy farm, Will O’Shaughnessy turns to selling Fords in rural, pre-World War I southwestern Wisconsin.

A richly wistful epic tale of a bygone era....Readers will yearn for more. ~ Midwest Book Review