Friday, January 1, 2010

One Room Education

“It’s cold outside,” Lois Smith complains to her mother as she gets ready for school, but her mother pays her little attention. So Lois takes her brother’s hand and heads out the door. They are on their way to St. Paul parochial school located on the east side of York county right here in Nebraska. They trudge through over a mile of fresh snow that, in places, is as high as the fence posts that criss-cross each section of land. Finally, they arrive just in time to here the schoolmaster ring the hand bell. This story comes straight from my Grandmother who actually experienced one room school education in the 1930’s.

A one room school house that the author's grandfather attended.
His grandmother said that she recalled the school name as Zion Lutheran.

by Trent Gloystein, Southeast Community College

This scene, set in rural Nebraska, is probably much like something one of your own relatives has experienced. The information on one room schools I am about to share with you has come from interviews with people who have studied in one room schools, historians, and from further research on the topic My purpose is to inform you about the era of one room schools. While discussing one room school houses we will look at their history, the general setup, and the curriculum.

One room schools were common place in America through the 19th and half of the 20th century. In the Land Ordinance of 1785, Congress stated that each township in the western territories would set aside a section of land of a public school (Pioneer Village, 2009). According to Evelyn Toynton’s (1995) book Growing up in America, 1830-1860, “The first free schools were established in Philadelphia in 1787.” Small one roomed schools were ideal for the widespread American population. During my interview with the curator of the Hastings museum, Teresa Kreutzer-Hodson (2009) stated that most Americans in the west had agricultural based livelihoods and small rural schools close to home were ideal.

We should realize that the history of schooling has shaped education of today as both churches and government recognized the need for education. Thomas Jefferson once said, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be” (Pioneer Village, 2009). My grandmother told me that schools were either public schools or parochial, ran by a Christian based organization (L. Smith, 2009). Now that we have covered where the one room school house came from, let’s look at the typical set up of a one room school.

Most one room schools were setup primarily the same, with economical accommodations that reflected the state of the surrounding economy, yet retain some of the same things we would find in a classroom today. The basic facilities were pretty much the same for most schools.

In John Martin Campbell’s (1996) book, The Prairie School House, (p. 14) he noted professional carpenters were rarely used. Most schools were made from whatever material the townspeople had readily available. According to my grandmother, Lois Smith, who attended a one room school, most schools had desks or benches for kids to do their work in.

One room schools did not typically have running water. They used outside privies, outhouses, and had a water basin to wash their hands and drink from (T. Kreutzer-Hodson, 2009). Each school had a blackboard at the front of the class that sat behind the teacher in the back of the school house (Stuhr Museum, 2009). Wood or oil burning stoves were the only source of heat for the schools (Stuhr Museum, 2009).

The teacher’s position also worked differently than today. Most schoolmasters would board in student’s homes (Pioneer Village, 2009). My grandmother vividly recalls having the teacher stay with her family. She also stated that it was looked at as a privilege.

Schoolmasters were paid either through taxes or by the church, if it was a parochial school. Teachers were usually unmarried males or females usually not much older than the students (T. Kreutzer-Hodson, 2009). Most teachers would stay a year or two at the most (Stuhr Museum, 2009). Next, we will look at what was taught in a one room school and how it was taught.

One room schools had a basic curriculum. Although they had different ways of teaching, the information taught was not completely unlike the basic curriculum of schools today. The teachers of the one room schools taught the subjects that were most important at the time. They taught basic skills such as reading, writing, arithmetic (math), geography, and history (Pioneer Village, 2009). My grandmother added that on special occasions they would get to learn bits of knitting and other things that may be useful in a home setting.

One room schools had different ways of studying information than schools of today. One room schools made use of memorization and flash cards (Lois Smith, 2009). According to (2009) Teresa Kreutzer-Hodson, Curator of Hastings Museum in Nebraska, because the classes ranged from grades k-8, all in the same room, the teacher handed out books called hornbooks and taught a grade its lesson separately while the others worked on their assignments. After the older grades had completed their work they would help the younger classes with their studies. Now that we have seen how school was taught and what the children studied, let's look at how the school year was set up.

The school year was set up drastically different from schools of today. School was not always the family’s first priority. Many children, especially males, took time off school for the harvesting and planting of the family’s crops. This means that many school children only went to school for a few months out of the year (T. Kreutz-Hodson, 2009).

The school system observed holidays just like the schools of today. Most schools celebrated Christian holiday such as Christmas and Easter (Stuhr Museum, 2009). My grandmother recalled that the only non-Christian holiday her school in rural Nebraska observed was Thanksgiving. But school children were rarely allowed to miss school due to weather.

Teresa Kreutzer-Hodson (2009) recalls a story she heard about a snow storm during the one room school era. The children had gone to school one day and during school hours the weather had taken a bad turn. Snow fell across the acres of harvested fields and covered the ground with a thick blanket of fresh snow. The snow was getting to deep to walk in and in those days a parent would show up to collect all the kids and drive them home, a very seldom occasion. On this particular day the parent didn’t have enough room for all the children to fit inside. They couldn’t leave the other students behind so, naturally, the older kids piled on the running boards. Amidst the slipping and sliding, one girl fell off. Like kids do, she overreacted and everyone was convinced she had broken her neck. There was too much snow for the county doctor to see her that day so they took her home and laid her in bed. Days later, the doctor came and she was fine.

In conclusion, we have seen the history of one room schools and how our fore fathers knew the importance of education in America, the similarities and differences between the setup of present day schools and one room schools, and the parallels and differences in the curriculum and how it was taught. Though the concept of a one room schoolhouse seems outdated, they were the norm throughout most of America’s brief history. Some estimate that there are still close to 400 one room schools still left in the U.S. today (Stuhr Museum, 2009).

Next time you wake up to a snowy morning, walk out to your car, start the engine, and turn on the heat before school, remember our ancestors and what they would have had to endure on a day like that just to get to school. It is imperative that we remember our ancestors and their one room schools have shaped the educational system as we know it, honor them accordingly, and be thankful for what we have. I’m sure that someday when we have grandchildren they will be amazed at what school was like for our generation.


Campbell, J. (1996). The prairie schoolhouse. Albuquerque, New Mexico: University of New Mexico Public Relations.

L. Smith (personal communication, October 23, 2009)

Pioneer Village. (2009). Schools of the pioneer era [Brochure]. Minden, NE: Author.

Stuhr Museum. (2009). And cattle ate the school. [Brochure]. Grand Island, NE: Author.

Toynton, E.(1995). Growing up in America, 1830-1860. Brookfield, Connecticut: The Millbrook Press.

T. Kreutzer-Hodson (personal communication, October 26, 2009)

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