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.
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)