The Days of One Room School Houses

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Once upon a time nearly all manufactured goods were exclusively produced by the same person, from start to finish; however, the rise of the assembly line changed this practice and soon, many workers would find themselves performing only a single task in the production process.

Rather than having a single working building something from start to finish, factories quickly sprung up across the world employing many workers to perform a single repetitive job in order to produce items on a mass scale.

Interestingly, the revolution of the assembly line was not limited to manufacturing.

Around the same time the Industrial Revolution was changing America’s production methods, the country was also taking steps to pivot its education process. Soon, schoolhouses which previously had only a single teacher instructing all students in all grades, were being replaced with classes and a system which mirrored Mr. Ford’s assembly line — the first grade teacher stayed in place while students would travel on the production line into the second grade, then the third grade, etc. until they reach the end of the line and by then, it was hoped, the final product would be a “well learned student”.

For roughly a century, this has been the primary method of our nation’s public schools; however, not too long ago, the countryside of America was peppered with rectangular shaped buildings that served as the shared school for local children of all ages.

In an era when meeting buildings were at a minimum, these structures often doubled as the Sunday morning local chapel and Saturday evening community meeting centers.

The names for these buildings varied greatly.  In the north, they were often called township buildings, while farther south, they were known simply as “school houses” but their basic function and design were all very similar.

Most buildings were of simple frame construction, some with the school bell on a cupola. In the Midwest, sod construction was also used, as well as stone and adobe in areas like the Southwest where trees were scarce. In some locations, the schoolhouse was painted red, but most seem to have been white or left in their natural brick.

Like most other things back in these days, life in the rural one room schools was hard and water would often have to be carried by the teacher or students from a nearby creek or snow would be melted in the winter.

On many occasions, the local clergyman assumed the title of teacher in the local school, part of an effort to teach the community’s children to read in order to understand the Word of God.

At other times, former students would take on this role; however, one thing that nearly all of them had in common was an unwavering commitment to education.

In the 1940s, a Kentucky student of a one-room schoolhouse described the teacher:

“The teachers that taught in the one room, rural schools were very special people. During the winter months they would get to the school early to get a fire started in the potbelly stove, so the building would be warm for the students. On many occasions they would prepare a hot, noon meal on top of the stove, usually consisting of soup or stew of some kind. They took care of their students like a new mother hen would care for her newly hatched chicks; always looking out for their health and welfare.”

Unlike teachers today whose involvement with the teacher is limited to a single year, it was not uncommon for students to have the same teacher the entire duration of their education.  Often lifelong bonds were formed from these relationships and students and teachers would develop a lasting love for each other.

A typical school day was 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., with morning and afternoon recesses of 15 minutes each and an hour period for lunch. “The older students were given the responsibility of bringing in water, carrying in coal or wood for the stove. The younger students would be given responsibilities according to their size and gender such as cleaning the black board, taking the erasers outside for dusting plus other duties that they were capable of doing.”

 Rosewood School, Wayne County, NC; ca 1910. From the Wayne County Schools Photo Collection, PhC.209, State Archives of North Carolina, Raleigh, NC.
Rosewood School, Wayne County, NC; ca 1910. From the Wayne County Schools Photo Collection, PhC.209, State Archives of North Carolina, Raleigh, NC.

Transportation for children who lived too far to walk was often provided by horse-drawn kid hack or sulky, which could only travel a limited distance in a reasonable amount of time each morning and evening, or students might ride a horse, these being put out to pasture in an adjoining paddock during the day. In more recent times, students rode bicycles.

For the vast majority of Americans, the days of one room school houses are a distant memory.  Nevertheless, a handful of them continue dot the countryside here and there.  To belittle this ancient institution of American education, however, would be unwise.  For it was the one room school, not the assembly line that helped to educate the likes of Abe Lincoln and Henry Ford — the very mind that would help contribute to its undoing.

Speaking of Mr. Ford.  He loved his one room schoolhouse so much that he had it moved to a museum in Michigan.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. My mother taught school in a one room school.
    She usually hired some of the older boys to build a fire in a pot belly stove. Everyone drank from the same water bucket and bathroom facilities were outside. Life was hard in those days.
    Parents always wanted more for their children in those bygone days just as today’s parents. Many times the children were teaching the parents to read and write.
    She taught grades 1 through 8. She always said every child learned at their own level. The younger children took in everything the older students studied, thus producing some very smart students.
    The years passed and old one room schools gave way to two, or three rooms. Eventually new and modern schools became the norm. My mother found this exciting and sad at the same time.
    Sadly my mother passed. I always loved to hear her stories about teaching in a one room school.

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