The Story of America’s One Room School Houses

Photo: One room school, October 1923 in Pocahontas County, West Virginia. Photo by L.W. Hine. Contributor Names Hine, Lewis Wickes, 1874-1940.
Photo: One room school, October 1923 in Pocahontas County, West Virginia.
Photo by L.W. Hine, 1874-1940.

In just a handful of days America’s school children will be heading back to school for the start of a new school year.

Though not all, many will be returning to multi-million dollar facilities, complete with full handicap accessibility, high end athletic fields, computer labs and state of the art security systems.

In addition to the buildings themselves, an army of educators, support staff, administration and resource officers will crowd the hallways of America’s public schools in the coming days.

Interestingly, school, as we know it in America is largely a design of the previous generation and has greatly changed in appearance and composition over the last century.

To properly understand the evolving story of America’s schooling style, we must first step back in time to an era well before the turn of the previous century — back when nearly all manufactured goods were exclusively produced by the same person, from start to finish.

During these days and before, individuals often possessed a single trade.  This was true even with the apostles of Jesus, Paul was a tent maker, Luke was a physician, Peter was a fisherman and continued through the 1800s.

Men would learn a trade and produce goods based upon their experience and expertise.  A shoe maker would produce footwear, peddlers would roam around selling these shoes, and a cobbler would repair shoes if ever they became damaged.

Bakers produced bread from start to finish.

A furniture maker would produce chairs from beginning to end, and so would a wagon maker.

All of this changed, however, with the rise of the assembly line and soon many workers would find themselves performing only a single repetitious task in the production process.

Rather than having a single worker build something from start to finish, factories quickly sprung up across the world employing hundreds of workers who each performed a single repetitive job in unison.  This new process enabled society to produce items on a mass scale unlike never before seen and elevated the lifestyle of ordinary humans far beyond imagination.

Interestingly, the revolution of the assembly line was not limited to manufacturing cars, chocolate candy and brooms.

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 several decades, this has been the primary method of our nation and the world’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.

At the centerpiece of most of these schools was a large potbelly stove which kept the students warm during the coldest of winter days.  Younger students and girls were often given a seat closest to the fire while older boys would sit along the edges of the room.

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.  If the teacher was a married man, communities would often attach a living area onto the school house for the teacher’s family to reside. Thus, the wives and children of teachers became an integral part of the school experience.

When young and unmarried women were hired to teach, she was often boarded with local families and was required to adhere to strict personal behavior and dress standards.

During the 1940s, a Kentucky student recalled time they spent inside a one-room schoolhouse and described their teachers in the following manner:

“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 experience.  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.”

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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