One-Room Country School Facilities

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Public education for rural Midwestern children in the early 1900s began at the one-room country school.

The building was usually a wooden structure, erected on a small piece of farmland. The property had been sold, rented or donated by a farmer to the local school district for use as a school.

The one-room school served the educational needs of nearby children in first through eighth grades. Individual schools were established several miles apart, and were designed to be within walking distance of the farms.

In addition to the schoolhouse, the property typically had an outdoor well, with a hand pump, for water.

There were two outhouses for restrooms and often a little shed to hold the coal, wood or corncobs for the classroom stove. There also might be a small shed for the teacher’s horse.

The eight-month school year revolved around the agricultural seasons. Older children were sometimes needed to help on the farm, especially during planting and harvest. These duties could also cut into other times of the school year.

One teacher taught all eight grades of students within a single classroom. The teacher was also responsible for tending the school stove and keeping the schoolhouse clean.

If the school was far out in the country, the teacher boarded with a local farm family during the school term. Otherwise, the teacher drove a horse and buggy to school from the nearest town.

The students walked to and from school Monday through Friday. They brought their lunches from home, wrapped in paper or carried in a half-gallon, recycled syrup pail.

Lunches were kept in the boys’ and girls’ cloakrooms, just inside the schoolhouse door. If the school did not have closets, the lunches were put on the floor, below coat hooks in the classroom.

Items for lunch might include sandwiches of homemade bread, biscuits or cornbread, a hard-boiled egg, pickles, apples and cookies.

School subjects included spelling, reading, penmanship, arithmetic, history, geography and physiology.

At noon, the children ate at their desks, and then went out to play for the remainder of the hour. There were also morning and afternoon recesses, but the one at noon was the longest of the day. Students played outside on all but the coldest, snowiest and rainiest days.

Buckets of water, for drinking and washing hands, were pumped and carried into the schoolhouse from the outdoor well.

Although the schoolroom might be fitted with oil lamps attached to the walls, the students and their teacher used the natural light coming in the windows. There was no electricity or telephone. If the weather was hot, the teacher opened the windows.

    The restrooms were a boys’ outhouse and a girls’ outhouse, behind the school. An outhouse was common to the children, because that was what they used everyday at their farm homes, where indoor plumbing and running water did not exist.

    A dark, odoriferous, cobwebby outhouse served a necessary function, but it was not a place to linger.

    Sometimes, a small decoration was cut through the top of an outhouse door for light and air.

    Traditionally, the cutout of a crescent moon signified the girls’ outhouse and a sun or star indicated one for boys. In some cases, there was a single, unisex outhouse with no decoration.

The one-room country school was also the central gathering place for the local rural community. It was a building used for voting, public meetings and as a location for social activities.

Parents and neighbors held ice cream socials and sponsored musical evenings to help raise money for classroom items, maps, school library books and even a new blackboard.

The students used the blackboard, as well as individual slates and chalk, in the classroom. They had pencils and paper for work at school and for homework.

When the county superintendent of schools made an annual visit to the rural schoolhouse, both teacher and students felt the pressure and importance of the occasion.

More often, a visitor to the schoolhouse would be a parent or neighbor, stopping by to sit on a bench in the back of the classroom and watch public education at work.