Friday, June 5, 2015

The Story of One-Room Rural School Houses

The story of the one-room country school is a big part of the story of the settlement of the middle of America. Is there anyone, even down to the lower elementary grade school level who is not familiar with country schools?

Sutton 4th graders at their Apple Valley graduation last October. 

Very early in the life of the Sutton Historical Society we discussed acquiring a country school building as part of our museum. Truth be told, your writer was zealot on this question. I attended District No. 16, one of the two Nuss Schools in School Creek Township through the fifth grade. I just thought the country school was too much a part of the history of our area not to be featured in any museum in our area.

We lucked out.

The county fairgrounds board had a country school which was in the way of some of their development plans. We learned that they were offering the building to any interested party. That was us.

The city stepped up and offered us the perfect spot in the southeast corner of the city park, a piece of ground that had been orphaned from the main portions of the park when the course of School Creek was streamlined in the 1990’s. And even better, that location was on the same street as the building we already owned separated only by one house, which were later managed to capture giving us several contiguous lots for our museum.

Teachers and students in period costume is a great
touch for the activities at our school museum. We are
honored to be a part of this program.
Thus, we have the school building from District No. 55, the Wolf School which originally sat two miles north of Fairfield. The last school board had given the school to the county fair board fully equipped and furnished and in excellent repair. It was perfect for our use with student desks, a teacher’s desk, pot-belly stove, piano, blackboard, books – the works.

The country school was more than an educational facility. It became a symbol of an earlier time, a time that we remember to be much better than it probably was. We remember the “values” of those who started and attended one-room schoolhouses; the closeness of a young teachers and her charges, the five-year olds to the thirteen-year olds. We do remember the good parts.

Our museum bought the two books that had about one-room schools. “One-Room Schools of the Middle West” by Wayne E. Fuller comes from the University of Kansas Press; “One-Room School” by Raymond Bial was published by Houghton Mifflin Company in Boston. Those books and several websites trace the story of the development and demise of rural schools. Like most things, the story is much more complicated that you may have suspected.

One-room rural schools existed throughout the world but were especially common in the British Empire. Prussia and Spain supported education in sparsely populated areas but it was in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the British Isles that the concept dominated rural education. Is that a surprise? I don’t always associate the Brits of 100 or 200 years ago being champions of an egalitarian cause like universal public education. I guess I’ve been wrong. I’ve found no serious discussion on that angle – still looking.

School districts were formed on the heels of the first setters. Districts were typically seven to nine square miles. Farm families gathered, organized the school district and selected the school board. In the midst of trying to make a living off the land, these families built or acquired a school building, equipped it, hired a teacher and had a school – almost 80 of them in Clay County, more than 200,000 in the country. Truly a grass-roots phenomenon.
This county map shows the location of rural schools - almost 70 of them. This configuration was prior to the loss of a huge
chunk of the county to the Naval Ammunition Depot which took out five schools. The Wolfe School was District #55 seen
here just north of Fairfield.

Country schools were state chartered corporations. The state secretary of state provided a boiler-plate for the necessary reporting documents that such organizations were required to submit. Forensic historians who have examined those archived reports from these farmer-run corporations, that is, elementary schools have been amazed at the quality of those reports. School board members understood the limits of the skills and training and followed the boiler-plates to the letter. The reports are generally perfectly formatted, thorough in their data and seemed to be always submitted on time.

One-room schools became part of the folklore of the 19th Century with poems and songs written about them. They figured into literature and had roles in movies. “The Little Red Schoolhouse” was a phrase that popped up to conjure up a popular image even though nearly all of them were white.

The Fuller and Bial books point out the similarities and the many variations in one-room schools throughout the U.S. They both describe the many attractive features we tend to remember and that many of them have a myth-like nature to them. The Fuller book is the more objective of the two with a good discussion of the criticisms of one-room school education.
Our school museum gets to relive its reason for being a couple of times a year and that is a Good Thing.

There were many contemporary criticisms of one-room schools. The young teachers did a good job handling as many as nine grades with several classes each. But there was a downside. The teachers were really overwhelmed. We remember individual attention for each student, but could that teacher really do the same level of work with multiple grades as could a teacher with a room full of one grade?

The situation of the one-room school dictated the nature of the education those women (generally women) could physically provide. Teachers were often as young as 16 having completed Normal School rather than high school. She (generally she) had all of the duties of running the school: starting the fire early on cold, winter mornings, dealing with snakes or other critters that happened by, disciplining the crowd, everything.

Farm boys often had to work school into their farm work and maybe only attended school a few months a year. Their progress was slowed and sixteen-year old girls sometimes found 18 or 19-year old boys in her class. Could be awkward.

Not all of the one-room teachers were women. Clay County had a few men out there. The most noticeable were Henry Vauck and Roy Oakley. Both of them, brothers-in-law by the way, had experienced serious accidents as young boys which cost them limbs limiting the range of work they could expect to do. School teaching was an excellent way to work through their handicaps. Both developed excellent reputations as teachers and both moved on to become county officials, Henry was the county judge for several years and Roy served as Clay County Clerk from 1922 through 1955 (as I recall) and, according to some accounts, may still be the longest serving county official in Nebraska.
The County Superintendent published an annual directory of all schools with a wealth of information about the operation of
rural schools. This section describes the teachers including their level of certification, experience level, salary, etc.

Dick Anderson was our teacher our last year (1953-54) at District #16; Albert Nejezchleb appears in District #23 southwest of Fairfield and there were others.

The county superintendent published an annual Education Directory which catalogued the schools listing teachers, their level of certification and salaries, the school boards and other information. Those are fascinating reading material. The Sutton Museum has 18 of these from as early as 1925 through the early ‘60’s. We’ll include our list in the blog posting of this article in the hopes that anyone with a copy we’re missing might allow us to at least copy the pages.

I’ve visited our neighboring counties, Fillmore, York and Hamilton but have not located any similar directories in those counties.

The county maps for the years before and after the creation of the U.S. Naval Depot show that seven school districts were consumed in that development. Additionally, five rural districts around Harvard were incorporated into the Harvard School district very early, before our earliest directories in the ‘20’s. Those schools were designated Harvard N.W., N.E., S.C., S. E. and S.W.

Schools had both a district number and a name. The numbering sequence went to 80 and then skipped to Trumbull Schools, District 101. The names came from a local feature or sometimes the name of the farmer who had owned the school grounds. For some reason, people in the north part of Clay County tended to use the numbering sequence. I went to District 16 and it wasn’t until years later I’d learned it was the Nuss School. The school name was more commonly used in the south part of the county. My mother and cousins attended Lakeside School; I never heard them refer to it as District 65.

The move to redistrict rural schools into town schools was a controversial subject beginning in the early 1950’s. It was largely unpopular but most parents realized and eventually accepted that the days of the one-room school house was coming to an end.

Our area was settled in the 1870’s and 1880’s at a time when transportation and communications were primitive. People traveled as fast and as far as a horse could take them and messages traveled along with them just as had been true for hundreds of years.

By the early decades of the 20th century motorized travel and the telephone had made town schools accessible to farms several miles from town. Centralization and consolidation were powerful ideas and redistricting began slowly at first but in 1954 became a flood. For me, fifth grade in country school, sixth in town. The Wolfe School in our museum was one that held on until 1963 when it had six students its last year.

So what became of those one-room schools?

A lot of them became farm outbuildings – garages, granaries, hog houses; many deteriorated and were torn down; but a few lived on to find new lives.

The District #16 school house came to town school with us and was located across the street from the main school building and next to the Voc Ag building to become the Kindergarten school for several years. After that it was converted to a home and has served the Sinnens. District #13 from four miles south of Sutton was moved into town to become the home of the Wollers for many years. Fillmore County’s District #31 was a two-room rural school house that is now the Majors’ farm house.
The Gary Sinnen home on Hickory Street west of the clinic was the building
District #16, one of two Nuss Schools in School Creek Township. We brought
our school with us when we came to town school in 1954.

Our District #55 museum school has also found a new purpose thanks to the Sutton Schools 4th grade classes. For the past few years they have incorporated our school into their Apple Valley block where they re-enact classes in a one-room school house. The students come to the museum school at the beginning of the block to be assigned to their families for the term and then return weeks later to graduate from Apple Valley in our school house.

The one-room rural school has almost completely disappeared from the Midwest and from most other parts of the world. There are still many of us around who remember attending a one-room school house but we too will disappear. We hope we have passed along our memories of the story of the one-room school house so that future generations can appreciate the role that they played in educating two or three generations of Americans and people in many other lands.

The "Woller" house on South Saunders Avenue was District #13 south of Sutton
in its earlier life. 
This article was written for the May, 2015 issue of Sutton Life Magazine. For more information about that publication contact Jarod Griess at 402-984-4203.

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