School’s In Session! The One Room Schoolhouse

It’s that time of year again!  School is already in full swing in some states, while locally and elsewhere school begins during the week after Labor Day. And students are either glad to be back in class or longing for the final bell of the day to ring.  Classes and the extended subjects are much different now than they were 200 years ago.  Students often did not have a strictly set school year like today, but were excused to help with farm chores such as planting and harvesting crops.  Like many great Founders of America who were self-taught, our ancestors were either self-taught, home tutored, private schooled, or had limited access to public school.  Even then, a good foundation was laid in what they learned which enabled them to succeed well in their life’s profession or to pursue university studies. I have two school books for math and English (in photo above) used by ancestral families, published in 1852 and 1875, that show they definitely got a solid education!

The school was considered the next most important building in a community after the home.  It was the center of a small town where church, town meetings, community events and picnics were often held.  The “Little House on the Prairie” books and TV series provides a good example of the one-room schoolhouse, the hub of the community.  

According to Jean Alve (Spencer Historian, Tioga County, NY) in “Sounds of Spencer” for February 24, 1993 (“Looking Back at the History of Spencer, A collection of newspaper articles, 1983-1997”, pub. by The Spencer Historical Society), the Huggtown School of North Spencer was one of the last local one-room schoolhouses.  In use until 1935, John Cowell was the last teacher.  Located next to North Spencer Baptist Church, the building was moved to private property on Cowell Road in 1981, and is now owned by The Spencer Historical Society.  

My attending two small Christian schools in East Palmyra, NY and Passaic, NJ for elementary grades was, in some ways, similar to the old-fashioned one-room school concept.  Two or three grades were combined with up to 25-30 children per teacher.  I well remember the stop-watch timed math tests, the spelling bees, and oral reading groups.  We memorized math facts, learned to read phonetically, and were drilled with flash cards.  

My mother and her 11 siblings attended the one-room school in Carlisle, Schoharie County, NY from 1st through 5th grade before going to middle and high school in Cobleskill.   In the 1930s and 1940s, a bus saved them from walking the mile or so to and from school.  She recalled their attempt to walk home during a blizzard one winter, but the fierce wind-driven snow and cold drove them into the town’s only restaurant where they called their father.  They took sandwiches to school, but once a week their teacher cooked them a hot meal.  She can still recall her teachers’ names, with the only man teaching for a few months before being drafted into WW II.  Her favorite subjects were social studies/history, with a 95 on her 8th-grade Regents!  Still her favorite subject, it’s an interest she’s passed on to me.

My mother’s father, born in 1887, went to that same one-room school building, graduating with an 8th grade education.  A jack-of-all-trades, Leo Tillapaugh was not only a premier dairy farmer of registered Holsteins when that was not the norm, he was elected to the Cobleskill school board for 20 years until his passing, was town Justice of the Peace, Town Highway Superintendent for Carlisle, bookkeeper for the local creamery, and a highly-respected community leader.  I wish I could have known him.

Students line up at North Chemung School #1 ( date unknown )

In the typical one-room schoolhouse, up to eight grades were taught together.  Just as for my mom, boys and girls entered through separate front doors and sat on opposite sides of the room, with the youngest children up front.  Classes were usually held from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. with short morning and afternoon recesses.  Schools were typically built within about a 2-mile walking radius for the students, though some came from longer distances and rode a horse or horse-drawn wagon.  There was often a pasture to stake the horses in, and occasionally a shed in which to stable them.  

Lunch was carried in baskets or tin pails.  The teacher called the students inside by ringing the bell.  Classes typically began with the Lord’s Prayer, a Bible reading, and roll call before lessons.  An outhouse/privy was located behind the school.  Water from the well was often drunk from one bucket, each student using a common dipper to drink from.  No wonder illnesses spread like wildfire among the children, and quarantines were necessary with suspension of classes at times.

The teacher was equally a man as a woman, though most women did not teach after marriage.  The teacher was well respected, meting out discipline as necessary.  We have read or seen depictions of teachers who severely overstepped their bounds in disciplinary actions, but that was not the norm from my research.  One of the most common punishments was a whipping with a switch/branch, which would leave red marks on contact.  My mother said there was little disruption and unruliness in their classes; but, she chuckled to recall that, indeed, a few students were taken out to the back shed for discipline.  Most teachers truly cared for and loved their students, being involved in their lives within the community outside the classroom.  My mother said that was also true of their teachers, including one who enjoyed cross-country skiing with them on their farm.

Students were given responsibilities according to their age.  In the colder months, older children brought in coal or firewood for the stove set in the middle or back of the room.  There was little to no thought of putting insulation in buildings back then, so those sitting nearest to the stove would be toasty warm while students farther away shivered.  Younger students cleaned the blackboard/chalkboard and took erasers outside to clap them clean.  I remember doing that as a child!  It was so much fun to watch the puffs of chalk dust – the harder we clapped, the bigger the puffs!

Chores by the teacher and students would include making sure the chimney was clean of soot to prevent smoke buildup or a chimney fire.  The floor was swept every day, desks cleaned, blackboards and erasers cleaned, and the windows washed often for light as there was no electricity, only oil lamps or candles which would have given off a certain amount of smoke.  I would imagine that, like now, not all children willingly did their assigned chores, and sometimes certain chores might be doled out as punishment for an infraction.  

The three R’s, reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic, are the necessities to the foundation of any good education.  Teaching back then did not require the extensive education and degrees of today.  What they needed most was a good knowledge of what was being taught, a love for the children, an ability to discipline fairly, and a commitment to teaching and helping each child learn.  Much was taught by memorization, rote and drills.  Flash cards and drills were popular. Children memorized math facts without the fancy terminology of today, which I think causes confusion.  Nor did the elementary grades touch on the algebraic sets or equations that are used to teach now.  

Reading was taught by the phonics method with hornbooks (a primer with the alphabet and numbers for children) and spellers, and later the six popular graduated “Eclectic Readers” by William Holmes McGuffey.  McGuffey readers were first published in 1836, teaching reading and values such as honesty, courage and good manners.  These popular books were still used in the early 20thcentury.  Eventually, sight word recognition came into vogue. Phonics/historyofreading.html   I remain a strong proponent of phonics; it’s been the key to my success in medical transcription when meeting new terminology, and was key to helping my children learn to read.  

Spelling bees were often a popular way to end the school week. The student who could out spell everyone else was highly admired until the next week’s bee and new winner.  Except, of course, when you carry the stigma of an infamous mistake!  Having only moved to Clifton, NJ a week earlier, I was intrigued by a tractor trailer I saw with an orange S.O.X. printed on the side for South Orange Express.  We happened to have a spelling bee that morning, my best subject!  Seriously!  My turn came and the teacher called out, “Socks.”  Confidently facing the entire class, and without thinking, I heard myself say, “S-o-x.”  

Writing was not with lined paper and pencil familiar to our students.  Instead, they used rock slates and scratched their answers with slate pencils.  As they got older, pen and paper were used, usually with a quill pen made of a sharpened goose feather dipped into the inkwell on their desk.  To prevent the ink from smudging, they would press special blotting paper down onto their writing to absorb the excess ink.  What a lot of effort that must have taken, especially when compared to the ease of today’s technology!

Desks might be planks with benches, or actual 1-2 person desks.  Up front, the teacher might have a bench near her desk for students to “privately” recite their lessons.  A blackboard, an alphabet sheet, a United States flag, and a clock were often decoratively displayed on the front wall.

Many of us have seen the “famous” 8th grade test from 100-200 years ago making the email rounds that we adults supposedly couldn’t pass today.  I agree; in reading through it, I can’t begin to answer the questions.  However, if we had studied facts specifically for the test, I think we’d pass with flying colors.  Well, except for anything above algebra and general science – those were not among my best subjects.

As evidenced by research, our ancestors were very well educated with “just” a one-room schoolhouse 8th-grade education.  After all, their education success led them to become the successful parents, community  leaders, and businessmen and women they were as they brought our communities into the modern age.

Linda Roorda writes from her home in Spencer.

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