The Wild West of Yester-Year

One-Room Schools
By Rachel Kovaciny
When my dad was very young, he attended a one-room schoolhouse. No, he’s not a hundred years old—one-room schoolhouses still existed in rural parts of the United States for much longer than you might realize. The last one closed in 1967! We associate the idea of the one-room schoolhouse with America’s pioneer days, perhaps because they play such a prominent role in stories set during that time. Take the autobiographical books of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and the TV show Little House on the Prairie (1974-82) based on her life. Not only did Laura and her siblings attend a one-room school, Laura became a teacher in one!

Many western movies and shows feature one-room schoolhouses too, often taught by a harried and unmarried lady teacher biding her time until a handsome cowboy stops by and sweeps her off her feet. Sometimes, the one-room schoolhouse is a fictional plot device used to bring a love interest into a story, like in Owen Wister’s classic novel The Virginian. Other times, it’s used as a symbol of law and order; if there’s a schoolhouse in town, the area must be safe for families to live in.

There’s a good reason one-room schoolhouses show up so often in stories about American’s western expansion: they were everywhere. There are over two hundred of them still standing today and listed in the US National Register of Historic Places. While one-room schoolhouses are not a unique American institution (countries from Sweden to Australia all had them), they hold a special place in our history. As Americans moved west to start farms and ranches, they formed small communities. If there was a town nearby, it was the logical place to start a school for the children from the area. If there was no town, sometimes a farmer would donate a corner of land near a road for the school to stand on. Rural communities often lacked a home for the teacher, so settlers would take turns letting the teacher “board” with them. Each family gave the teacher a bed and meals for a specified amount of time until it was another family’s turn. They often provided teachers at town schools with a room at a boarding house, living quarters attached to the school building, or a small house of their own.

Teaching methods in one-room schoolhouses varied. Some teachers used the “blab school” method, in which students for a specific grade all recited their lessons aloud, in unison. Those were common in poorer areas where the school could not afford books or slates for its students. Many teachers used the McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers to teach reading, writing, and spelling, and taught other subjects such as arithmetic or geography using other resources. Sometimes only the teacher had a book, but the students had slates and could copy their work from the teacher’s book or a blackboard on the wall. School terms didn’t match ours today. In rural communities, there was no school in the spring and the fall, when farms needed the kids for planting or harvesting their crops. Instead, there were two months of school in both the summer and winter. A teacher might rotate between several schools if their terms did not overlap.

Having students of every age and grade in one room might sound like the perfect recipe for chaos, and I’m sure many one-room schools had their disorderly moments. But most reports and reminiscences we have about the learning done in such schools show that good order was more likely to be the rule. Children sat with others in their grade, with the smaller scholars in the front and the larger ones at the back. Some schools also separated boys and girls. Communities used one-room schoolhouses for other purposes than just school. They held meetings, dances, and even church services there, especially if it was the only larger building in the community. Although there are no longer any public one-room schools, thousands of American children today do their schoolwork in something fairly similar. Many home-school families teach their children together, every kid doing their own grade-appropriate work and getting help from a parent or older sibling as needed. In a way, the one-room schoolhouse still lives on!