The One-Room Country School: Trying to keep the past from fading from memory
by David M. Johnson
The buggy whip, party lines and typewriters are just a few relics of the past that some of us still remember either vaguely or with a fondness that draws us down memory lane. There are many things of the past that many people do not care to experience again; outdoor plumbing, lugging in coal or wood to heat the house or for cooking, plus the many elements of work that required backbreaking labor.
Medicine and industry of the past lagged behind in knowledge and expertise that we enjoy today. Society in our national landscape had its flaws; many were denied their civil rights that were enjoyed by others. Yet, there existed certain strengths that made the past livable. The cohesiveness of the family and its ability to cope with the challenges that life brought to the table immediately comes to mind.
With all the different problems, hurdles, failures and successes that the past generations had to cope with, there is one element, one symbol, that still stirs the imagination or brings one to attention when this icon emerges from the mist of the past. The one-room country school still holds the respect and admiration of many of the present. The symbol that was used on the Iowa quarter as its distinguishing characteristic is the one-room school building.
The one-room country schoolhouse was a landmark, along with the local rural church, in many a rural community. Not only did it educate the youth of the children of the many residents living near its confines but it was also a neighborhood-gathering place. The school would be used as a voting station for the election precincts, a building to be used for local authorities to decide the direction of any community developmental concern or a neighborhood sounding board on whatever crisis that needed the attention of those individuals living in the immediate area.
But the primary objective, the reason for its existence, was the educating of the children. Did these schools do their job? Many of the leaders, educators, lawyers and medical professionals of the rural communities that dot the landscape of our state and nation were students of these schools. The younger generation, Generation X, even some members of the baby boom generation, have no ties or knowledge of these rural pillars that represented and educated the citizens of the prairies, valleys and hills crisscrossing this great country. The knowledge of the outdoor bathrooms, the struggles getting to school through chest high snow drifts or enduring the blistering heat and humidity of early fall-late spring school days are as foreign to today's generation as another country's language might be.
Eight grades - later it was whittled to six grades - huddled in one room with one teacher aspiring to achieve success in the numerous fields that education had to offer. Spelling, arithmetic, grammar, history, geography and reading were the offers that challenged the youth of the school and were more times than not conquered with a great deal of success. The students of the school could be compared to the cohesive units of the military or athletic teams. Brothers and sisters, classmates, neighbors and friends would assist each other with their studies whenever possible. This cooperation within the student body and the guiding, nurturing presence of the teacher overcame the shortcomings that might have overwhelmed lesser individuals.
The one-room country school as an entity that educated successive generations of Iowans and Americans has established itself as a tradition that has endeared itself to American society. As the log cabin and the prairie schooner are identifying physical signatures of our past, so is the one-room country school embedded into our
consciousness as an important representative of our nation's past goodness and vitality that made us a nation.
The last of the country schools in Allamakee County closed in 1967. These closings were the end result of a consolidation and reorganization into the existing three school districts, a gradual process until these bastions of the past surrendered to the modernization of the educational infrastructure. As the "country kids" bussed to the different town schools, as the one-room schools emptied their soul and essence to the siren call of a society yearning to improve, it was the death knell for a tradition and a signal of another milestone in our ever-changing landscape.
As the years progressed, students became productive citizens and experiences became memories. Buildings that housed the future of each community began to decay and eventually disappeared due to the ravages of time. Then as the generations began to age, there was the inevitable loss of those leaders, the teachers, men and women that lived, breathed, worked and then finally succumbed to the physical demise that nature demands.
As buildings began to disappear, so did the number of teachers begin to slowly pass into the night. Curtis Webster, Carol Deters, Claire Whittle and Marge VanHorn are just a few of the names of the past that were the educational captains steering many a wayward, curious youth onto the path of discipline and a determined, purposeful
direction. Sadly, not only are the memories fading but so are the ranks of these unsung heroes. In our county there still lives some teachers that not only taught in these rural buildings of education but also have vibrant memories and are willing to share them.
Eleanora Berns is 101 years young and is a 32-year veteran in the educational ranks. She taught in Farmersburg,Volga, Buck Creek, Garber and Equity in Clayton County. She and her husband Verni moved to Allamakee County and a farm in the West Ridge community. She took over the teaching duties at Union Prairie #2 and remained
there 21 years. The remaining five years of her career was spent teaching in the West Elementary school inWaukon.
Alice O'Neill-Tayek spent most of her life teaching in the one-room schoolhouse, 28 delightful years. At 92 years old, she remembers teaching at Jefferson #8, French Creek, Center, Patterson, Union #6, and 18 years at the Lycurgus school before finally ending her teaching career in Waukon.
A familiar face in the Harpers Ferry area is retired school teacher Laurayne Easley, 86 years old and 47 years spent experiencing the many offerings of the
teaching profession, its joys and its heartaches. The span of her career took her from the school at Waukon Junction to Mound City, Fairview #2 and the school in Harpers Ferry.
With over 100 years experience in teaching, these ladies still retain a storehouse of memories of their experiences and have their opinions as well. Unlike today, the teachers of the past did not have to go to college to begin teaching. They graduated from high school and then received "normal training", which enabled them to begin their teaching profession.
Laurayne's mother, Crystal, was a teacher so Laurayne had the advantage that some other teachers of the past might not have enjoyed. All three teachers received college degrees later in life. Laurayne took courses at Upper Iowa until she eventually received her degree. Eleanora took correspondence courses from Iowa State plus
attended courses at Luther College and Upper Iowa. Alice took correspondence courses and attended Upper Iowa plus Luther and took the exam at Iowa City. These
three ladies did a delicate balancing act with teaching, raising a family and continuing their education.
There are teachers today that will say, "Well, I'm doing the same thing." These teachers, along with many of their peers during this time frame, were teaching in an environment without central air, primitive heating, no indoor plumbing and driving on dusty dirt roads in the summer, mud quagmires in the spring. The facilities and the teaching materials provided would be considered third world today. Yet, these women not only educated the kids, they graduated from the ranks of their students functional, highly literate citizens. They did all this and on extremely low pay. Laurayne said she got paid 76 dollars a month, one of the highest paid teachers at that time.
The first questions asked pertained to what the advantages and disadvantages were, the difficulty coping with thedifferent weather extremes and if these elements cheated their students compared to today's students and the advantages they enjoy. Alice tells how wonderful the students were, that because of this there were really no disadvantages. "We would go into the woods nearby, the older kids helping the younger kids, and learn about nature. Today, the kids have no clue about nature," Alice wistfully added about a past long gone. She saw kids, during the Great Depression, come to school with no shoes. During the winter months, the kids were dressed not much better than in the warmer months.
All three teachers told about how the older kids would assist the younger students with their schoolwork. There developed closeness between the different age groups, the different grades. They all feel that this is a major advantage over the modern students. "It was not that difficult, they learned from each other. If there were
hardships, the kids did not notice them or accepted it," added Laurayne. Eleanora observed that, "People would not go for them anymore [one-room country schools], but the children learned and when they left, they knew how to read, write and do their math. They did away with phonics; I have no idea how they teach the kids to read
today. With phonics, my kids learned to read and learned to read quickly."
None of the teachers interviewed had behavioral problems with their students. They tell of where they would have to carry water in, maybe put their cold lunches on the stove to warm up and then battle the cold, snow or heavy rains just to go to the bathroom outside. Alice tells of a creek outside the school, the kids would put their food in the creek to keep the food cool. All the teachers would have to get to school early to build a fire before the students arrived. In the winter months, Laurayne would chop wood for kindling. When there was no electricity, lamps were lit.
These teachers did not have small student bodies. Today, in Lansing, Postville or Waukon, you will observe twenty or more students in a classroom. Alice had as many as 33 students, Eleanora had 24 kids. They would have this many students and then prepare a daily assignment for eight different grades. All three ladies commented on how
the times were so different compared to today.
Yet, none interviewed have had any regrets. They look back at their experiences in the country schools with a great deal of fondness. They all told stories of where they still today receive calls and letters thanking them for their professionalism and the tremendous job they did teaching. All three reflected, with a great deal of pride, on how many of their students finished at or near the top when their students left for high school or college.
Eleanora reflected on the test that eighth grade students had to take before moving on. "The test was tough, most of the kids passed it. Those few that did not, took it again." Eleanora tells of her own experience with seventh and eighth grade, where she had to repeat it. Not because she flunked the test, but she was one of the many casualties of the Spanish Flu outbreak before 1920.
One of their greatest enjoyments was the educational evolution of each student, when they first began to successfully read or gain the ability to calculate math problems. They all commented that their jobs as teachers were not easy but the kids made it extremely enjoyable for them.
Today, the Iowa and American students have computers, I-pods, calculators and cell-phones. Most do not have to do the intensive labor of farm work or duties around the home as they did a generation ago. Almost every kid has a car, a tremendous amount of free time and we still see behavioral problems and a steady decline in academic
achievement. Maybe parents and their children should take time and look back at a time where the difficulties, experienced by a generation fast disappearing, looked insurmountable. These challenges were met and conquered with a fraction of the "goodies" enjoyed by the generation of today. Listening to what these teachers, their generation and the succeeding generation have to say might be the solution to the quandary we are experiencing today. The one-room country school might be something from the past, but it had values and principles that can still be applied today.
The following are some examples from the eighth grade test mentioned above. Some of the questions date the test, from 1895, and it would be understandable that very few today could successfully answer those questions. There are other questions that are applicable and it would be interesting to note if eighth graders could
successfully answer them today.
What is the cost of a square farm at $15 per acre, the distance around which is 640 rods?
Name and define the Fundamental Rules of Arithmetic?
What is the cost of 40 boards 12 inches wide and 16 ft. long at $.20 per inch?
Name the Parts of Speech and define those that have no modifications.
Define Verse, Stanza and Paragraph.
Give the epochs into which U.S. History is divided.
Who were the following: Morse, Whitney, Fulton, Bell, Lincoln, Penn and Howe?
What is meant by the following: Alphabet, phonetic orthography, etymology, syllabication?
Name and locate the principal trade centers of the U.S.
Why is the Atlantic Coast colder than the Pacific in the same latitude?
~Source: Waukon Standard, March 5th, 2008
~transcribed & contributed by Aubrie Monroe (March 2019)