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 One-Room Schools of Washtenaw County

One-Room School Houses of Washtenaw County

Our next exhibit will look at the one-room schoolhouses of Washtenaw County and the role they played in the community. The student and teacher experience will be displayed at the Museum on Main Street by looking at each school of record and using artifacts from our collection to round out the story. One-room schoolhouses educated the rural students to help them negotiate a changing world. Such noted people as Alan Shepard (astronaut), Laura Ingalls Wilder (author of Little House on the Prairie) and Joyce Carol Oates (novelist) all hail from the one-room school house experience.

One-room schools were commonplace throughout rural portions of the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In most rural and small town schools all students met in a single room. There, a single teacher taught "the three R's" (reading, writing and arithmetic) to seven or eight grade levels of elementary boys and girls.

The quality of facilities at one-room schools varied with local economic conditions but, generally, the number of children at each grade level would vary with local populations. Most buildings were of simple frame construction, some with the school bell on a cupola. In Midwestern areas, sod construction was also used as well as stone in areas where stone was available. In some locations, the schoolhouse was painted red, but most seem to have been white.

The blackboard really was a black board, made of wide boards painted black. It was not until much later that slate was used for chalkboards, although students often had individual slates for writing practice. Teachers in one-room schools were often former students. Their role is well-described by a student from Kentucky in the 1940s: "The teachers that taught in the one-room, rural schools were very special people. During the winter months they would get to the school early to get a fire started in the potbelly stove, so the building would be warm for the students. On many occasions they would prepare a hot, noon meal on top of the stove, usually consisting of soup or stew of some kind. They took care of their students like a new mother hen would care for her newly hatched chicks-always looking out for their health and welfare."

The teacher's residence was often attached to the school, or very close by, so that a male teacher's wife and family were an integral part of the management and support system for the school. Single female teachers were more often billeted or boarded with a local family to provide for social norms requiring social supervision of single females.

A typical school day was 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., with a morning and an afternoon recess of 15 minutes each and an hour period for lunch. The older students were given the responsibility of bringing in water and carrying in coal or wood for the stove. The younger students would be given responsibilities according to their size and gender such as cleaning the black board (chalkboard), taking the erasers outside for dusting plus other duties that they were capable of doing.

Transportation for children who lived too far to walk was often provided by horse-drawn kid-hack or sulky, which could only travel a limited distance in a reasonable amount of time each morning and evening, or students might ride a horse, these being put out to pasture in an adjoining paddock during the day. In later times, students rode bicycles.

The school house was the center and focus for thousands of rural communities, hamlets and small towns. Often, town meetings and picnics were also held there.

The vast majority of one-room schools in the United States are no longer used as schools and have either been torn down or converted to other purposes.


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