Since she's a teacher, Myrna Grove is captivated by the one-room schoolhouses that dot the countryside. Most of them were abandoned more than 40 years ago, when systematic school consolidations, expanded course offerings and organized sporting programs made them obsolete.
Today, a majority of the old schoolhouses stand in varying states of disrepair. What amazes Myrna ... a fourth grade teacher at Bryan's Central Elementary School ... is that, in this throw-away society, any of these one-room schools still exist. But in talking to her mother, Florence Stombaugh Grove, and others of her parents' generation, she's discovered that there's a genuine fondness for the old structures.
"Nobody," she says, "has the heart to tear them down."
Five years ago, Myrna made an attempt to track down the remaining one-room schools in Williams County. Her search quickly expanded into nearby counties and far-away states and it recently culminated in the introduction of her first book, Legacy of One-Room Schools. The 142-page hard-bound volume uses photos and an easy-to-read narrative style to depict 19th and early 20th century schools and the activities that went on in them. Myrna observes that one-room schoolhouses have been a part of American history and social order for more than 350 years.
The country's first school-houses were built in 1647 in New England, upon the recommendation of the Court of Massachusetts, she explains. The Federal Land Act of 1785 further provided for a system of public schools in the Northwest Territory. And the 1802 draft of the Ohio Constitution guaranteed that children would have access to a public school regardless of their family's level of income. Those were lofty goals, and it took some time for Ohio's legislative leaders to work out the details.
"Prior to 1820, most schools in Ohio were privately run and only those parents who could afford the added expense of $1 to $3 per term sent their children to school," says Myrna. "The law to establish schools and provide children with a free public education was passed by the Ohio Legislature in 1825. Then, each school district covered six or seven sections in a township."
"The schoolhouses quickly became the social centers of the communities and the ability to make decisions on how to run and maintain them was given to those who lived within the districts' boundaries," Myrna says.
The initial construction and ongoing operation of the schools was also provided for by the legislature.
"Section 16 of every township in the Northwest Territory was set aside to help finance public schools," Myrna says. "But in Ohio, the legislature authorized the sale or rental of Section 16 at auction. The money collected was then paid to the state treasury, which divvied out six percent annually on that amount. These funds were made available to each township to help build the schools and pay the teachers."
Because Ohio was the first state in the Northwest Territory to be settled, Myrna says its system of public schools soon became the model for public education in Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
As the wilderness was settled, pioneer families often built their schools from logs and covered the window openings with greased paper. The classroom floors were either dirt or puncheon ... the smoothed side of a log facing up. And the students worked at homemade writing tables made from planks fastened to the walls, and facing the windows. The penetrating chill of winter was usually buffered by the heat generated from a stone and mud fireplace constructed at one end of the classroom. But the log schools were NOT built for comfort, according to Myrna.
"They were equipped with only the bare essentials," she says. "There were no blackboards, framed pictures or fancy lamps on the walls."
The "Akron Laws"
School districts were authorized by the 1825 public school law to elect a school committee and appoint a school examiner. The districts could also levy a one-half mill tax on each dollar of land valuation.
A new law in 1838 provided for a system of county school superintendents and township inspectors, whose responsibilities were to enforce school laws and report back to a state superintendent.
In 1947, Ohio's "Akron Laws" set up a school system with eight grades.
Two years later, the legislature enacted a mandatory attendance law that required all youngsters from 8 to 14 years of age to attend school for a minimum of 12 weeks.
A new school building program shifted into high gear around 1850, when new district boundaries were established.
"The new districts were set up to include no more than four square miles and schoolhouses were built near the geographical center of each district so students would never have to walk more than a mile to go to school," Myrna says.
The log schools were soon replaced by wood-framed school-houses with horizontal clapboard siding, cedar shingles and gabled roofs. Most of them were white because white paint was cheaper than red.
While most of these schools measured 30 by 50 feet and were uniformly designed, Myrna says there were always small differences that made each building unique.
By the 1880s, brick had become the preferred building material and improvements such as cloak rooms, porches and bell towers began to appear.
Unlike the room arrangements in the log schoolhouses, Myrna notes that manufactured desks were placed in rows at the center of the room and windows were opened from the top to let in more light and air. Drafty fireplaces were replaced in these new structures by more efficient iron heating stoves.
A two-story frame schoolhouse ... like the District No. 3 Briceton School in Paulding County's Blue Creek Township ... was a little unusual a century ago.
A Class Visit To Americana!
"The way schools were named provides an interesting study," Myrna says, "especially in Williams County. Some were named after small villages such as Bridgewater Center, Columbia, Lockport and Melbern. Others ... like Doty, Beatty, Cogswell, Favourite, Witt and Snow ... were named for the farmers who provided ground for the buildings. Still others were named after nearby streams, land formations, trees and public buildings. Examples are Fish Creek, Stony Point, Hickory Grove and Sodom (the grange hall)."
Myrna's book received favorable reviews during her recent appearances at signings in Bryan, Defiance and Angola. And she's learning that the old schoolhouses have become a cherished part of Americana.
"Although they're largely neglected, there's a ground swell of nostalgia for these old structures," she says. "I've presented several talks about one-room schools. And at one of the meetings, I asked how many in the audience had either taught at or attended a one-room school. Every hand in the room went up but mine," she laughs.
Schools of a century ago were so vastly different from today's that Myrna has begun to take her class on annual field trips to visit a one-room schoolhouse.
"I want my students to experience what education was like when their grandparents or great-grandparents went to school," she says.
On those outings, her students spend the day at one or the other of the two one-room schools that have been restored in Williams County. Both the Center School on County Roads J and 16 in Jefferson Township ... overseen by the county commissioners ... and the Historical Society's Hay Jay School on County Road 8 in Bridgewater Township, between Roads R and S, are open by appointment.
Myrna stands before the Rose Hill School, one of the few one-room schoolhouses that have been restored for the sake of history. This one, originally located near Archbold, Ohio is open to visitors of Sauder Village.
The materials used in Ohio's earliest schools were mostly homemade, according to Myrna. Other than a bible, a dictionary and a hymnal, there were few books.
"In the early days of public education, students used wooden paddles called horn-books on which to inscribe their letters, numbers and bible verses," she says. "They practiced sums with charcoal on birch-bark, or they used slate pencils on small slate boards. Sometimes they wrote their lessons in homemade copy books using goose feather quill pens, dipped in inkwells."
However, Myrna's students travel back only as far as the 1880s. She uses the excursions to present her lesson plans as they would have been on a typical day more than a century ago. The ringing of the school bell would warn the students that classes were about to begin and they'd have no more than a few moments to hang their coats on hooks, stash their dinner pails on shelves and find their seats.
"The morning routine usually began with the U.S. flag raising, the singing of a patriotic song, a hymn and a bible reading," she says.
Obviously, the schoolmaster or schoolmarm couldn't teach all eight grades at once. So the teacher rang a bell to call each grade forward one at a time to recite their lessons at the front bench. Each session would last about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, the rest of the students remained at their seats to work on assignments that were posted on the blackboard. It wasn't at all unusual for the older students to help the younger ones with their lessons while the teacher taught classes up front.
Rote learning, memorization, reading aloud and copying were the most prominent methods of education. By the second half of the 19th century, textbooks had been designed to help students progress from one grade to another.
"In country schools, reading was the most important subject," Myrna says. "William McGuffey, a Presbyterian minister, published six volumes of readers and spellers which were widely used in the Midwest, starting in 1836 and extending well into the 20th century. The McGuffey books contained literature by many of the great English and American authors, with stories and poems stressing moral values and the virtues of honesty, hard work, courage and persistence. They also included stories about history and patriotism."
Ante, Ante, Over The Shanty!
The popular math series "Ray's Arithmetic" introduced students to simple numbers and systematically advanced to harder problems about percentages, interest rates and systems of weight.
The younger students recited rules and poems to help them remember the math facts and tables from 2 to 12.
Sometimes the teacher used the Sears catalog to create mathematical story problems for the older students concerning situations they'd find on the farm.
The morning sessions ended with exercises on cursive writing and penmanship.
The afternoon began with a reading by the teacher, followed by drills in grammar and studies of world geography and Ohio history.
Spelling rounded out the day's lessons and weekly spell-downs were introduced to make it more interesting.
Although teachers were often considered task-masters, the school day did provide students with many social opportunities. Lunch time and the 15-minute breaks in mid-morning and mid-afternoon provided students with opportunities to get some fresh air and physical exercise while playing outdoor games like Ante, Ante, Over the Shanty; Crack the Whip; Tag and Red Rover. And whenever the snow fell, they enjoyed playing Fox and Geese, sledding and snowball fights.
Concerns over student performance first surfaced in 1892, when all of Ohio's eighth grade students began taking examinations to test their proficiency in the required subjects. The tests, once called the Boxwell Tests, were developed by John Boxwell, who later served as a state representative from Lima.
Myrna marvels that very few requirements ... other than having good moral character ... were placed on teachers prior to 1900.
"Before 1880, the only experience and certification a teacher needed was to successfully pass the eighth-grade test," she says. "Most of the time, the school-masters weren't much older than their pupils."
Besides teaching, their schoolhouse duties included stoking the fire, filling kerosene lamps and maintaining the outhouse.
Besides receiving very little pay, the teachers often lived with the families of their students and their personal activities were closely monitored by members of the community. Any activity or behavior that was deemed inappropriate ... including marriage ... provided grounds for dismissal. To prevent problems, the county superintendent often rotated teachers from school to school around the township.
By the early 1900s, teachers were required to attend a two-year normal school for formal training.
About that same time, Massachusetts educator John Philbrick introduced a new concept in education when he designed a school building with 12 equal-sized classrooms to house 12 separate grades, each with its own teacher. Thus began a move to consolidate small schools into larger ones. Twenty-one years later, the Ohio legislature passed the Bing Laws, extending the school year to 180 days.
State school officials promoted consolidation by stressing that larger school districts could provide more curriculum options, attract better teachers and give students access to more up-to-date educational equipment. But they had underestimated the dedication of farmers to their children's welfare, Myrna notes.
"The farmers' response was to upgrade the condition of the one-room schools," she says. "Their school boards bought maps and globes and more library books. They also added playground equipment and built fences around the school yards. And they added shutters, bell towers and anterooms to the school buildings."
Myrna observes that the financial difficulties that came with the Depression helped them buy a little time. But in 1940, the Ohio Legislature began outlining procedures to consolidate schools.
While some merged with bigger city schools, many rural residents remained fiercely protective of the independence of their one-room country schools. But in the end, most small public schools found it impossible to resist the trend. By 1957, Myrna says the last one-room school in Williams County had closed. However, one-room schools continued to exist in Michigan and Wisconsin until well into the '60s.
It wasn't until after 1957, when the Russians launched the first Sputnik satellite into space and U.S. officials became convinced that America no longer ranked first in scientific achievement, that the issue of consolidation was pressed on a national level.
With the renewed emphasis placed on education, Myrna says Ohio soon required its new teachers to obtain four-year college degrees.
And in 1972, the school at Petosky became the last one-room public school in Michigan to close its doors.
Many of the abandoned one-room schoolhouses have since found use as converted houses, storage sheds, grange halls and craft shops. But most are in varying stages of decay.
"It was an interesting era," Myrna says. "There's still a real fondness for one-room schools. Yet nobody is bothering to restore them."
Dean's Note: Myrna's book, Legacy of One-Room Schools, is available for $22.95 plus $3 for shipping. Send us a note at News@FarmlandNews.com and we'll pass the message on to Myrna.