In the 1880s, Deana Doyle taught in a one-room schoolhouse in Nevada. One room did not mean only one grade or class, so Doyle had to go back and forth between her younger and older students, making sure that they all stayed busy and all learned their lessons. It wasn’t an easy job, but Doyle did it well, according to Rebecca Freeman, who had her for a teacher in 1887.
“I wonder how she did it,” Freeman said many years later. “I really do. I remember her taking time with each class. As I remember, she got the younger children started on a project, maybe painting, or going over our ABCs. Then she would go on to the next class and get them started. Then she went to the older children. She spent more time with them because their lessons were more complicated. Then she would come back to us. But we knew that her eyes were always on us, so we kept busy. By the time she came back to give us her undivided attention, we tried to have our work done.”
A staple of Western folklore and, in fact, a reality in most small communities of the Old West, the one-room schoolhouse has been relegated to museums in many parts of the country, but it survives in Nevada’s Elko County and other wide-open Western places. Even in places where one-room schoolhouses are extinct, the small-school concept that they represent has its modern-day adherents.
For persons living on the 19th-century frontier, education was not something taken for granted. Maybe saloons and taverns, blacksmith shops and general stores came first in most new settlements, but schools were never far behind, certainly not in those places where women and children joined the male pioneers. Take Bannack, in what is now Montana, for example.
Bannack sprang up virtually overnight in the summer of 1862 when thousands of men converged on little Grasshopper Creek in search of gold. Painted ladies and a few wives arrived at the rough-andtumble community that year, but women were scarcer than Louis XIV furniture. A little more than a year later, the town was booming but still plenty tough, with a sheriff, Henry Plummer, who would eventually be hanged by vigilantes for his alleged involvement with a gang of road agents. But in September 1863, Lucia Darling began teaching 12 children in the living room of a house owned by her uncle, Sidney Edgerton, who would help organize the vigilantes and later would become the first territorial governor of Montana. The number of schoolchildren had increased so dramatically by the summer of 1864 that the Edgerton home could no longer accommodate them. A crude log cabin was built, becoming the first one-room schoolhouse for Bannack and for Lucia Darling, who is recognized as Montana’s first schoolteacher. In 1874 the one-room schoolhouse was gone from the town, replaced by a two-story Masonic lodge and school, where classes would be held on the first floor for nearly 70 years. Bannack is now a state park, and the Masonic lodge/school and other buildings have been preserved.
Not all mining towns in the West lasted very long, but those that did were not considered real communities until they had schools. As for the places where farming and ranching were king, once the houses and barns were built and the crops planted, it was time to consider the educational needs of the children. Although churches were important to any community, out West the schools usually came first. In a few instances, the citizens didn’t even wait for the houses to be built. In April 1871 in the new community of Gibbon, Neb., it was a case of “build a schoolhouse and the children will come.” Army veterans were to receive free homestead sites after traveling there by reduced fare on the Union Pacific Railroad. Members of the so-called Soldiers Free Homestead Colony arrived from Omaha on the emigrant train on April 7. Seven days later, the members, though still living in railroad cars, established a school district. On April 22, they voted to raise $1,000 to build a schoolhouse and appointed a building committee. By June 26, Miss Estelle Chamberlain was teaching classes at a wage of $35 a month.
The relatively small populations and vast open spaces in Nebraska, Kansas, the Dakotas, Montana and elsewhere in the West made it practical to have many one-room schoolhouses widely distributed rather than a few large school buildings. With no public transportation, students came to school on foot or on horseback. The school sites themselves usually covered about one-half acre. Even with outbuildings such as privies and horse sheds, these sites included plenty of open ground for outdoor play and exercise.
The blackboards in one-room schoolhouses were wide wooden boards (sometimes taken from wagon boxes) painted black. Soapstone was a frequent substitute for chalk. The teacher’s desk was up front, of course, often with a globe on a small table nearby. The children, anywhere from five to 30, sat at small desks or on benches. Lead pencils were rare. Because school was in session during the colder months, a potbellied stove usually heated the room. Older boys would be let out of class to split wood for the next day. Sometimes coal was burned. A bucket of water and a dipper in the corner provided liquid refreshment. Indoor plumbing was rare.
These schools almost always had just one teacher, who was responsible for grades one through eight. A school day typically ran from 8 or 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., with a 15-minute recess in the morning, an hour break for lunch and another 15- minute recess in the afternoon. Rules for teachers in 1872 Colorado Territory included the following:
Teachers each day will fill lamps and clean [lamp] chimneys.
Each teacher will bring a bucket of water and a scuttle of coal for the day’s session.
Male teachers may take one evening a week for courting purposes.
Women teachers who marry will be dismissed.
Once the children were seated in the morning, the teacher took attendance and then read to them, often passages from the Bible. No doubt many of the children (like children of today and for all time) looked forward to recess. But recess was not the highlight of the day for all the children; in fact it could be a harrowing experience for some. Joyce Geasler, who taught in one-room schoolhouses in Idaho from 1870 to 1910, recalled in verse one incident in a school sandbox:
A huge pocket of sand was on the playground;
No greater place to play could ever be found.
I excused the little ones to go out and play,
And soon heard the death cry of a little stray.
There she stood in a hole two feet deep,
Screaming her fate in utter defeat.
Many little boys were feverishly filling her in.
They met my concerns with impish cries:
“We’re only going to bury her alive!”
Frontier schoolteachers, like their Eastern counterparts, emphasized R-A-W (reading, arithmetic, writing), but maybe it should have been W-A-R (writing, arithmetic, reading) because writing came at the top of the list in the schoolroom. The object was not to stimulate a bunch of future dime novelists or newspaper reporters. Intelligible writing was important, but the main thing was to make whatever was written legible. Students had classes in penmanship at least once a day. The teacher, often only slightly older than the oldest pupil, also was expected to instruct students in manners, morals and patriotism. Because 19thcentury teachers were poorly paid (perhaps some things never change) or else were slow in being paid, there was little incentive for young persons to consider teaching as a career. Most of their pay came from the students’ parents, who were usually farmers or small-town merchants. When crops failed or the economy was bad, paying the teacher was not a top priority. Some families that could not pay hard cash gave the teacher foodstuffs instead. Despite these obstacles, dedicated teachers arrived in out-of-the-way Western locations and had great impact on the lives of children and their parents. Such teachers gave their personal attention to each child, and each child had the opportunity to progress through the grades at his or her own speed. For immigrant families from Europe, education often became the stepping stone to “Americanization,” the only way for family members to learn English.
In any one-room schoolhouse, the younger students could learn from the older students as well as from the teacher. Bernice Pitchford, who taught school near Boise, Idaho, recalled a student from the 1890s era, Henry, who she initially believed possessed extraordinary reading skills. Each day, Miss Pitchford would write new words on the blackboard, and each day, by the time his opportunity to read came around, Henry would have already, impressively, learned the new vocabulary. Eventually, the teacher discovered that Henry was ingenious, but in an unorthodox way. Rather than industriously studying the blackboard, he would quietly borrow the book from which the day’s reading would be taken, look in the back of the book where new words were listed and then ask an older student to help him master the new day’s vocabulary.
After eight years of grammar school education in a one-room schoolhouse, pupils who had passed their examinations graduated. For most, that marked the end of their education and the beginning of their working lives. Before 1890, children in rural areas were not guaranteed an opportunity to attend high school, and if they did have that opportunity, they had to pass an entrance exam first. It was not uncommon for a farm family to send a child to live with a relative “in town” in order to go to high school.
Today, most schools have more than one room, but some of them are still small. Supporters of smaller schools and smaller school districts speak of many advantages—including greater individual attention for students, shorter bus rides and lower taxes—and resist consolidation. Tradition, too, exerts a strong hold on rural communities in the West, where generations of families have attended the same school, often in the same building. The tradition of the one-room schoolhouse in the West might have come and gone, only to have returned.
Originally published in the April 2006 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.