Schoolhouses 1916 | Plans and Comments

Seedy Bunch stopped the big yellow school bus in front of our farm house. I was excited to join five of my older siblings as they boarded. It was my first day of school.

We arrived at East Railroad School first. It was a mile east of town where some of my siblings were going to get off. I had to get off alone and join a bunch of kids I had never seen before. This school thing was not starting out the way I expected. I cried. I cried for a week.

I must have gotten over the trauma with no harm done. As it turned out, I became a school teacher myself. As a teacher, I felt those pangs associated with the start of school each of my 38 years.

East Railroad School looked very much like this fine example. We found this one on a recent hike celebrating our anniversary. It had been moved from its original location to this park site for preservation.

At Wildcat Den St. Pk. near Muscatine, IA

At Wildcat Den St. Pk. near Muscatine, IA

East Railroad was dedicated to first grade only by the time I attended in 1953. The one room schools were originally used for all elementary grade levels. Here is a brief article summarizing some of their history. They were used by the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Ireland and Spain in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was common to find them a few miles apart in the more populated rural areas of the time. There was one a mile from my home attended by my four oldest siblings. It was within walking distance for nearly every student. The TV show Little House On The Prairie showed good examples.

By the middle of the 20th century, our school district was able to provide bus service to bring children to one location. The many one room buildings were no longer needed. Four of the buildings were brought into the nearby small town near our home. They were lined up on an empty lot. One building was for 2nd grade, one for 3rd and 4th, one for 5th and 6th, and one for 7th and 8th. East Railroad housed 1st grade.

In the original one room schoolhouses, one teacher, usually a woman, was responsible for all the children from grades 1-8. The teacher had many duties other that conducting lessons such as general maintenance, cleaning boards and erasers, sweeping floors, playground duty, being a nurse, and firing up the stove in the winter, to name a few. Here is a list of expectations for teachers in 1872 in Illinois. It covers things from dress, to social behavior, hours to keep, and things that will get you fired.

We found this booklet published in 1916 by the state of Georgia regarding school house design with room and floor plans. This link to the publication by Internet Archive provides an easy way to read the booklet by paging through and zooming in on page details. These images give a taste of some contents. It is an interesting read.



Note the separate entries for boys and girls.

Note the separate entries for boys and girls.



A well organized drinking cup rack.

A well organized drinking cup rack.

No school is complete with a suitable closet.

No school is complete without a suitable closet.

Finally, water was essential. Each school needed a well and pump. Here is a good example from the school site we found on our recent walk. They were not all this fancy. You can still buy new pumps of this type. See link.





23 thoughts on “Schoolhouses 1916 | Plans and Comments

  1. The drawings in the architecture book show floor plans similar to what you’d imagine. The outside styling is pretty substantially different from what schools looked like in the north. I don’t know if southern schools actually were built with these pretty plans, or if they were aspirations.

    The book also brought back memories of my grade school. A large brick structure built in the early 1900s, it only had 9 classrooms, offices, and the gym on the first and second floors. The only student bathrooms were in the basement. We had cloak halls, also, just as recommended in the little book for sanitary conditions.

  2. I love what they did with the old one room school houses. On a recent trip to New York we were able to see the one room school house that Rick’s mother attended.

    Now this post has got me reminiscing about an old textbook we used to have on our household bookshelf, back when I was teaching. It was early 1900s or late 1880s. I believe it was leather bound and about 9×12 in size and it included all subjects. Now that I think about it, it was probably used as a teacher’s syllabus, rather than a student’s. Too nice and probably expensive for a student. I do recall comparing what, I believe a typical high school student should learn and saw that it was far more than what we were teaching…or even what I had learned. What a prize that book was…even back then. Now I have gotten curious enough to see if I can locate it or at least find out its title. I’ve got one clue…it’s probably somewhere in California. 🙂

    • When I was a kid, I would browse The Volume Library book. It was first copyrighted in 1911. It has nearly 900 pages covering all subjects. I still own the copy my folks had. Here is the Google Books link.

      If you follow the url on a computer, you can page through it, or enter a page in the end of the url to go to any.

      I hope you can find your copy of the book you described.

      • Great link and yes, I believe this is what I have, though I haven’t located much in the softcover leather edition. Hopefully I will find the one I had many years ago. Thanks for your help.

  3. What an excellent summary of this slice of culture! Nicely done, Jim.

    My mother was a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse in Oklahoma during the 1930’s, having gotten her teacher’s certificate from a two-year program at Tahlequah. Her stories of her experience matched this outline perfectly. She was something of a criminal because she hid her marriage to my father during her final year of teaching. Her salary was precious and it was the depression. I was a beneficiary of her craft – I could read and write before I even entered school.

    • You come from good rebel stock. Too bad she had to sneak her marriage to your father. She worked hard for her pay.

      Thank you for your visit and kind words.

  4. Your statement that “the teacher had many duties other than conducting lessons” reminds me of something I was surprised to learn several decades ago and have passed on to people many times since. The term that designates the person who heads up a school, principal, began as the phrase principal teacher. In other words, an experienced teacher teacher would handle whatever administrative tasks needed to be done at the school, but that person still also taught. How different that is now (and already was even long before my school days), when there’s a separate class (oh, the play on words) of people called administrators, many of whom taught for the bare minimum of time required before they could jump ship and become perpetual bureaucrats.

    Some years ago I wrote a letter to the editor of the Austin newspaper proposing that all administrative positions be half-time teaching positions. Two people would alternate yearly, with one teaching full-time while the other acted as administrator, and then their roles would switch. That way no administrator would ever be away from teaching and from students for very long. Of course the likelihood of a school system adopting my proposal are about as good as the chance that the tree outside my window will sprout wings and fly off to the North Pole.

    • It seems like a good idea. It wouldn’t need to be half time. At least be in the classroom setting for some of your time.

      Personally, I never felt any attraction to the role of administration. I always preferred working with the kids to trying to lead adults. Steering adults can be like herding cats.

      • I taught for two years in a private school, and there the headmaster and the head of the upper school did teach one class apiece each semester. Good for them.

        The reason I proposed alternating years in my letter to the editor is that administrators often meet with people many times a day, and not always at a time of their choosing (as when emergencies arise), so it would probably be too hard to maintain a class on a fixed schedule. Besides, I still want the principal job of every administrator to be teaching, not doing bureaucratic junk, and half-time teaching comes closer to that ideal than just teaching an occasional class.

      • My mother was also in the teaching arena for many years, both as a teacher and administrator, and she always spoke of how bureaucracies ruined the teaching system and atmospheres for everyone alike.

        • I’m glad the bureaucracies and administrations stayed out of my classrooms over the years. I guess I am lucky to have had little interference from those areas.

    • I taught in a small (200 kids k-12) school for many years. They tried out many permutations of admin staffing, including once half time principal half teacher. He ended up spending far more time on the admin work, and I used to sub for him regularly when he had to miss classes for meetings and travel. And as a teacher, you know how prep time varies tremendously depending on what you can put in; he shortchanged his classes, but not by choice. It didn’t last. Your proposal would deal with the time issue each day, but I suspect overall the teaching half would suffer because people who want to be admins invest a lot of energy into political advancement, which would continue regardless. A mystery to me what’s the attraction – money/status ambition? Anyway, at my old school there are now more admins total: 2.5 fte as compared to 1.5 when I started in the late 80s, same student pop. The rationale is increased bureaucratic requirements, like special Ed, common core, etc.

      • I was hoping that a requirement to teach full-time every other year might run off the people who are only in education for political advancement and inordinate salaries. In fact another part of my proposal was that no administrator, including the district superintendent, could make more money than any teacher: that would run those people off for sure.

  5. Nice piece of history, and good this one has been preserved. On my little island there were 4 one room schoolhouses back in the day before paved roads in the 1940s; one still exists, rehabbed by the Historical Society and used for events (pics and story here:

    Being geographically isolated, my island has its own school district, and it includes a currently operating one-room schoolhouse on an even smaller nearby island, which has no access except by private boat or plane. The district receives special “remote and necessary funding” so great effort is put into keeping it used, which means having students. For many years the teacher there actively recruited families with lots of kids (she belonged to a particular religion, can’t remember which) once her own grew up. These days it’s really marginal, maybe two students, one of whom is the current teacher’s child. Unlike the previous teacher who was descended from island settlers, the new teacher has no roots in this area, so the schoolhouse may close at any time. One room schoolhouses are pretty much a thing of the past after the big consolidation movement in the last century, even in rural areas.

    • There are several fine examples of re-habbed school houses. Before our anniversary hike two weeks ago, we found a good example near the park that served as a church and a school. Now it can be rented for functions. It is very remote and has a great view. Melanie has always dreamed of having a vacation home made from one, or from the old plans.

      We visited Maleline Island in L. Superior in northwest WI several years ago. They normally have ferry traffic to the mainland. In winter, kids in grades 1-5 are schooled in a small building on the island. The 6 and above grades go to school on the mainland in Bayfield.

      There is a time when ferry boats aren’t able to be used, and the ice is not thick enough for cars. That is usually in late December, winter break. By January, the ice is thicker. Used Christmas trees are lined along the best route of the 5 miles. That makes school traffic easier for the older kids until spring thaw.

  6. Great post. A friend of mine (in his late 60s) attended a one-room school in rural Wisconsin … and I’ve seen the school (class) picture. What a hoot!

  7. I’ve dallied responding to this because it sent me off to do some research of my own. I knew my great-aunt Inazel had taught in a one-room school, but I never had tracked it down. Now I know. She graduated from Iowa Normal School in 1906 (now the University of Northern Iowa), and then taught at Zion school, in Lucas County. I’ve found a photo of the school, and it looks very much like the one at Wildcat Den. After she left Zion, she taught in the high school at Conrad, Iowa. I found that in an old newspaper online.

    One of the great treats of my trip through Kansas was seeing the number of schools that have been preserved, and which still function either as museums or even community centers. I was lucky enough to arrive at Fox School on the Tallgrass Prairie the last day of their season. A docent was there, and explained a good bit about the method of teaching in those schools — the combining of grades, the value of the recitation bench, and so on.

    I need to gather myself (and my photos) and do something with all this, especially now that I’ve confirmed a few things about Inazel’s career. She was quite a woman — not exactly the Little House on the Prairie sort.

    I love the drawing of the individual drinking cups. We had those from kindergarten through second grade. Each had our name on it, and they were kept in a cupboard very much like the one you’ve shown.

    The other thing I have is a history book from Marion County that chronicles, among other things, all of the one room schools there: photos of teachers and students, the salaries paid, some details about the hiring practices and other actions of local school boards, and so on. Much of it is from the days before Consolidated Districts and other such. Kids still were riding their horses to school, and the teachers “boarded around” with various families. Sounds good to me!

    • You’ve done a lot of research on this. I’m looking forward to seeing something you write in the future.

      The one room school that was a mile from our farm house in western IL served 4 of my oldest siblings. The teacher for each was Mrs. Conn. Later, the schools were consolidated into the nearby town. Four buildings were brought into town and lined up. Buses brought the kids to them. Mrs. Conn continued to teach in them. She ended up teaching all 9 of us kids over her career. What a great woman she was.

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