During a recent visit to a local store, the shelves were full of school supplies: papers, pencils, scissors, notebooks and more. Parents were scurrying around with their children, picking out school supplies from a list provided by their teacher. Later this month children will be heading back to school.
While I don’t think our pioneer ancestors had detailed supply lists from their teacher, perhaps they would get new shoes for school—after the freedom of running barefoot all summer. This picture from the 1890s shows shoeless students at this rural Dakota school. What else can we learn about their experience and how it shaped their lives? How was it different from our ancestors who grew up in a town or city? What would be interesting to include for your family history?
We’ve all heard the stories about trudging uphill both ways to school during a blizzard. Or taking the long way home to circumvent running into the neighbor’s mean bull. Or bringing your school lunch in an old syrup pail. Use these stories to help your reader better understand the experience of attending a one room school or “country school”.
Rural pioneer ancestors attended one room schoolhouses that were typically only a few miles from their own. There were several of these schools in a township because transportation limited the distance that someone could travel—options were walking, horseback or by buggy. Children went to school with neighbors and siblings where one teacher taught them all lessons based on their grade level. While we tend to think about one room schools as something from the past, they still exist in some rural areas. I have aunts and uncles who attended country school until eighth grade and I personally know families who attended a country school as late as the 1970s. One friend claims that her great ability to focus and “tune out” distractions comes from going to a country school where lessons were taught for multiple grades. You were expected to do your lessons in the same room, despite the noise.
From a genealogical point of view, your ancestor may have been part of the school board for the country school or even housed the teacher during the school term. It wasn’t uncommon for the students to receive a souvenir class memento listing the names of all the students as well as the teacher. Look at the documents you acquired. Perhaps you’ve overlooked the significance of school-related items. Do you have Grandma’s report card? What subjects were taught? Remember to look at old plat maps and read county and local histories. Sometimes you may only have a story told by a relative or someone else that lived during that time. All help you build information about what it was like in your ancestor’s time to attend school.
Read more about one room schools.
“The one-room schoolhouse contributed to the social context of the entire community. It was a place where elections were held, picnics and celebrations, and public meetings.”
With a lifelong passion for genealogy and history, the author enjoys the opportunity to share genealogy tidbits, inspiring others to research and write their family story.