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Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Ol' Rural School Days - The Buildings

Many rural one-room school buildings are easily viewed through the Resources section of this series.

Even in territorial days, Michigan in 1809 provided for school districts in its settled section.   By 1819 each township board was required to divide the township into school districts.  In the pioneer 1830s, schoolhouses commonly had dirt floors and only a few small windows with waxed paper to permit light while keeping out the weather of a spring or fall day.  Michigan's first constitution in 1835 decreed "The legislature shall provide for a system of common schools by which a school shall be kept up and supported in every school district at least three months in every year."  This was Michigan's first "unfunded mandate for education" as taxes were not levied to support those schools, leaving that to the local communities.


By 1913 the School Standard program spread from Illinois to at least five other Midwestern states, including Michigan.  Even "Popular Mechanics" of April 1913 on page 554 mentions that in Illinois inspections take place for: grounds, building, furnishings, heating, ventilation, library, water supply, and sanitation, as well as to the qualifications of the teachers.  The Illinois program looked for:
  • an ample playground
  • good approaches
  • convenient fuel houses
  • a sound, well-painted building in good repair
  • a jacketed stove in the corner of the room instead of an unprotected stove in the center
  • the floor and interior clean and tidy
  • suitable desks for children of all ages, properly placed
  • a good collection of maps, dictionaries, and juvenile books
  • and a sanitary water supply.
Volume 76 of the "Journal of Education" explains in more detail Illinois recognized the one-room school would remain a necessity for a long time to come, but the School Standard program was created to encourage the best possible schools.  On page 515 the Journal states
  • "two outhouses should be as far apart as the grounds will permit.  Each should be screened and vines planted to over-run the screen.
  • A library room in every rural school is another improvement considered practical and really needed.  All the plans and specifications in the circular mentioned in the footnote contain space for such a library room, where children will find interesting and wholesome stories which they can and will read, as well as books which reinforce the regular studies of the schools.  
  • The water supply presents another problem.  Since the common drinking cup has been abolished we find all sorts of curious circumventions, few of which are very sanitary.  Experience shows that individual drinking cups in the care of the students is little improvement.  A bubbling fountain seems the easiest way out.  But the salient point is of course the source of the water supply.


Because of the School Standard program, plans for one-room schoolhouses were made available from the Michigan Department of Public Instruction with windows, especially on the north side supplementing the kerosene wall lanterns.  Ceilings were 11 or 12 feet high and the size of the room was 32 feet by 24 feet.



By 1930 electricity, indoor plumbing, and furnaces had been factored into the Michigan Department Public Instruction's school standards. Work Projects Administration (WPA) funds in the 30s helped upgrade the one-room schools, adding furnaces, indoor toilets, and improved natural lighting.

Michigan's Department of History, Arts and Libraries in 2003 produced An Honor and an Ornament; Public School Buildings in Michigan, a history of school architecture.  There is brief mention there of how schools evolved from one-room schools.  The one-room school was officially known as the Primary District School, not because it taught only the primary grades -- it was ungraded --, but because it was the primary school of an area, usually rural and was "usually located on a crossroads near the center of a district."  That "usually" allows for the fact that the land was donated, often by a farmer wishing to have his own children educated close to home so they could quickly return to helping out on the farm.  I learned two-room schools were sometimes called a Ward School, but they evolved into the Union Schools of the towns.

Miscellaneous things I discovered:
  • While many schools had a cupola or bell tower, if there wasn't one, the teacher had to stand in the doorway and ring a handbell.
  • The teacher's desk might be slightly raised on a platform.  This gave both a better view of the entire class and raised the teacher above some drafts
  • Typically the boys' desks were on one side and the girls on the other, with the oldest students in the back and the youngest in the front.  Even the entrances and cloakrooms might be separate if there was enough room.

Whether in Michigan Month or not, I enjoy reenacting the old-time School Teacher. There's always something new to discover. It's truly an education! 


For more on schools of the past, the next post here is on The Curriculum.  The previous post was on the various Resources about the schools of the past.
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