Thursday, August 22, 2013


In Search of One-Room School Houses

From the Springfield News-Leader
Printed Aug. 22, 2013
Written by Juliana Goodwin

In 1918, in a one-room schoolhouse in Ash Grove, Orlis Farmer watched his teacher get in a fistfight with an older student.

The battle lasted an hour and left blood on the snow.

It made enough of an impression on little Orlis that when he grew up, he would tell the story to his grandson, David Burton.

That story and others sparked an interest in Burton about one-room schoolhouses, which he began researching in 1998.

“The schoolhouse is important in the same way a battlefield is important for war history. Having the school helps you tell that historical story,” Burton said. “It’s tangible. It’s important to catalog them.”

Initially, Burton thought he was settling in for a weekend project locating remaining schoolhouses in Greene County.

Fifteen years later, his research is complete, and he has written two books on the subject..

“The books have been a labor of love and a hobby that got out of hand,” said Burton, who is the communication specialist with the University of Missouri Extension-Greene County. He also founded the Missouri Historical Schools Alliance and is on the board of directors for the Country School Association of America.

Many were white

When people think of one-room schoolhouses, many think of the “iconic little red schoolhouse” native to New England, but that’s not typical in Missouri. Many were white, and often they were constructed with whatever materials were available.

“One was made of fieldstones. The Willey Brothers had a lumber mill, so the Willey School was well constructed. My favorite is the brick schoolhouse creatively called the Brick Schoolhouse,” Burton said.

In 1998, he started extensively researching schoolhouses around the Ozarks.

There were many challenges. When he started, he had no idea how many schoolhouses there were.

In 1905, Missouri passed the compulsory school attendance law requiring children ages 8 to 14 to attend school for at least three-fourths of the school term.

By 1906, there were 124 school districts in Greene County.

“It took some legwork and researching and traveling,” said Burton.

While there were old maps of the schoolhouses, the maps weren’t always accurate.

From 1869 to 1950, about 75 percent of all one-room schoolhouses in Greene County burned because of stoves, coal, lanterns and lightning, Burton learned.

Of those that survived, some had been moved or converted, and some had fallen into disrepair. Sometimes the roads leading to the schools had disappeared.

When Burton tried to take his grandmother back to her one-room schoolhouse, it wasn’t there, but her memory was correct about where it was. It turns out the roads had changed, so they couldn’t find it.

One clue he’d look for in uncovering a schoolhouse was a disproportionate number of windows on one side of the building.

Children were taught to write with their right hands, so the idea was that sunlight should come from the left side of the building so that it wouldn’t cast shadows on the paper and potentially affect children’s vision. Therefore, many schools have a lot of windows or large windows on one side of the building but not on the other.

Knowing this helped him on his quest to put together the book.

Once, he spotted a barn with big windows on one side only and asked the farmer about it because Burton thought maybe it had been a schoolhouse at one time.

It had been.

“He said no one has asked me about that in a long time,” Burton said.

Social hub

Not only did the one-room schoolhouse play an important role in Missouri’s education system, it was vital in each community and often was a gathering spot for ice cream socials and other community events.

Teachers in these schools were young, and many were male to better deal with rowdy, older farm boys.

Teachers’ salaries were tied to how well they did on a state test. The better they scored, the higher their pay. In order to get a raise, they could retake the test, and if they scored higher, they could get a pay increase.

In Greene County, the one-room schoolhouse died out from 1951 to 1954, when most schools consolidated.

By the 1950s, roads were good enough that children could be bused to school, and the expectations of what an education should be had changed.

“The original mission of the one-room schoolhouse was to bring literacy and writing to rural America,” Burton said. “That mission was accomplished with flying colors, but as society changed, that changed.”

Communities voted on school districts with which they wanted to consolidate. Much like an election year, people went door to door trying to sell their neighbors on a particular district.

As the schoolhouses closed, some were sold at auction, turned into barns, moved, destroyed or abandoned.

But as Burton has worked on this over the years, he’s found an increasing number of people are realizing the importance of preserving what history is left, which is heartening.

For example, Texas County has a historic driving tour of one-room schoolhouses.

“There seems to be a resurgence of interest in preserving the one-room schoolhouse,” he said. “That’s encouraging. There’s a lot that can be learned from the older generation about community, family and what it meant to be educated in a one-room schoolhouse. This has been a fun project.”

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