A few years ago a reader suggested that I write about one-room schoolhouses. Since I was a ‘town boy,’ I have always thought that since I didn’t have personal memories enough to dredge up on the subject, I should write on other things. After giving it some thought, I remembered that several of my high school classmates had gone to those schools and had told me stories that gave me more insight than I had first thought. I know that history is important to the millions of people who started their education under the tutelage of teachers who took on this formidable task in a difficult environment.
I remember when Bill Cheek, our county school superintendent, personally described his regular visits to one-room schools to me. I heard several of his ‘war stories’ when I rode with him in his red jeep to visit a few of them. In fact, those schools that were located way out in the boonies were the reason he drove a jeep. The agility and four-wheel drive feature was needed to reach many of the schools. Dirt roads were rough, often rutted or muddy, and often not more than a cow path. I traveled with him a couple of times to drop off supplies and federal food packages. As it happened, classes were not in session during the particular times I was there, but I did meet a teacher or two. I’ve sought input from several friends in hopes the total will bring back a few memories.
These small country schools, often one room, but sometimes larger were later consolidated when roads and accessibility improved. Among some folks they had an unearned false repetition of being somehow backward. It was thought that students from these rural communities were at a disadvantage both academically and socially. History shows that the environment was better than it might seem. They built character in their students, provided a loving environment, and saw to teaching the three ‘R’s.’ They turned out many successful citizens who continued their education and became leaders, some of them teaching in their old school. I think the snobbery was misplaced. The kids who joined us ‘town kids’ in high school were more than prepared.
It is likely that happened because of the special attention from skillful, dedicated teachers. Additionally, the structure of having older kids with younger ones allowed the older students to help out with the lessons. Open and repetitive teaching worked wonders. This model allowed for younger students to be exposed to the older kid’s lessons. They were often siblings that knew they would be under pressure to perform when their turn came. Yes, the fancy libraries and lab equipment was lacking, but spirit, gumption, and pride wasn’t.
The buildings I saw were not impressive, but well-maintained and clean. They often had poor heating from a central pot-belly stove, (wood or coal burning), had outdoor toilets, were drafty in the winter, and used mostly the light from the windows to see. I remember seeing iron and wooden desks that had round holes suitable for ink-wells. Since the day of using quills or metal pens, the inkwells were no longer needed, but new furniture was expensive. These rural schools got ‘hand-me-downs’ but this was something the kids of that era well-understood.
Summers were hot and muggy and the trail leading up to the school steps was either muddy, or baked hard by the sun and many trampling feet. In the winter they were sometimes iced over, which led to slipping and falling. I heard stories of kids arriving in a sleigh pulled by a horse. That must have been fun, but today it would be just another ‘snow day.’
I know from some of the alumni that the old buildings always felt like home and were full of childhood memories. Classmates were often related, but if not, still thought of as family. Few, if any of these schools remain in service today, as far as I know. Most of the country roads are improved and school bus routings have been extended. Consolidation of schools into more modern structures has helped negate the need to continue with those past practices.
Perhaps some ghostly ruins of one-room school buildings still dot the hills and dales. The reader may know of one or two that nature has not yet fully reclaimed. Maybe some have been put to new uses, such as churches, or even as private dwellings. For those who attended these small schools, they can take pride that they were at the starting place of life’s great adventure.
These community schools were placed near villages, towns, and centers of the local population that had several school-aged children. Because the kids had to walk to school, it was important to find a place that had safe access that wasn’t too far away from the eyes of the communities. We’ve all heard the joke about having to ‘walk five miles in the snow to get to school, uphill both ways.’ Well, the truth may have seemed that way, but surely there was some downhill along the way. My wife, who went to a slightly larger school in West Virginia tells me that in the winter months she would sit on her metal lunch box and slide in the snow down the hill to her home in the valley below.
Since buses couldn’t run to these schools, walking was the only way to get there. I’ve read that some rode a horse, or maybe a bike. Going uphill on a bike is a tough way to go. Closing schools for a snow event was unheard of back then, but those walking in from further out may have been a bit tardy. The lessons would go on with any of the students that showed up. I’ve read that during spring planting and fall harvesting, some schools closed, or generously allowed kids to stay home to help. I have no idea if our county schools did that, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Lunch was carried in a metal lunchbox with a thermos, but some just packed a ‘poke,’ or a paper bag with nuts, fruit, and a sandwich. Lunch time was a midday break from academics, and often left kids time to run around the ‘school yard’ in play. Whether tag, dodgeball, or another game, it was a good time for bonding and using pent-up energy. I’m guessing the students slept well when they got home.
Like this Bussyville School, many of these one-room schools were placed quite a way back in the woods and hollows of the County. I remember visiting one that was on the banks of a tiny creek. I have no idea of the school’s name, but it was a good walk from town, up over Pine Hill, and back toward Smokey Valley. I wouldn’t want to try and find it today. I remember this one had a hand pump over a well in the front of the school yard. There was a bald playground that was apparently void of vegetation because of the rough play during many recesses.
When I went into one such school I remember seeing several school desks, some in larger sizes and some smaller ones, each grouped as if to divide students into age groups. The teacher’s desk was in the back-center of the room, with a real slate blackboard that ran the length of the wall. Above the blackboard were several sets of pull-down maps. I noted that because history and geography were favorite subjects of mine. I’m sure they were the same maps as the ones used in my classroom in town. Common to all, they were mounted on a heavy oil-cloth so they wore very well. I remember some were cracked, but the image was still clear enough to learn how the nation and world was shaped. I suppose there was a world map, and national map, and maybe one of Kentucky. Of this, I’m not sure.
I’m sure everyone had to stand up and read. They were required to memorize poetry and recite poems to the whole class, and at PTA meetings. There were spelling bees and contests involving the multiplication tables. Some schools used flash cards to learn math, the names of places, English, and other things that had to be memorized. Cake-walks were musical chairs with a twist. The prize was a donated cake. I won a cake once, but I had to share it with the class. Rats!
I’m sure spankings happened to the chronic unruly. No doubt it would bring rowdy kids under control. Everyone I’ve spoken to on that subject says that once they got home they would ‘get it’ again. It was hard to keep secrets when kids from all ages were witness to the event. I heard that one teacher had a wood-shop and famously turned out paddles for other teachers and principals when needed. That might not be true, but I never met a principal that didn’t have at least one in plain sight in their office. I can assure you that they stung when used.
School-life in small schools had to have had things in common with schools everywhere such as kids shooting paper wads when the teacher wasn’t looking. I expect they started every school day with prayer and reciting the pledge of allegiance to the U.S. flag. I know we took turns leading the pledge, and sang ‘My Country ‘tis of Thee…’ Every classroom had a U.S. flag and the state flag, as well. Today, we have turned from God and are swift to see our flawed government in a less favorable light. Kids are loyal to their team’s mascots, but not so much anymore to their nation. We will pay for that in the years to come.
The school’s small library was mostly text books held in a bookcase or on a shelf. They had some classics like Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Washington Irving, and maybe others. I remember I loved ‘Landmark’ books that told exciting stories about Daniel Boone, Wild Bill Hickok, the Wright Brothers, Tom Edison, and many other subjects. I don’t know if those were available in one-room schools. I remember when there was a movement to have a newly acquired ‘book-mobile’ make visits around the county to insure students had adequate access to good literature. I don’t know if the roads allowed them to reach these backwoods schools. I suppose that they gave advanced notice so kids could walk out to a meeting-place. Books were like windows to the world informing them of other cultures while inspiring everyone to grow in their understanding of the shrinking world. Sometimes, teachers would read to the class and at other (quiet) times the students would read to themselves.
In my research to dig out more on this piece of history, I discovered that in 1907 Lawrence County had ninety-five white schools and one colored school. I think the number was lower when I was there during the forties, but I really don’t know. The DAR also put out a publication about local schools can be found on the web.
I’m guessing that one-room schools had crowding when they put on plays, or concerts for parents to attend. This was usually to celebrate holidays, or events the kids had worked on under the leadership of the teacher and maybe a mother, or two.
Cursive handwriting was often emphasized from about the second grade on. Music and art were two subjects that varied depending upon the skills and interests of the teachers, I suppose. I’m sure there were differences between those schools, but I never saw anyone from the county come into our high school that was behind in their studies. I think education happens in spite of low funding, or without lab equipment and big libraries. Students with these things should have a potential advantage, but those without soon catch up.
It’s the character of the person that counts. In fact, we as a people are much the same in body, but very different in attitudes, personalities, intellect, and faith. In my experience the kids from our county come from some pretty good stock. Success comes for those who seek answers and apply what they learn. Is it ‘overcoming’ or just wisely using the things that you have? After all, many professionals, including U.S. Presidents, started off life in a one-room school. There is no reason to hang your head and feel deprived, because the evidence is that you earned a great education through these early experiences.
The teachers we had back then, as well as now, were dedicated and beloved by their young charges. As students grew older and moved away, some would return on a visit and seek out their teacher. In some cases, these educators were real family and were surrogate parents and an important guide in life. They were the model that kids would come to emulate. Even as adults they feel a kindred spirit with them. Those teachers earned their keep as they captured the hearts of the children. In the end, no one took more pride than when their ‘kids’ went on to bigger and better things. Those who had the experience of attending a one-room school, can safely take pride in that experience. Home-schoolers today, emulate that same pattern of old, taking classes with siblings, and applying the lessons learned. Both groups, one-roomers and homeschoolers, typically excel in life.
I have included a copy of a picture of the Ledocia school sent to me by Fred Jones given to him by Linna. At one point He gives the following directions to the school:
Turn at Adams post office or rather where it used to be. Go two miles and road will fork. Left takes to Charley and right goes to Ledocia. School is on right of road.
Bill Elkins has passed some information at the Ledocia school. Estia Faye Ball was the teacher and she was the wife of Tom Ball and the mother of Tommy Ball – a couple of years ahead of me in high school.
Here’s some information on the Fallsburg School also provided by Bill Elkins.
“My Dad was principal there at one time probably in the late 30’s and my aunt Garnet, his sister, was a teacher. Mrs. Wireman and Mrs. Mchargue split one school year between Fallsburg and Louisa Elementary early on. The staples of the school were Goldia Moore, Sarah (Sis) Rice and Victoria Holbrook, Carol Ward’s mother. Irene Patton started the first school lunch room at Fallsburg in the late 40’s/early 50’s. She was the mother of Paul E. Patton, future Governor of Kentucky. Jack Carey and Herb White were early principals. Jack was the son of Marie Carey and Herb was Katherine Whites Husband. My wife, Clara, and her friends, Cookie, Carol, Glenda, Karen Hutchinson, Todd Ward, Lute Vanhorn and Paul Patton were just a few of the kids that graduated from Fallsburg.”
Another reader attended school in Clifford shared these memories. “The teachers from my memory were 1 and 2 grade, Pansy Walker; 3 and 4 grade, Louvenia (sp?) Walker (I think she and Pansy were sisters-in-law; I believe her husband was one of the bus drivers). (The Walkers lived within the same block as I did during school years-MC) Our 5 and 6 grade was taught by Anna Thompson (wife of J. Walter Thompson and mother of Jessie Ann); 7 and 8 grade, was taught by J. Walter Thompson, who was also the principal. I do remember a substitute teacher in my first/second grade who was in her thirties (I think) who had blonde hair. I don’t remember her name. It might have been something like Katherine. She had cancer and died at a young age. It was this last teacher who brought in stories of the Holy Bible in a semi-comic book form. The people in the book were normal humans but in a colored story format. I would pour over them. She told me I would grow up to be a Sunday school teacher, which I did. I remember asking her how she knew that. She said she just knew.”
“There was an assembly once when I was in the first grade (I think) where a visiting preacher taught us John 3:16. My memories of John 3:16 stem from that day.”
“Living in the country without a car meant that we did not attend Sunday school. I do remember one time going to a revival and riding on the back of a large truck bed that did not have sides. Scary.”
“The principal, Mr. J. Walter Thompson, who taught the seven and eight grades, wanted to raise a flag pole for the purpose of flying the American flag. With ropes tied to the top of the pole, and a variety of boys hanging on, the pole was slowly being raised. Unfortunately, a lot of the boys lost their nerve and let go of the rope. One of the Maynard twin boys hung on and was lifted about ten feet in the air before he let go. The pole came crashing down and hit Joe Hammond in the back! What a catastrophe! What a nerve-racking experience for the principal and all concerned. Joe was rushed to the hospital and was declared okay, but it was a terrible thing to have happen. I don’t remember if the flag pole was ever installed.”
“I am forever grateful to Miss Pansy Walker (she was married but all the teachers were called Miss) for giving me a solid foundation in grammar. We were taught the proper use of pronouns and to never start a sentence with “me.” She taught us never to use “have, had or has” with went. I can still hear her saying, “In polite society, we always put the other person first, as in Johnny and I have gone fishing.” She taught us never to use the word “ain’t” and challenged us to tell her why. One of the boys said, “Because you ain’t supposed to.”
“I remember cake walks and Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs entertaining us in the school gymnasium. His bass fiddle player sang, “Smoke, smoke, smoke that cigarette.” Strange what one remembers?”
“These tidbits are from my memory back 70 years ago! But I believe I got the details correct. If not, they can always stand correction.”
“I remember our first/second grade teacher, Miss Pansy Walker (who lived to be over 100), teaching the boys and girls to sing songs. One song remains vivid because it ended with Abraham but instead of saying “Abra Abra Ham Ham” we had to say “Abra Abra Cob Cob.”
I want to thank those who have shared some of their personal knowledge and history with us. In this crazy world today it is pleasant to live a few moments in days gone by. Perhaps you have a story to share, a favorite memory or person. Drop me a line and we’ll start a conversation.