One Room School Houses Made Education Special
If you want to know what it was like to receive an education in a one room school house, just ask Robert Webster, a retired social studies school teacher from East Lycoming School District. Not only did he attend one, but he also spent his first three years of teaching in a one room school house. According to Webster, children attended one room schools in Pennsylvania well into the 20th century especially in the eastern part of our county. Many of these small brick or wooden sided buildings with their characteristic bell towers and fire places can still be seen today throughout our region.
Webster started his teaching career in 1951 and recalls the experience as one of building lifetime relationships. He was required to teach ages five to eighteen year olds and as was the case of the one room school house, many of these children were together for their entire life school experience. “It is truly a treasure from America’s past,” comments Webster as he spoke in front of a small group in the community room at the Thomas T. Taber Museum last Sunday afternoon.
Prior to the one room school house, formalized training was taught in the home. It was the Harris legislature in 1834 under the Free School Act that made school mandatory as a “public school” and thus the open frontier of the one room school house began.
It was especially important to the rural citizen. The family worked together in farming and many children traveled great distances by foot to get to their school. Charles Hall from Wolf Township recalls walking several miles just to get to the bus. “School never closed when winter came. If it was a bad storm, you still had to go,” he said. “Winter didn’t matter. We went to school anyway. Every day about four or five of us families would wait for a small bus owned by Don Myers to come and pick us up. One bus went around to get all of us kids,” said Hall.
Moreland Township was the first school built in 1796. It is fully restored and remains in its original location. It is maintained by the Muncy Historical Society and they will be giving tours and living history programs with live entertainment of the eight foot square building on Saturday, September 5 from 11 to 3.
Before 1834 only parents who had the financial means would send their children to school. Up until then the schools were private. Once the Free School Act was passed, all children in Pennsylvania were entitled to an education. It wasn’t long before more one room schools in the area were built. Although not well received at first, the Hughesville area finally started one in 1854. The Hughesville residents were concerned about financing the school because no tax money was ever used to support a private school. However, when the Pennsylvania School Act passed, the county was soon in charge of the school and the residents supported it.
Muncy graduated its first class in 1881, Hughesville in 1892 and Picture Rocks in 1896. Each township had its own country school. By 1895 schools were compulsory in Pennsylvania according to Webster and by the turn of the century, two school systems developed – the elementary school and the high school. However, those who lived in the country, their school was the little one room school house. “It was very special,” said Webster. “No one ever bad mouthed it and as a rule, most of us were very proud of it.” As children from ages 8 to 16 stayed together throughout the years, many stories about their experiences were shared among family members. One particular story stays in the mind of two great grandchildren from Hughesville who interviewed their grandfather for a recent school project. He told them how he had a trap line to cover as a young boy to help supplement the family income. Everyday on his way to school, he would go and check his traps, but one day, a skunk was caught in one of his traps. In the process of trying to release it, he was sprayed. Not having enough time before school started to go home and take a bath, he had to go to school smelling like a skunk. After arriving at school, the teacher took all of the students outside for their lessons and built a smoke fire to try to get rid of the smell.
There was no office, no principal, no guidance counselor, no nurse, no library, no cafeteria, and no gym. The teacher was everything. There was no electricity and no running water. The floors were bare wood and there was a stove to burn coal or wood for heat. The children had to dress in layers and Webster said he can still recall the smell of mittens and hats warming over the stove during the cold winter months.
Shirley Crawley from Hughesville and a retired school teacher from Picture Rocks remembers carrying wood from the woodhouse nearby to the school house. “We had to carry water with us. We would always go in pairs to the nearby Kapp home where they had a water pump. We would carry water down in pails or large milk jugs for us to use,” she said. “Sometimes it took two times a day to fill it.”
There were a lot of advantages to the one room school house added Webster. “The older students helped the younger ones. I would have 3 or 4 fourth graders for a math lesson and I could spot a problem student and help correct any discipline or learning problems right away,” he said. “The lower grades would absorb what the older grades were learning. We became a family. We would all eat lunch together and play games outside.” Often the children had the same teacher for eight years. The schools were inexpensive to operate. All that was needed was a chalk board, chalk, some tablets and pencils. “You had to learn or else. Students were drilled their lessons, but they received a good education. And the people were reluctant to give up the little schools to a bigger operation. The teacher was in total control and things were so simple back then,” added Webster.
There were 43 one room schools in East Lycoming and 200 in Lycoming County, but many of them were torn down after World War II.