By Angie Baldelomar
The history and evolution of country schools was the topic for the Brown Bag and Learn Program at the Last Indian Raid Museum on Thursday.
Speaker Joy Russell touched on the history of 110 country schools in Decatur County, taking the attendees to a history tour of the schools, with special emphasis on the struggles of those first schools, from the type of material they were built of – dugout, sod, brick – to the weather they had to deal with.
She said schools were usually built where wells could be located so that kids could have water. When this was not possible, students had to go back home at noon to get water. When winter came, most sod schools held the heat better. The first stoves used wood.
In the first country schools, she said, students did not have a desk. The fathers had to build benches for them to sit on, and they did not have books either. In the 1920s, Mrs. Russell said, the state Department of Education demanded that students have common textbooks. It was in the 1930s, she said, where she found during her research the first mention of individual desks and a teacher’s desk.
Mrs. Russell said that most of the teachers had to live with a student’s families. It was part of their salaries, and they were expected to help in the household chores. The question that comes out, then, is who could be a teacher?
“Whoever could read and write,” she said, “or whoever was deemed to be the wisest in the community.”
Once graduated from high schools, most students were considered capable of being teachers. At 17 or 18, they could be teaching students a few years younger than themselves, she said.
To graduate from eighth grade, Mrs. Russell said, students needed to take a state examination.
“The examination was full of practical questions,” she said, “things that it was essential for them to know.”
Another important point, she said, was that the first schools did not have a rigid schedule. They were divided by fall and spring semesters because they had to accommodate time for students to help during harvest in the fall and during planting in the spring.
From the late 1930s until after World War II, the schools started to close. Students shifted to the larger schools in town, and soon, the the country schools were abandoned. Some of them were used for meeting houses, others were restored and some were used for other purposes.
After her presentation, a few audience members shared their stories and experiences attending country schools.
This story was published on the 1B page of The Oberlin Herald’s print edition on June 22, 2016.