One-room schools an important piece of American history

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When I was about 4 or 5, my mother got a call one day from her sister — Auntie “Do-Do” (Doris), who was calling from the telephone that had just been installed in the one-room schoolhouse in northern Minnesota where she was the lone teacher. This must have been a big deal because I still remember talking to my very excited aunt that day as Mom handed the phone to me. It was my first phone call ever.

Phone communication no doubt was a huge improvement for these rural schools where most often there was just one teacher, usually a woman, in charge of however many students the school district served. These one-room schools are an iconic part of America’s pioneer past, and they’ve been spotlighted by any number of movies, TV shows and books that take place in the late 1800s and early 1900s. “Little House on the Prairie” comes to mind.

By the time I started school in 1962, most if not all of the one-room schools in our area of Minnesota had closed, including the one my dad had attended. One of the vacant schools was moved to the Clay County Fairgrounds near our farm and to this day is a popular attraction because it’s set up just like it was 100 years ago — pot-bellied wood stove, wooden desks with ink wells and chalkboards.

I was reminded of the contributions of one-room schools recently when a new book crossed my desk called “Chasing Time: Last of the Active One-Room Schools in Montana.” Written by University of Montana professor Keith Graham and photographed by Neil Chaput de Saintonge, the book showcases 25 one-room schools still operating in Montana.

Montana still has 60 one-room schools, the most of any state in America. But that number is half of what it was just 10 years ago, the author notes.

There were 212,000 one-room schools in America in 1913; in 2013 there were just an estimated 200.

“Chasing Time” includes the Yaak School in Lincoln County and Salmon Prairie School north of Seeley Lake among the schools featured in the book. Pleasant Valley School west of Kalispell is listed as one of Montana’s one-room schools, but it’s not featured in the book.

Declining populations in many rural areas forced the demise of most country schools. It was just not cost-effective to keep them open for a handful of students.

Yet they deserve to be remembered. To that end, my hat is off to the Museum at Central School in Kalispell, which sets up an 1895 country-school classroom twice a year and invites area third-graders to spend a half day with volunteer Carolyn Wondrow, who conducts the classes in math, spelling, reading and history, dressed in period costume. Girls must curtsy and boys bow when entering the classroom, just like they did in 1895.

“The kids like it so much,” museum volunteer Gerri Savory said, noting that she attended the one-room Demersville School as a young girl, where “there were 40 of us in one room.”

Because one-room schools were and still are a big part of life in Montana, many Flathead Valley residents have fond memories of teaching at or attending these schools.

I don’t imagine they were always as glamorous as many envision them to be. My dad used to regale us with stories about fist-fights in the schoolyard and the day a skunk came calling. The teacher single-handedly handled any and all situations, even emergencies, in these remote places.

Being a teacher is a tall task in any era, and I applaud every one of them, but being a one-room country school teacher was nothing short of extraordinary.

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 768-4421 or lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

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