Here is more on the one room schoolhouses that provided the education for country children up until the middle of the last century. If you didn’t attend one, ask your parents or grandparents or older friends. You will probably find someone to regale you with tales of walking to school through snow drifts higher than they were tall.
See below for my recent York Sunday News column and find out why, although they may have been different in material, the schools were very similar inside and out.
York County grew up in one room school houses
Unless your family lived in town for generations, you don’t have to go back very far to find someone who attended a one room school. These schools operated well into the mid-1950s in York County.
The buildings were instantly recognizable, whether they were of frame, brick or stone construction. Did you ever wonder why they are so similar both inside and out? It was because the 1854 Pennsylvania Common School Law directed that: “The Superintendent of Common Schools shall be authorized to employ a competent person or persons to submit and propose Plans and Drawings for a School House Architecture…that shall be adapted for furnishing good light and healthful ventilation…if approved…he is hereby directed to have them engraved and printed, with full Specifications and Estimates for building…and shall furnish a copy of the same to each School District” This directive resulted in the publication, in 1855, of Pennsylvania School Architecture: A Manual of Directions and Plans for Grading, Location, Constructing, Heating, Ventilating and Furnishing Common School Houses, edited by Thomas H. Burrowes. The title only hints of the details included, with over 40 pages of specifications and plans for the construction of just rural school buildings and privies, not to mention the furnishings and “apparatus,” down to a recipe for chalk crayons.
Burrowes, a founder of Pennsylvania’s education system, spells out the reasons for the ideas he expresses, such as placement in an accessible location with good natural light and weather protection. He advises that district school directors can simply refer to the plan number and page in the book when letting out a contract.
The basic rural plan is a building 23 by 34 feet with13 feet high ceilings, timber framed and weather boarded, accommodating up to 48 pupils seated at double desks, giving each student at least 11 square feet of floor space and 150 cubic feet of air space. The entrance should have wide doors, preferably double to retain heat in the winter and more ventilation other times. There should be a cellar for a drier and more comfortable schoolroom floor and for storing wood or coal for the heating stove.
Building in wood is the cheapest, brick and stone more durable, with brick the “neatest, driest and most suitable.” Estimated cost for the wood building is $550, or $430 without cellar. Detailed specifications are given for materials and dimensions, such as “good quarry building stone, 16 inches thick” for the cellar walls and “sills six by eight inches, of white oak; all the other timbers of white pine or hemlock.” It seems like anyone with an axe, a saw and a rule could build one of these schools.
The interior includes: “entries…hat and cloak space, closets for apparatus & books, sufficiently wide passages… .” The windows, four on each side, face east and west for the best light. Windows are six feet tall and three feet wide with sills four feet from the floor as “school windows are not much to look out of, as to admit air and light.” The north wall, with no windows, is dominated by a blackboard five feet high, starting two feet from the floor of the raised platform that extends from wall to wall. The teacher’s desk sits on the platform for a good view of all the students.
Burrowes says the cost of a real slate blackboard would be prohibitive for most schools. He suggests instead that good smooth boards be glued together, sanded, covered with wall paper, and painted with a mixture of lamp-black, flour of emery and spirit varnish. It should be framed and have a ledge below for chalk and dust. Since natural chalk would scratch, he supplies a recipe for teachers to make their own chalk crayons from Paris white [ground, purified chalk], flour and water. Instructions are included to make blackboard erasers from blocks of wood and pieces of sheep pelts, since teachers should never tolerate “the filthy practice of using the edge of the hand, or the cuff of the coat” to erase.
The entry should have two scrapers outside the door, and a rough mat, which pupils can make of corn-husks or straw. “Female pupils” can also make rag mats for the entry for a second foot wiping. Each pupil needs to have an assigned hook for hats and coats and the entry or coat room should be supplied with two buckets, one for drinking water and one for washing and scrubbing. A wash basin with soap and towels is also necessary, as the pupils should not be allowed in the school room unless they have clean faces and hands and combed hair.
Desk models are shown, the most popular with the seat fastened on the front of the desk behind. Every child should have an individual slate on which to write and draw, keeping their hands busy and out of mischief.
Burrowes details health concerns of proper siting and ventilation of the heating stove; otherwise one third of the pupils will be “comfortably warm and successfully pursuing their studies, while an equal portion are almost roasting and fidgeting near the store, and the remainder chilled in body and torpid in mind.” A thermometer is essential, as is an axe and saw to cut wood or kindling, along with tongs, fire shovel and poker.
Cleaning is teacher’s responsibility, with the suggestions that “larger Pupils” meet with teacher on a Saturday forenoon every six weeks “for a general sweeping scrubbing, and, if necessary, white-washing.” Teachers got a physical and mental workout.
Want to visit a real one room school? The Lower Windsor Township Historical Society opens the Wills School from 1 to 4 p.m. on the second Sunday of each month May through October. The school, located just west of Delroy on the East Prospect Road (Route 124) is as it was in 1954 when the township’s one room schools were closed.