It’s September, and for many, school is back in session or ready to begin. We thought a visit to the frontier schoolhouse would be in order. Pioneer families that settled the west placed a high value on educating their children. The schoolhouse often became the first public building constructed. Pioneer schoolhouses were built in a central location and often served as the church and community meeting spot. Schoolhouse construction varied widely depending on available materials and number of students. Students were generally arranged with the youngest in the front desks or benches while the oldest were in the back. Many times boys and girls sat on different sides of the room. Near the entrance a bucket and dipper provided water for drinking. A privy, or outhouse, was behind the school. Heat in the winter was provided by a wood stove. Often those closest to the stove were hot while those on the other side of the room froze.
Local families combined resources to hire a teacher for their children and often the instructor would require room and board as part of their contract. Finding qualified teachers to travel to the western frontier proved difficult if they had to cover their own lodging. Some schools had to close their doors for years after a teacher left, requiring children to study at home with their parents.
Early on, teachers would be required to “board around” with the families of their students. This meant they traveled between homes according to a rotating schedule. This became difficult for the teacher and the families. Teachers often complained of unappetizing meals, poor sleeping quarters, lack of study space, and no room for guests. Rural parents disliked the burden placed on their pantry and the lack of privacy the family enjoyed while housing the teacher.
The solution became the teacherage – a room built near or in the schoolhouse especially for the teacher. These rooms were often sparsely furnished, however, they overcame many of the problems of the “board around” system and led to a more structured and consistent educational environment.
School started at eight o’clock. As students entered the building they greeted the teacher. There was a short recess in the morning and again in the afternoon. At noon the students and teacher took their lunch break. Students brought their lunch from home. After eating the students went outside for fresh air and exercise. Group games such as tag and baseball were popular during the lunch hour or recess. Students would attend school as often as chores and other circumstances would allow. They could range in age from 4 to 21.
Stay tuned for more about pioneer school next week.