Lessons Learned in the One-room Country School
by Larry Scheckel
You could not get a better education than the one-room country school. It is model for a superior education. That’s my claim and I’m sticking to it!
I attended Oak Grove School, two miles northwest of the town of Seneca, in the heart of Crawford County, in the hill country of southwestern Wisconsin from 1948 to 1956. I was one of 28 kids, grade 1 to 8, with one teacher, no indoor plumbing, no telephone, and not a single building in sight. Portraits of Washington and Lincoln hung on one wall, in addition to a map case, in a building not much bigger than a modern garage. The opposite wall held the Ranger Mac bulletin board plus exemplary student work.
Across the top of the blackboard was a banner with the entire alphabet in huge letters, both upper case and lower case. We used the term “big A” and “little a” or capital “G” and small “g”. Penmanship was important at Oak Grove School. Below the blackboard was a small stand with a Philco radio. Only Teacher touched that radio!
Oak Grove School was the educational and social center for the farm families on Oak Grove Ridge. Norwegian, Dane, Swede, German, Irish, English, Polish, and Czech families forged a bond in this school in rural Wisconsin. Everyone attended the basket social in late October, the Christmas program, and the end-of-year picnic in late May.
The nine Scheckel children walked one mile to and from school. We were joined on the gravel road by the seven Kozelka kids. While on the trek we talked to farm neighbors, picked apples, threw rocks, sledded, laughed, teased, and argued. Wild raspberries, goldenrods, Queen Anne’s lace, and chicory grew along the side of the road.
We pulled cockleburs, a natural forerunner of Velcro, from plants and balled them together. They would hook into the clothing and not let go. Who could make the biggest ball became a spirited contest. We would wind up and throw them at each other. Hopefully, someone would be wearing a wool sweater. Cockleburs just love wool clothing.
At the top of the Ingham hill, one could see miles in every direction. Rain, snow, sleet, hot blazing sun, it made no difference, we walked. One memorable afternoon we scurried home during a thunderstorm, lightning dancing across the sky. You won’t see that happening these days, let me tell you!
Reciting for the teacher, the hectograph machine, recess time, softball games, snowball fights, The Weekly Reader, radio programs from Wisconsin School of the Air, carvings on school desks, goiter pills, wood burning stove, and seventeen year old first-year teachers were all part of the Oak Grove School. There were families so poor they couldn’t afford a penny pencil and the entire library held fewer than 30 books.
We discovered family ideals by reading about Dick, Jane, Sally, Spot, the dog, and Puff the cat. Stories taught values. The story of Billy Goat Gruff and the Troll was typical. Strive for more, but be satisfied with what you have. There is no room for being a bully and that troll was definitely a bad guy. Good guys win, and bad guys lose. Lessons learned.
Our fifth grader reader had a story about a farmer and his land. The town chairman told the farmer that the road running through his farmland needed to be straightened. Several accidents had occurred on a dangerous curve. The farmer objected to his land being taken for a new road project, even though he was informed that he would be paid for his land. The farmer finally agreed to sell a part of his prized cropland. We learned about “eminent domain”.
We did not realize it at the time, I suppose, that each of our reading stories was teaching lessons of ethics, morals, citizenship, and civics.
During late afternoon, Teacher read to the entire school. The most memorable chapter-a-day book was of a severe drought that plagued India and how the villagers survived.
Older students took responsibility for younger ones. Seventh and eighth graders helped the younger students with their coats, caps, mittens, and boots. On the playground, an eighth grade boy might stand behind a first grader with arms wrapped around him and help the tyke swing the bat at the underhand pitched softball. The happy slugger might mistakenly start running down the third base line. A fifth grader would grab the kid and gently orient him to the first base line. Call it a metaphor for the one-room country school…get ‘em going in the right direction. Lessons learned.
Kids learned to work independently without a teacher. Children helped each other with lessons, older ones tutoring the lower grades, often their siblings. While Teacher had the third graders up front reciting, a seventh grader would be using flash cards to help a second grader with the multiplication tables. An eighth grader would be running off papers on the jellied surface of the hectograph machine.
Students heard the lessons of younger classmates, a review of what was learned in years past. Kids listened to the lessons being recited by older students and got a hint of what to expect in the years ahead.
Teacher assigned duties for the last ten minutes of the school day. Everyone had chores. Teacher made up a list and posted it. It was the duties for an entire week and they rotated from week to week. You could ask for a favorite duty, but Teacher was the benevolent dictator and she decided what duties you had. Kids were expected to do the assigned duty well and do it without complaint.
Older kids took down the flag, carefully folded it, and stored it away for the next day. Three or four students used a wheelbarrow to bring in chunks of wood from the woodshed and stack them behind the pot-bellied stove. Some kids took the erasers and pounded out the chalk against the concrete steps. Kids stacked the library books, made sure the outdoor toilets were swept and had toilet paper, emptied the wastebasket, brought in water from the cistern and filled up the five gallon Blue Crown water crock. Tall kids washed the blackboards. Select kids passes out the goiter pills. The most coveted duty was to pull the rope that rang the large school bell signaling the end of recess.
Every Friday a reddish sweeping compound was sprinkled on the wooden floor, rubbed in, and swept up. The “rubbing in” part was fun. We would skid and skate up and down the aisles between desks, move the desks, slide some more, pretending we were Jackie Robinson sliding into second base. Oak Grove School kids took care of their school. There was pride. School was our home for eight hours every day, Monday through Friday, five days a week. Lessons learned.
We also learned how to organize our own playground time. Younger and older kids joined together on the playground. We chose up sides and played softball. “You’re out” “No, I was safe” disputes were settled among ourselves. If not, we knew Teacher would be calling us in, and nobody wanted to cut down recess time. We discovered how to compromise and negotiate. Lessons learned.
Annie Over and Hide-and-Go-Seek could be played any time of the year. In wintertime, we played Fox and Geese in the freshly fallen snow. We divided sides, built snow forts, and had snowball fights. Some days were ideal for sleigh riding.
We kids accepted others for who they were, not based on age, size, grade level, social standing, wealth, or color. Well, we were all farm kids and we were all poor. Some families were better off than others, but we didn’t know it and didn’t care.
We 28 kids at Oak Grove School knew who the “smart kids” were. Some got a tag or label as being “dumb" or "slow”. That didn’t make any difference. We learned to give and take. We knew who to tease and who not to tease. There was a family-life relationship of younger and older students working and playing together. We simply got along with each other.
In the Fall of 1952, the good little citizens of Oak Grove School went to the polls. It was a Presidential election year. Teacher made a cardboard box with a slit on top and wrote the names Stevenson and Eisenhower on the blackboard. The 28 kids of Oak Grove Ridge School voted, a 100 per cent turnout. Eisenhower won in a landslide. Democracy in action. Lessons learned.
Oak Grove School gave the farmers a feeling of pride. When those rural schools closed and consolidated in the early 1960’s, much of that sense of community was lost. Children were bused to a larger central school in Seneca, a distance of three to six miles for most families. Many parents felt a loss of kinship with their fellow farmers.
There was talk about a superior, perhaps a more well-rounded education in the consolidated school. But, I was never convinced. The lessons I learned in the Oak Grove Ridge one-room country school lasted me a lifetime. Oak Grove School was a small place in Crawford County, Wisconsin, but it remains a big place in my heart.
To read a previous post by Larry Scheckel, use the link below:
"Memories of a Wisconsin Basket Social: Fundraising at the Oak Grove School"