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Reliving the memory of one-room schools

July 6, 2008
The Journal

NEW ULM - The old school room is quiet, the ornate double desks lined in tidy rows.

The blackboards have long been wiped clean, and the syrup cans that doubled up as lunch boxes are empty.

The pot-bellied stove is just a reminder of days long past...

Article Photos

Photo courtesy of the Brown County Historical Society of New Ulm Minnesota
Home Township School District 21 in 1912.

But, later this month, the one-room schoolhouse will briefly spring back to life, as the Brown County Historical Society holds its Living History day camp for grades one through six.

The camp is a way for modern-day children to work and play as children did in the past, at what was known as the Dohrmann - Strassburg school, now museum property located at the county fairgrounds.

Children will get a taste of all facets of life in a one-room schoolhouse - writing with dip pens, music, games, spelling, arithmetic, chores - and, hopefully, of values such as helping others and the love of learning, says museum office manager Marylin Hesse, who coordinates the program.

The one-day event runs 9:30 to 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 29, and again Wednesday, July 30. Cost of the program is $5 per student, and the fee covers supplies and craft projects.

A teacher (this year's camp is taught by Maxine Remme, who has taught several such camps) meets the participants at 9:30 a.m. on their registered school day. Children may be picked up at 1:30 p.m.

Children may choose to wear clothes of an earlier era (1854-1899) - bonnets, aprons and long skirts for the girls, and bib overalls or knickers for the boys, Hesse suggests.

Each child should bring a lunch, possibly in an old lard can or a similar container. Suggestions for an authentic country school lunch include sorghum sandwiches, cold pancakes with sugar, bread and butter (or lard) sandwiches, fresh fruits and vegetables, cookies and peanut butter. Children may bring anything they wish to eat; please include a beverage, says Hesse.

Remme says she tries to make the school day "as typical as possible" for the time period of the 1860s.

The children are met at the North Gate of the fairgrounds (on State Street towards Runnings) so they can experience a walk to school; then Remme talks to them outside the schoolhouse, trying to recreate the mood of the era.

Children are given assignments typical of the time; they write with ink pen quills.

Remme tries to cover all the traditional subjects during the school day: spelling, math, geography, history, art, etc. The kids use "old, old" readers and maps, and play old-fashioned games at recess.

The camp runs on a three-year cycle, covering national, state or Brown County history (Minnesota history this year), Remme says.

Remme herself role-plays and dresses in period clothes - despite the heat.

Pre-registration is required, and forms must be signed and returned to the museum by Monday, July 21. Class size is limited to about 20 each day.


A nostalgic memory for some, rural one-room schoolhouses reached their heyday in the 1910s. By 1914, Brown County had 84 separate school districts. Except for the city of New Ulm, each of these school districts had one rural school with a minimum of 13 students and a maximum of 361, writes Denise Evers, a presenter on the topic. (Her account is corroborated by various reports and newspaper clippings in the Brown County archives.) Even then, says Evers, some townships had difficulty coming up with the 13 students needed to levy a tax for school purposes.

Evers provides an interesting list of rules that teachers were expected to follow in 1872:

Here is a selection:

* Teachers each day will fill lamps and clean chimneys.

* Each teacher will bring a bucket of water and a scuttle of coal for the day's session.

* Men teachers may take one evening each week for courting purposes, or two evenings a week, if they go to church regularly.

* After 10 hours in school, the teacher may spend the remaining time reading the Bible or other good books.

* Women teachers who marry or engage in unseemly conduct will be dismissed.

* Each teacher should lay aside from each pay a goodly sum of their earnings for their benefit during their declining years, so that they will not become a burden on society.

* The teacher who performs their labor faithfully and without fault for five years will be given an increase of $0.25 per week in pay.

Teachers often boarded with the family who sold the land for the school. Sometimes the teacher would sleep in a bedroom with no heat, or share a bedroom or bed with one or more of the children.

Researching this story, I found some interesting statistics from a superintendent's report published in 1915.

The average wage per month for male teachers was $54; for females, who made up the majority of staff, is was "a fraction less."

I also ran across various memoirs from former rural school students.

They reminisced about spelling and geography bees and basket socials; an atmosphere of self-help and cooperation; frogs in teachers' desks and rulers used for more than measuring; catching and drowning gophers and writing a sentence on the blackboard 100 times; the now quaint games of Annie, Annie Over, Pump, Pump, Pull Away, or fox and goose...

Many remembered walking to school for a mile, or two, or three miles; even in the coldest weather. If there was a big snow storm, a father would go along, and the kids would walk behind. Some students rode their ponies or bikes to school on nice days, and came by car, tractor or sleigh on bad days.

Many ate frozen lunches during the winter, as lunches were left out in the hall.

In fact, a newspaper article published in 1917 contains an appeal on this matter.

"Warm lunches in rural schools are badly needed," it says. "This does not mean that the whole lunch needs to be prepared at school. The warm dishes should simply supplement the material ordinarily provided. It makes the meal more appetizing... The principal meal on the farm is usually served at noon; the children miss this, unless they get the warm lunch at school.

"The cost for all the equipment need not exceed $10 or $12.

"Baskets and other receptacles that cannot be cleaned with boiling water should not be used by the children in carrying lunches to school."

In winter, the schoolhouse was often cold, unless your desk was near the large coal burning stove, one writer says. "We usually put our boots and mittens all around the stove, so they would be nice and warm for the trip home after school."

"We had a water fountain which had to be filled every morning by a student, and drained each afternoon when school ended for the day," a student wrote.

"And we cannot forget the outdoor toilets, what a comfort on a cold winter day."

In the early 1900s, the basket social was a popular event. The girls made up the baskets, loaded up with food and special treats, and an auction was held among the boys.

If a guy wanted a certain girl's basket, the other boys would force the bids as high up as they could. Sometimes the bidding ran as high as $8, and the money was used to buy equipment and supplies...

The memories are truly individual and endless...

The end of rural schools came after the 1970-1971 school year, when a state law required them to combine with districts that offered a K-12 program. More efficient transportation, along with increased urbanization, were some factors propelling this change.

Many schoolhouses were auctioned off to serve as homes, farm buildings, or meeting halls.

Some writers hailed the change as welcome; others lamented it with a varying degree of bitterness.

"The days of the little read school house are numbered," one editorial writer said in 1967. "The country school, in the old days a center of social and political life as well as education, has served the country well... No longer do you need a school within the walking distance of every farm... In a way, it's like putting Old Dobin out to pasture - you hate to do it, but you know it's for the best."

"Gone forever will be that relaxed atmosphere that one can find only in the rural schools, and that closeness we had with the children and the parents of the rural areas," another writer (the last Brown County superintendent, and the only female one, Mrs. Helen Schroeder) said.

"The thinking behind the law," chimed in a commentator, "is that the old fashioned facilities do not offer the necessary opportunities to today's youth. Any of you oldtimers care to challenge that?"



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