It is quiet now as I sit here looking around, surrounded by history. It is a beautiful Saturday afternoon, and I am taking a turn as a volunteer guide at the old Dry Mills One Room Schoolhouse. It is a pre-Civil War structure built in 1857 as one of ten that once dotted the community. Today, it is the only one left, save a couple that have been converted into homes.
One doesn’t have to try too hard to hear the laughter and voices of the decades of children that came here for a bit of formal education. I say a bit, since this was once a farming community, where the needs of the home and land came first. Education was something you got if it was not time to sow or harvest. But once there, the learning experience was not taken lightly and discipline was liberally dispensed, one of the reasons that the earliest teachers were men.
The classroom looks pretty much as it always has with wide pine board floors and reproduction seating built to the original design and style. Electricity has consciously never been installed and the only heat remains the old cast iron black stove in the middle of the room. Chalkboards across the front of the room display the alphabet, caps and lower case as well as some arithmetic problems. On the teachers desk sits an assortment of books and a rather large and loud school bell. On each students desk there is a slate, a rag, and a piece of chalk. It wasn’t until later that quill and ink were introduced into the curriculum. Preparing the quills was a part of the schoolmasters responsibility. He would carve the nibs with a pocket knife (giving rise to the term ‘pen knife’), and mix the powdered ink with water.
Teachers were just slightly better educated then the students, since most of them did not have any extended education beyond the local schools and high schools did not yet exist. Women that chose teaching as a profession were subjected to a tight set of rules. In fact, most taught in their own home towns, since the character of a teacher from away was seen as suspect, having not been known within the local society. Were they hired from another town however, they normally were required to live with a local minister or doctor who would assure their moral and spiritual character. They were not allowed to marry.
The teacher always arrived early to draw water for drinking and, in the winter, to start the fire in the stove. Firewood was mostly provided by the parents of the students. Prior to the school day starting, the bell was rung at the front door and the children were formed into two lines, boys on one side, girls on the other, after which they marched into school, placed their lunch pails on the anti-room floor, hung up their hats or coats and proceeded into the classroom where they stood next to their desks until instructed to sit down, backs straight, and hands folded on the desk. Since multiple grades were being taught simultaneously, children were grouped by age and lessons assigned accordingly, sometimes with the older students assisting the younger ones. Books were scarce so a lot of sharing normally existed. Books like the McGuffy Reader were multi-functional, since they helped teach reading, spelling, punctuation, and the stories also had morals that taught honesty, cleanliness, ethics, and communication skills.
Now, sitting here, reflecting on the past, I cannot help but to compare it to today. How much has changed over the last 150 or so years. Our nation has evolved and grown and prospered, to a great deal on the backs of education, and all the qualities that were taught in the classrooms, starting with ones just like this. Here, in the quiet of the day, it is so easy to wrap myself in the echos of the past. This building, old but strong, still stands, beneath our flag, flapping proudly in the breeze, and the front door standing open once again, as if waiting, and hoping for the return of those little feet from so many years ago.