One-room Schools

Airdate: December 3

This is Living Stories, featuring voices from the collections of the Baylor University Institute for Oral History. I'm Louis Mazé.

The one-room schoolhouse is an iconic image of rural America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These buildings were the focal points of communities and often doubled as churches on Sundays and served as meeting places for area events.

Ophelia Mayberry Hall reflects on the school she attended in the 1920s in Lincolnville, a community near Gatesville that was created by former slaves after the Civil War:

"When the black people used to go and work for the white people and they had what they called wash benches and they'd put the tubs and things on the wash benches for our parents to wash, well, that's what we had to sit on—wash benches to sit on. No back, just sitting there bent over, you know, with our books in our laps."

Voy Althaus remembers the one-room Big Flat School in Gillespie County, which he enrolled in at the age of six in the 1930s:

"It had a woodstove that never kept the place warm in really cold weather. The water supply was a cistern that caught—above-ground cistern that caught the water off the roof."

Usually one teacher was assigned to a country school, and trying to teach the various grade levels and subjects while maintaining order could be a challenge, as Althaus explains:

"There was one book in the little small twenty- or thirty-book library in the school that had hand language for the deaf, and so everybody that went to that school learned their alphabet on hand language. And every time the teacher's back was turned, we talked to each other. And I guess that really was better than throwing chalk at the blackboard while her (laughter) back was turned."

Althaus remembers that the grounds of Big Flat School were ripe for imagination:

"The school was located on a acre of land that was cleared, but all the way around the school was dense cedar breaks. And we were allowed to play in them; at least the boys were. So we played great games of cops and robbers and Indians and cowboys every chance we could get. And just a couple of hundred yards away from the school was an abandoned steam tractor of all things. It seemed monstrous to us at the time, and we could walk down there and play on that and nobody minded."

He recalls how his education afforded him some time in the limelight:

"We had a porch on that building, and every country school had a school closing, and we used that porch for our stage. Everybody would bring their own chairs. And so everybody had to participate in something in the closing, and I was trying to play the guitar at the time and play the harmonica at the same time. So every year at school closing while I was there, I treated all that captive audience to my playing and singing."

In the early twentieth century, advances in transportation led to the consolidation of many one-room schools, as students could travel farther, and by World War II larger schools with multiple classrooms and teachers were becoming the norm. Today, most one-room schoolhouses have been torn down or repurposed, but some remain in use for elementary education in rural areas and among the Amish.

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