Mother Earth News Blogs > Homesteading and Livestock

Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

Learning in a One Room School House

By the MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors

Tags: one room school house, school in the 1920s, country schools,

This is the fourth story from Ruth Zwald, written by her father, Robert Zwald, and submitted as part of our Wisdom From Our Elders collection of self-sufficient tales from yesteryear. She compiled her father’s stories in his own words, and they are posted in eight parts. Read the other parts: 1900s Farming in Washington County Minnesota; Growing Up on a Farm; Catching Frogs for Money; Borrowing Against Life Insurance;

Changes in Agriculture; Courtship and Marriage and The Wisconsin Farm. One Room School House  

School Life 
Now I’m going to take you to school, which I started at 6 or 7 years old. It was a one-room school house with 25-30 kids. We said the pledge of allegiance to the flag every morning after our exercises. There was one teacher, who boarded at the nearest farmhouse and was paid $3-$5 a month, plus room and board. She also did janitor work, including starting the fire in the stove in the front of the school, near her desk. She would call each grade, 1-8, to the front of the room for history, geography, arithmetic, penmanship or whatever. We learned a lot from the kids in the grades ahead of us. We had to learn the multiplication tables and learn to spell.

We walked about a mile and a half to school. Sometimes we would ski across the fields, which was a shortcut. If it was a blizzard, we usually didn’t go; unless Dad would hitch up a sleigh and we would sit in the bottom covered with a fur robe made from bear. We didn’t have running water in school, so the older boys had to take turns getting water from a nearby farm and carry it in 5 gallon milk cans - fun in the snow – and then we put the water in a pail that had a spigot on the bottom. We all drank from the same dipper - boy, were we modern.

Everyone carried their own lunch pails. We ate at our desks, or outside when the weather was warm. I remember sitting on a log to have my lunch. The last two years I was in school, the mothers of the kids bought a kerosene stove and they took turns cooking. Hot food - it couldn’t get any better. The bathrooms were outside. If you had to go, you raised one finger- only one person was allowed at a time. If you raised two fingers, that meant you wanted to speak (whisper) to someone in your grade about a problem or question.

When I was in grade school, I wore many used clothes from my cousin Dick Lueke. I wore knickers to church. They came to your knees and had a tight band around them. I hated them. They probably were homemade. Finally, I got long pants!Ice Skating 

For fun, we played baseball and the trees were our bases. We played “Annie, Annie” over the schoolhouse. We played volleyball once a year with other districts. We wrestled a lot, slid down hills, and iceskated when a nearby low spot filled with water and froze.  

One other thing I remember about school is that the principal visited the country schools maybe once or twice in two months. He took care of all the Washington County schools.
The principal had a wooden leg, and I was almost afraid of him. Us kids and the teacher had to shape up when he visited. Three farmers made up the school board.

I attended one year of secondary school at Harding High School. I was George Washington in a school play. I also went out for track.

My sister Marcella died in 1927, when she was in her first year of high school and I was in the fourth grade. After my sister died, my Mom wore black for a couple of years. I still don’t like black!

Photos from Ruth Zwald: (1) Grades 1-8 with one teacher: Bob is second row up, second on the right; (2) School kids on the ice in 1927: Marcella is on the left.

Please send email submissions to with the subject line "Elder Wisdom" or send mail to: attn: Heidi Hunt, Re: Elder Wisdom, Mother Earth News, 1503 SW 42nd St., Topeka, KS 66609.