Learning in a One Room School House

Reader Contribution by The Mother Earth News Editors
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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.

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!

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 Letters@MotherEarthNews.com 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.