Rinehart Chronicles Local History of One-Room Schools
“The one-room school has long since been phased out, and only a few still stand,” laments Linn County’s Naomi Gordon. “No laughing and chattering sounds are heard from the children as they complete the one-or-two-mile walk from their homes to school.”
“I went to a one-room country school for a year or so,” recounts Dorothy Chappell of Brookfield. “I loved it! And I learned more in that year than I did in all the other years put together.”
“Our teacher was Naomi McCrary,” recalls Charles Buckner who attended primary school in Jackson Township’s one-room Kirby School. “She arrived early to get the building cleaned, carry water in from the well and get a fire going...In severe cold weather, we huddled around the stove where we either cooked on one side or froze on the other.”
These are just a few of the memories Barbara Rinehart has chronicled over the past year as she has interviewed those who received at least part of their formal education in one of Linn County’s one-room schoolhouses. Still a long way from completing her history of local one-room schoolhouses, Rinehart has already written synopses of existing documentation and continues to interview former students and teachers.
The local historian has worked out of the Brookfield Public Library for the past three-and-a-half years and receives compensation through the Experience Works program. Capitalizing upon the often underutilized contributions from senior members of their local communities, the Experience Works program—founded in 1965 by President Johnson—places older Americans such as Barbara at public agencies and nonprofits where they can learn new skills and apply those they already possess. When she isn’t maintaining her farm or assisting her special needs child, Rinehart spends 18 to 40 hours a week at the Brookfield Public Library, working on research projects that benefit her community of residence.
“I started researching the history of Linn County’s one-room schoolhouses by reviewing the existing 1882 and 1912 histories of Linn County, the 1876 Historical Atlas, local newspaper stories we have on microfilm here at the library, and the 1903 Souvenir Edition from the Brookfield Argus,” explains the local historian. “I learned a lot about Linn County’s first schools from reading the annual reports of the Teachers Institutes of Linn County. In addition, I have recorded first-hand accounts provided by visitors to the library who were former students during the day of the one-room schoolhouse. They gave me the names of fellow classmates who are still living, and I made home visits to interview them.” As much of what Rinehart is recording only exists in the memories of those still living, she is detailing local history that would have otherwise been lost with the passing of those former students.
The school day begins…
The distances Linn County’s earliest students had to travel to get to school have been exaggerated almost to the point of cliché, but Rinehart clarifies for the record, “No student here walked more than three miles to school, and most walked a mile to a mile-and-a-half.” She adds, “Many went on horseback and stabled their horses near the schoolhouse in the horse barn that was provided. When I asked one elderly man how he got to Pleasant Point School, he told me, ‘Any way I could.’” Rinehart pauses to reflect. “Transportation to and from school was an obstacle most overcame,” she adds. ‘But those difficulties may have encouraged the consolidation of the one-room schools by World War II and the use of motorized busses during the  teens.”
While the distances children walked or rode to school weren’t prohibitive, the condition of the weather and roads could be at times. “Many of the pupils walked one-and-a-half to two miles to school, often through deep snow,” remembered former Bear Branch School student Mattie Kennedy Buswell. Eva Mae and Ruby Lindberg have recalled what a challenge it was to walk through big snow drifts until they froze hard enough to support the weight of a sleigh drawn by a team of horses. Then they would glide “right over the fences.” A number of former students who walked to school remember crossing creek tributaries without bridges, “balancing on fallen logs that had been placed across them.” “One little fellow froze halfway across the log, and they had to go get him,” recounts Rinehart. Commissioner Jim Libby’s mother, Mildred, has recalled being allowed to go to Elm Grove School on a farmer’s retired race horse. Rinehart explains, “The farmer told Mildred, ‘You can ride her if you can tame her.’ Mildred could get the mare’s English saddle on without much resistance, and she could get one foot in the stirrup. But before she could swing the other leg over that horse’s back, she was off on a dead gallop.” Needless to say, Mildred went the four miles to school in record time.
But the teacher was usually first to arrive every morning to light the potbellied stove and sweep the floor, unless he or she could afford to pay an older student to look after such routine janitorial tasks. While many former students and teachers recall the constant chore of cutting and stacking firewood, some, like Floyd Plaster who attended West Liberty School in the 1940s, attended country schools heated by coal. “West Liberty had a partial basement,” remembers Plaster, “so coal could be brought up to the big coal stove without going outside into bad weather.” Sometimes the teacher was a literal lifesaver. As Rinehart recounts, “One winter a severe cold snap came on so suddenly the teacher at Enterprise School had to go out and cut wood for two hours to feed the stove she had her students huddled around. She kept them warm until their families could come after them.”