ONE-ROOM SCHOOL MEMORIES
By Nancy Vendrely as found in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette.
The era of the one-room school ended long ago, but those who experienced that rural school system hold it fondly in memory. Common in the late 19th century and well into the 20th, the one-room schoolhouse accommodated eight grades in one room, with one teacher for all.
In the horse-and-buggy days the typically red brick structures dotted the rural landscape, placed so that no family lived more than 1 ½ to 2 miles away from a school. In Eel River Township in northwest Allen County, which was and still largely remains farmland, youngsters in the early 1900s went to one of nine one-room schools. They were neighbors and classmates and often several children from the same family, ages 5 through 12 or 13 shared the same classroom.
For some, it brought a sense of closeness that has lasted through the years.
Alumni from two of the last to close – Valentine School in 1933 and Eel River Center School in 1936 – have been having annual reunions for some time. Valentine people started getting together in 1983; Center School people joined them in 1987. They gather at Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church on the third Saturday in April for a potluck lunch, conversation and reminiscing.
“There’s a closeness about being old together.” 80-year-old BOB ARNOLD of Avilla says with a grin. A graduate of Valentine School, he serves as president of the alumni group and was one of the organizers of the first reunion.
MILDRED DAFFORN SHEETS of Columbia City says that is what made a one-room school special. “Togetherness,” she says of life at the former Center School, where she was graduated in 1933. “You learned from the older ones, and you got to help with the younger ones as you got older,” says EVELYN JOHNSON SANSOM of Fort Wayne. She and Sheets were classmates at Center School, and she is treasurer of the alumni group.
The typical one-room school had a wood or coal-burning stove in the middle of the room, several rows of desks running front to back and the teacher’s desk and a blackboard at the front of the room. Two outdoor toilets – one for the boys and one for the girls – stood at the back of the lot, and there usually was an outdoor pump for drawing water.
MABEL SAGE TRUELOVE, who entered first grad at Center School in 1921 at age 5, says: “The little ones got to sit closest to the stove. It could get cold in the corners.”
She remembers the time the teacher spent with each class as being very short. “The teacher had to work eight classes in before lunch and do the same in the afternoon,” Truelove says. “I had a difficult time at first in high school, getting used to a whole hour (of class).”
Keeping order in a room with 30 to 50 children of varying ages may sound daunting today, but these one-room school veterans say times were different then. “You were quiet in school. You listened to the others and you learned it, too ,“ CHESTER GREEN, 84, says of the multi-class experience. “You didn’t scrap at each other. Nobody got kicked out or anything. If they did anything bad, their parents straightened them up quick.”
LEROY BEAMER of Hamilton agrees. The 70-year-old admits to being “good at shooting paper wads.” “I had a few times standing in the corner with a pointed hat on,” Beamer says with a chuckle. “It was embarrassing to stand there…………And I got a paddling when I got home.” After a morning of sitting quietly while other classes were in session, noon outdoor play tended to be strenuous.
Beamer remembers a game that involved throwing a ball over the schoolhouse roof, then running around the building to try to catch it before it hit the ground. Arnold recalls a game called “Shipwreck.” “You’d choose up sides and everybody tried to pick the best runners. You’d hit this big rubber ball and run to the base. It was one base – back and forth – but you had to get there to be safe.
“There was a pond close by – we’d slide on the ice there. And further back an acre there was a bigger pond where we went ice skating and sledding.” Arnold says. “We also chased the girls.”
Truelove recalls another winter pastime. I remember when the boys would get blocks of wood and stack them up, then cover them with snow. They’d pack it down, then water it so it would freeze overnight. The next day, they’d sled down it.
MARILYN SMITH WATERSON, 68, of Huntertown, was the only girl in her class. “I remember when the guys made an igloo. They took gallon buckets and filled them with snow, packed down, then emptied it out and made an igloo with the blocks.” That was winter fun, but winter treks to school could be pretty miserable at times. There was no such thing as a “snow day” or a school delay.
DAFFORN remembers one very cold morning. “We got about halfway there and my little brother said, ‘I’m not going on.’ But we had enough sense to drag him along anyway. My teacher said he would have frozen to death out there.”
Another person remembers walking to school when it was 14 degrees below zero. “You could get all wrapped up, but the tears would still roll down your cheeks,” he says.
For the Smith kids, it didn’t matter. They were among the fortunate few who got to ride. “We rode to school in a Model T. or on a bobsled; we never walked,” DONALD SMITH says. Smith, 66, of Coldwater, Mich., says four in their family went to Center School at the same time – himself, Marilyn, Max and Phyllis.
“The Model T. picked up a load of kids, took them to school, then went back for more,” he says. Green says the car/bus service developed because the kids from Valentine school got hauled to Center school after Valentine closed. It was too far for them to walk. FRANK SOULE, 76, of Fort Wayne went to Valentine. “I think we lived about the farthest away. We’d go cross country, over the fences, from one barnyard to another. We started out in the dark………we did chores before and after school. Feed the animals, get wood, gather the eggs.”
Everyone carried their lunch, usually a sandwich, an apple and home-baked cookies.
“On real cold days, we’d bring a potato from home and cook them in a pot on top of the stove,” Ruth Green Cox says.
“On the last day of school, we had a carry-in dinner and all the families would come,” Sansom recalls.
“We got out in mid-April to help on the farm,” Green says, “and we’d go back in September, after Labor Day.”
Green was a Center School student and his wife, Savilla, went to Valentine. They grew up on farms in the area and still live on the Hathaway Road farm where they’ve lived since their marriage 62 years ago.
Chester Green says when he was ready for the first grade he was the only first-grader in his school district, so they told him not to come. He had to wait until the next year to start school. But, by the time he had finished seventh grade, he was doing so well he helped teach eighth grade the next year.
Savilla Green, 82, better known as Sally, is secretary of the alumni group. She keeps track of the mailing list and adds to a scrapbook every year – more pictures, more letters, more golden wedding announcements and sadly, more obituaries.
Valentine School was torn down long ago, but Eel River Center School still stands at the corner of Heffelfinger and Wappes roads. Built in 1886, it is owned now by Everett and Esther Lincoln.
“It was in use for a long time after the school closed,” Savilla Green says. “Different groups met there – the 4-H, Farm Bureau, Home Ec clubs. The Conservation Club used to have its fish fries there and elections were held there.”