Wednesday, May 9, 2012

One-room School

The one-room school once was commonplace in the United States, with some 190,000 of them early in the 20th century. They also were, and are, fixtures in rural places around the world. This one, in the nearby village of Allardt, survives as overnight lodging. The schools typically housed students in grades one through eight, all in the same room and all taught by a single teacher. Sometimes the teacher was a graduate of the same school, and early on, may have had no education beyond eighth grade. There are stories of teachers who faced students older than themselves. It's not easy to find a definitive number of one-room schools still in operation in the U.S., but as recently as 2005 there was estimated to be nearly 400. Most, however, have fallen victim to better transportation that has allowed consolidation into larger schools.

In a sense, I am a product of this one-room school. No, I never went to school there, but my mother did. In fact, the eight grades she completed there was all the formal education she ever had. At one time my father's older brother was the teacher there, and he boarded with my mother's family, on whose farm the school was located. The family stories relate how my father went to visit his brother there for the first time and, at age 18, met the 13-year-old girl who would someday become my mother. The stories tell how when he returned home he told his parents "I met my wife, but I have to wait until she grows up." Six years later they were married.

This school also served the community as church on Sundays, and as social hall on Saturday night. "Pie suppers" apparently were popular sources of social entertainment, where young girls would bake a pie to be auctioned to the young men. It was said to be great fun to bid against the young man who sought to buy the pie baked by the girl he was sweet on. The late Kentucky writer Jesse Stuart, in Taps for Private Tussey, wrote of a family of never-do-wells who would break into the local one-room school and live there between terms. During school terms they would be evicted and return to life in a rockhouse (shallow cave).

The school in the black and white photograph no longer exists. It, along with my grandparents' farm, now lie beneath the waters of Cave Run Lake. The community of Cogswell, Kentucky, no longer appears on maps, and the Scot's Creek boat dock now occupies the space that once was the cemetery on the hill behind this church. All of the graves, including my grandfather's, have been moved to other cemeteries in the area.


  1. I see these now and then here in New England. Very lovely. Love the history with them.

  2. What a proud heritage! Totally captivating. I can't help but marvel at the strength of your grandfather's conviction that he would someday marry your Grandmother. And what a bright spot that schoolhouse is today!


  3. Thank goodness for the towns the preserve them if only as museums or B&B's

  4. I have read about these small schools before and it was therefore interesting to see your photographs. Such small schools are rare in this country - too urban, too crowded.

  5. Great piece, Jim! I went to a two room school, long gone, in Knott County. There are still a few in the rural southwest where isolation is still an issue. You also hit on another great piece still to be written & photographed. Every Corps of Engineers lake has caused hundreds of graves to be moved and sometimes flooded. Each of those lakes has a federally funded, merged cemetery nearby which holds graves from several small cemeteries. We need to look into writing about that, too!

  6. My mother also only went through the 8th grade in a one room school. You know what I find really interesting is that when I drive by the countryside that was once the home of my ancestors, I always feel like I belong. I don't really know how to explain this, but it is like being a part of something greater than self. Today, I'm going up that way and looking so forward to it.

    I relate so much to this post Jim.

    That's so cute what your father said about having to wait for your mother to grow up.

    1. I know what you mean about feeling like you belong. Of course, I spent my childhood in the same places, but I also felt a tie to Gilbert, WV, where my mother was born and spent the first seven years of her life. I think I feel it most in the old cemeteries where my ancestors lie.