It was a big deal when Carver County Schools Superintendent Rudolf Siewert came to inspect our District 24 one-room schoolhouse in the 1950s. We took it very seriously.
We began preparing for his visit days in advance — all 16 of us in grades 1-6 (though the grade ahead of me had no students). Our teacher, Mrs. Van Eyll, made sure just the right lessons were neatly chalked on the blackboards, while we students carried out the rotating housekeeping chores that were assigned for that week. Tension built each day because we never knew for sure the day or hour that Mr. Siewert would drive into the school yard.
My memory of Superintendent Siewert’s visits was triggered by a recent talk by Doug Ohman to a group of retired folks, most of whom had grown up on farms scattered across Minnesota. Ohman asked for a show of hands of those who had attended a one-room schoolhouse. Well over half the audience raised hands, though the same question asked a decade or two from now will prompt few or no raised hands to be raised. Today, there’s only one grades 1-6 schoolhouse left in Minnesota.
Ohman talked about his book, “Schoolhouses of Minnesota,” published in 2006 by the Minnesota Historical Society. The book is filled with dozens of Ohman’s color photos of Minnesota’s disappearing schoolhouses. Ohman, who gives more than 300 talks per year, has also published books on Minnesota’s churches, courthouses, libraries, cabins and barns.
My District 24 schoolhouse was located a half mile west of the farm I was raised on and sat on a hill above Silver Creek at the western edge of San Francisco Township. There was no kindergarten class at District 24 and the year I was in first grade, District 24 was still a grade-1-8 school (one teacher for all eight grades). That year, my two older brothers were in the 5th and 8th grades.
Ohman’s talk brought back lots of memories from my six years at District 24. “By the time a student in a one-room schoolhouse reached the eighth grade,” Ohman said, “he (or she) had heard the same lessons taught up to seven times,” since the teaching was done grade by grade at a table in the front of the school room and everybody in the room could hear every word of instruction.
Ohman started his talk to our group with the Pledge of Allegiance because each day in a one-room school always began with the Pledge of Allegiance. The pledge was often followed by music lessons and singing patriotic songs.
Most teachers in the mid-1900s had received nine months of “normal training” (beyond high school) prior to being assigned to their first school. More than three quarters of teachers were young single women, often just a few years older than some of their oldest eighth-grade students.
One of those “young single women” who received her normal training back in the early 1930s was my mother, Marion Johnson. She attended District 24 for grades 1, 7 and 8, completing her other elementary grades in what is now the San Francisco Township hall (another one-room schoolhouse). My dad, Clifford A. Johnson, attended District 24 all eight years. After my mother completed her normal training, she taught at several one-room schoolhouses in Sibley County and Scott County.
Every boy had a knife in his pocket, Ohman said, “because you never knew when you’d have to skin a gopher on the walk home.” Lessons were written in chalk on the blackboards and schools with sufficient budgets had globes and pull-down maps to teach geography lessons.
Back in the 1800s, English lessons were especially critical, since for many immigrant farm families in Minnesota, the kids learned English in school and then went home each evening and taught the language to their German, Swedish or Norwegian parents.
One of the most exciting days at country school was picture day, when the boys wore their best pair of bib overalls and the girls their fanciest dresses.
Lunches were always carried from home, usually in “lunch pails,” but also in syrup pails or cloth sacks, often containing sorghum or lard sandwiches, Ohman said. My younger sister, Joy, recalls that the custom during her years at District 24 (the last years of its tenure) was lunches brought from home and heated in jars on a gas burner in the school’s basement. Joy recalls being the student assigned to light the burner and place the jars in a pan of water for heating.
Much like today, the best time in a country school day was recess, and the games played were often passed down from earlier generations: red rover, fox and goose (in the snow), pom pom pull-away, and ante-over, which involved throwing a ball over the roof of the schoolhouse by one team and caught — or dropped — by the other team as it bounced off the roof.
During my years at District 24, we played a lot of “kittenball” (now softball). Since we didn’t have enough students for two full teams, we chose sides by tossing a bat between the two captains, who took turns placing their hands on the bat handle until the person with his (or her) hand on top chose the first team mate. It was an everyday ritual and I’ve often reflected on the pride of being selected first, as well as various opposite emotions for being chosen last, a pattern that played out daily, often with the same outcome.
Ohman explained that the term “field trip” originated at country schoolhouses “because where else would you go to study plants, insects or animal tracks other than to the field?” Just about every one-room schoolhouse in Minnesota was surrounded by farm fields or woodlots.
The question is often asked: How did the grades 1-6 or 1-8 one-room-schoolhouse education compare with attending the elementary grades in town or “the cities?” When I arrived in seventh grade at Waconia public schools, I felt every bit the equal to my classmates, from an education standpoint — with one exception.
One day in seventh-grade English class, my teacher Mrs. Johnson (no relation) announced, “Today we’re going to review diagraming sentences.” What?!? I had never heard the term “diagraming sentences.” It hadn’t been taught at District 24.
I panicked, maybe because I enjoyed grammar and spelling and perhaps knew, subconsciously, that I was going to earn a living as a writer. I caught on to diagramming sentences pretty quickly, but I still can recall the shock that day in seventh-grade English.
Oh yes, about that last one-room schoolhouse in Minnesota. Doug Ohman said it’s in Minnesota’s Northwest Angle near Lake of the Woods.
The current teacher at Angle Inlet School commutes to school on a snowmobile in the winter and by fishing boat in the spring and fall. And the students in the school? Three brothers – that’s it.