Scherer Part 2



Article Two: The Proliferation of one-room schools in Richland County


In the very early years of the Midwest, most formal education – if it was taught – was conducted in the home, at least where the parents themselves were literate.  But it soon became evident that literacy itself was not sufficient training or motivation for good teaching.  Those who did show a talent or interest in teaching were encouraged to take pupils in from other families.

                A monumental step in the development of the education system in our area took place as early as 1822, some 20 years before the official formation of Richland County.  It was then that education officially moved out of the home, when a young man named John I. Chauncey began teaching in one end of a log tavern located in Watertown, a now-defunct village located near the banks of the Fox River, just west of present-day Olney.

                Mr. Chauncey’s teaching career was short-lived, however.  He died at a very young age in the spring of 1824, and no records were found to indicate that the school continued on after his death.

                By 1825, the State of Illinois, which had been granted statehood in 1818, began to legislate the development of schools in the state.  Even though the new law stated that 2 percent of all income must be used to support education, the movement had little muscle because families without children did not want to pay taxes to support schools, so few public schools were established.

                Some “subscription” schools, in which interested families paid the teacher directly, often through the barter system, were being established.  By 1841, the year Richland County was officially formed, there were four such schools in existence in the area – one at Fairview (now Calhoun), one in the Antioch Baptist Church near Claremont, one at the Morehouse schoolhouse two miles east of Olney and a fourth in the McsBurg community four miles northeast of Olney.

                The first “true” school in the village of Olney was located in a log structure that was built in 1842.  This building served three purposes: county courthouse; the First Methodist Church; and Olney’s first school, taught by a Mr. Pierce who had come to the area from Vermont.

                In 1855, additional state legislation had been approved to provide a free public school system in Illinois.  Records show that it was not until 1858 that Olney had a public school under the public school law of 1855.  Directors were elected and a public school was established in the basement of the new Methodist Church building.

                The 1860 census showed the population of Richland County to be 9,711, of whom 2,750 had “attended” school, while 340 could not read and 526 could not write, most of these being of foreign birth.

                In 1866, and immediately following the Civil War, the citizens of Olney, under the leadership of Judge Alfred Kitchell, voted in a school system and approved bonds of $30,000 to erect the first school.  Judge Kitchell donated an entire block for the building of the school.  One-room rural schools also were being established over the eastern part of Richland County.


   Olney’s first public school, built in 1867 at a cost of $30,000, was       considered one of the finest school buildings in southern Illinois.  It was the forerunner of the original Central School, and stood at approximately the same location.


                By 1870, Noble had also built a two-story school building, and the western part of the county was on its way to eventually having 29 elementary school districts, consisting of one-room school buildings.     


One-Room Schools Spring Up Everywhere

The proliferation of the one-room schools in Richland County and throughout Illinois was due largely to the state’s increasing involvement in legislating education.  In 1870, armed with a new constitution that stated “The General Assembly shall provide a thorough and efficient system of free schools, whereby all children of this state may receive a good common school education,” Illinois continued its efforts to expand and improve its education system. The state also mandated that one-room schools should be located no more than two miles apart, so students would not have to walk long distances to attend school.



                Although the early laws did not require children to attend school, towns and counties were required to provide schools and schoolteachers.  Since most children lived and worked on farms, the farming season basically dictated when schools were in session.  Students, especially the boys, were needed to help with planting in the spring and harvest in the fall.  In the 1870s, the average school year in Illinois was just under seven months long.

                In 1883, the Compulsory School Attendance Law passed, requiring all children in the state between the ages of 8 and 14 years to attend public or private school at least 12 weeks during the year.  This law, however, was not strictly enforced until after World War I.

                The May 27, 1885, issue of the Olney Times reported “The School Board has determined to begin at the coming of the school term, the strict enforcement of the compulsory school law, and every offender will be dealt with to the fullest extent of the law.  Such action would be commendable in the eyes of all good citizens who are utterly tired of the gangs of worthless boys who litter on our streets during all seasons of the year, blockading sidewalks and obstructing the passage of pedestrians.”

                By 1890, the average school year in Illinois was now seven-and-a-half months long and in 1899, the compulsory age for school attendance was lowered to 7 years of age.  For most students, instruction included reading, arithmetic, science and music.  Female teachers were earning an average of $44 per month, and male teachers made about $10 more per month.

                With more organized efforts now being made by the states and municipalities, some consistency was being observed in the teachers, students and curricula of the one-room schools.

                The one-room schools in Richland County were similar in many ways.  They pretty much all had similar rectangular or square frames; large windows for light, since there was no electricity in the country during the early days; chimneys with potbelly stoves for heat; an outside pile of coal or firewood; a hand-operated water pump emerging from an outside, shallow well or cistern; and two outhouses in the back, one for boys and one for girls, to handle one of the necessities of life.

                Unfortunately, the early schools also had one other similarity – many of the original structures were prone to damage and destruction by fires.  And, in some cases, their replacements met the same fate, symptomatic of the risky heating systems of the time.  If the fire in the old pot-belly stove was not completely extinguished at the end of the school day, stray embers could start a disastrous fire during the night and pupils and teachers were faced with an unpleasant sight the next morning.


  Potbelly stove at McsBurg School  

 The early heating systems were often the cause of  

 many schoolhouse fires.  


                It is believed the oldest of these one-room schools in Richland County was Ritter School, built in 1861.  Others were built after the turn of the century, with the most “modern” of the schoolhouses built in 1923.  Most of the schoolhouses were rebuilt, moved and otherwise changed throughout the years.

                Another common thread was that each school had its own name, names that were often somewhat descriptive.   Such schools as McCauley, Eyer, Taylor, Leaf, Barlow, Linder, Wilson, McsBurg, Ginder, Kinkade, Van Matre and numerous other names were given because a particular family donated the land or lived in the immediate neighborhood.

                Other schools were given names because of some nearby natural feature such as Lone Oak, Oak Ridge, Grass Valley, Blue Ridge and Shady Grove.

                Blue Jean School in Denver Township was given its name because the male students wore blue jeans, according to folklore.  Brushville School, northwest of Noble, was so named because of its proximity to a wooded area.  Red Head School, between Berryville and Oak Grove School, received its name because the first teacher was a redhead, although it is also said the origin of the name came about because two of the three directors of the school were redheaded.  And Shady Grove School carried the nickname Hog Heaven, because it was built on posts and during the winter months hogs would remain under the building to stay warm.


  Blue Jeans School  



  Shady Grove -- Also known as "Hog Heaven"  



  Hickory Point School (Year believed to be 1922)  



  Wynoose Schoolhouse  



  Red Head School  


Pupils, Teachers and the Curriculum

                According to Loren Pixley, a local educator and historian who, for eight years, attended a one-room school just across the county line in neighboring Wabash County in the early 1990s, “The students in the one-room country schools ranged in age from 5 to 18, or even 20.  Before the advent of the high school, it was common for some students to repeat the eighth grade three or four times, just because they enjoyed school.  On the other hand, many students dropped out after the sixth grade.

                “The socio-economic status of the students varied at least as widely as their age.  Patched overalls (or overhauls, as we called them) and flower-sack dresses were very acceptable attire.  The better-off students usually wore newer clothes and some store-bought ones, but style of dress was not as big an issue then as it is now.  We didn’t have Calvin Klein jeans or $90 sneakers-basketball shoes.  A person was much more likely to be judged on how he or she behaved, rather than on how they dressed.

                “Intellectually, there was a also a large range of ability,” continued Dr. Pixley, “from the slow student who might stay in first grade for several years to the bright student who could have done eight-grade work (and frequently did), even though he or she was officially in the fourth or fifth grade.

                “Having all eight grades in the same classroom helped both the slow and the bright students.  The slow student would listen to the lessons for the early grades, reinforcing what he or she had learned poorly then, while the bright student could listen to the upper grades recite and get a preview of what was to come.

                “The nature of instruction and recitation allowed for this speeding up or retaining without bringing harm to the student.  Since there were from four to eight grades reciting in three to five subjects each, it is obvious the typical student spent most of his or her day at his or her desk, studying and listening to instruction and recitation of others.  This was probably the soundest education principle of the one-room county school and may account for the number of students who went on to success in medicine, law, education and business.”


  Dundas Students  



  Oak Dale Students  



   Elwood School Children - "Boys will be Boys"   



  Brinkley School Pupils -- Wearing the Fashions of the Day  


                And, what about the teachers?  Writing in the August 24, 1966, issue of the Olney Daily Mail, noted Olney historian Bert Michels believed “Many of the finest teachers in the county were located in the rural schools.  In addition to being the class instructor, these same teachers were superintendent, principal, truant officer, discipline director and custodian – all combined.

                “Many of the schools had from 20 to 60 or more pupils.  One teacher heard all recitations from all the classes.  Sometimes these classes would meet for not over 10 minutes each day, as all subjects had to be covered according to the state course of study.”

                In 1914, a teacher in the rural school was only required to be an eighth-grade graduate, pass a county teacher’s examination, and usually attend summer school at Normal school in Charleston, Carbondale or Normal for six weeks for a few summers.

                Later, around 1920, the requirements were raised to two years of high school and, in 1923, to high school diplomas.  Still later, in 1929, requirements were raised to one year of college, then to two years of college in 1932, and finally to a four-year college degree.

                According to Dr. Pixley, the educator, during the early years, the teachers in the one-room country schools were about equally divided between male and female.  During the subscription era up to the Civil War, the teachers were predominantly male and had some training beyond elementary school.  Many young men were killed in the Civil War, which resulted in more women than men joining the teaching ranks in elementary schools, including one-room country schools.

                At first, this was simply a matter of expediency.  Schools had to have teachers.  Since women of that era were willing to work for less than men – after all, it was about the only way, other than domestic service, for a woman to earn money – the financial consideration soon overcame any reluctance to hire women, since they were found to be as good, and in many cases, better than the men.

                Although women were acceptable as teachers, most communities placed harsh restrictions on their personal behavior, such as: prohibited to marry during the term of their contract; no keeping company with men; no dressing in bright colors, smoking cigarettes or dying their hair; and wearing no dresses shorter than two inches above the ankle.  In addition, many could not ride in a carriage or automobile with any man unless he was their father or brother, and some were prohibited to travel beyond the city limits without the permission of the chairman of the board.



  Alberta McCreery and her horse, Billy  



  Aaron Lytle Kent  - A most-loved teacher 



  Noble Teachers  


                 The curriculum of the early schools was pretty much well limited to reading, writing and arithmetic – commonly known as the three R’s of Reading, ‘Riting and “Rithmetic – unless the teacher had special music or artistic ability, in which case he or she would introduce music or art.  This was not always encouraged since the parents of the students wanted them to be able to read, write and figure (do simple arithmetic) in order to become more productive citizens, not wasting time on frills like music and art.

                A basic part of this early curriculum was religious instruction.  Bible verses from the student or reading from the Bible, and a short prayer by either the teacher or one of the older students, started the day in most one-room rural schools.  One must realize our founding fathers did not come to this country to gain freedom from religion, but to have the right to worship as they saw fit.  They were not opposed to churches, they were opposed to the unhealthy alliance of church and state they had observed in Europe.

                As society became more complex and as the teachers became better educated, some things like history, geography and civics, which had been part of the reading program, gained greater emphasis and became a separate and distinct part of the curriculum.  Similarly, spelling and orthography (word analysis into prefixes, suffixes and roots) achieved their own identity.  Penmanship was very popular for a while, but declined in popularity after World War I.  Science also separated from mathematics in the late 1800s.

                All of these courses were taught from the practical viewpoint.  Reading, so they could be better informed citizens; writing, so they could more effectively communicate with others; and arithmetic and science, so they could apply it to their record keeping and to computing bushels, pecks, gallons, quarts, pints, cups, tablespoons, teaspoons, barrels and hogsheads.  Arithmetic and science were also applied to animal breeding and carpentry.

                Perhaps one former pupil in the one-room Brinkley School summed it up best: “They taught us in those days.  What we got in those days stayed with us.”

* * * * * * * *


We close Part II of “Before The Big Yellow Bus: The Beginning of Formal Education in Richland County.”  So far, we have discussed the reason for education in a free country, the evolution of teaching from the home to public schools, the first schools in Richland County, development of the 87 one-room schools in the county and the larger elementary and high schools in Olney and Noble.

Part III will discuss interesting information on the schools, including traditions, discipline, etiquette and comments from former pupils and teachers, and the reason for consolidation of schools in the 1940s.


Editor’s note:  This article is based on excerpts from the book, “Before the Big Yellow Bus: remembering the one-room schools of Richland County, Illinois.”  In addition to covering the history of 87 one-room schools that once existed in the county, the book also includes the history of the schools in Noble and Olney (Central, Silver, Cherry, OTHS) plus the two parochial schools in Olney and Stringtown.  The 300-page, large format book contains 270 historic photographs and hundreds of names and comments from area families that date back to the 1800s.  The book is a veritable encyclopedia on the history of Richland County schools and is available on Amazon or the book’s website:

You may contact the authors: Ron Scherer at;  or Yvonne Scherer Meckfessel at