Scherer Part I



Article One: The Beginning of Formal Education in Richland County

Long before the big yellow bus traveled the rural roads of southeastern Illinois, transporting children to school, there was another era in our country.  It was a time before America was even a country, Illinois was a state, and Richland was a county.  It was the time of the Native American Indians, who inhabited the area between the three rivers known today as the Wabash, Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

According to the Southeastern Illinois Heritage Foundation, “Various tribes of the Miami nation populated southeastern Illinois.  They were farmers noted for a unique variety of white corn, which was generally regarded as superior to that of other tribes.  Their summer villages, located in river valleys for the fertile soil, consisted of framed longhouses covered with rush mats.

“After the harvest, the village moved to the nearby prairies for a communal buffalo (bison) hunt, then separated into winter hunting camps.  The Miami had the reputation of being slow-spoken and polite, but had an inclination towards fancy dress, especially their chiefs.  Tattooing was common to both sexes and, like the neighboring Illinois (tribe), there were harsh penalties for female adulterers, who were either killed or had their noses cut off.”

We know these early inhabitants of the area – the American Indians – constructed mounds and built cities like Cahokia Mounds (the largest Native American city that existed near the east bank of the Mississippi River from 600 A.D. to 1400 A.D.) and Angel Mounds, another large settlement that existed from 1100 A.D. to 1450 A.D. near the confluence of the Ohio and Wabash rivers at present-day Evansville, Ind.

But these early inhabitants apparently had no need for formal education.  Each son emulated the prowess of his father in the hunt and the fight.  The hunting ground and the battlefield embraced everything of real honor or value.  Another set of skills was required for those who grew food from the land.  So the son was educated to throw the tomahawk, shoot the arrow, catch fish with the spear, and plant kernels of corn to successfully grow a crop.

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”  -- Thomas Jefferson

As the American Indians’ influence dwindled and they were displaced by the white settlers who came to build a new nation, the need for a different kind of education arose.  The new residents of the area brought with them the European interest in education.  They held the belief that only an educated people could maintain a free government, which strengthened their commitment to education in the years following the American Revolution.

In the very early years of this country, all education was done in the home, at least where the parents were themselves literate, according to former Richland County resident Loren Pixley, PhD, a long-time educator and former Dean of Olney Central College.

“It soon became apparent that literacy itself was not sufficient training or motivation for good teaching, so some of those who showed a talent and interest in teaching were encouraged to take students from other families.  This,” Pixley wrote, “was the beginning of the one-room school concept – a mixture of students of all ages and learning abilities in the same classroom.  This was democracy in its purest form.”

However, before the free, public one-room schools would proliferate, an intermediate system of education began to surface.  It was a monumental step in the development of the education system in Richland County, occurring in 1822, some 20 years before the official formation of Richland County.

It was the year when local education officially moved out of the home. It would take place in the small settlement of Watertown (sometimes referred to as Waterton), a now defunct village that was located near the banks of the Fox River, just west of present-day Olney.  This early community was one of four in the area that were in contention to become the county seat of Richland County when it was formed in 1841.  Previously, Watertown had been located in what was already Clay County – because Richland County was formed by combining land from the eastern part of Clay County and the western part of Lawrence County, which also already existed.

That year, 1822, a young man named John I. Chauncey began teaching in a Watertown tavern that had been partitioned off on one end and furnished with slab seats and board desks.  Chauncey’s first pupils were not just young children.  A grown man, Elijah Nelson, who lived half a mile to the west on the Trace Road, wished to learn to read and became one of his first students.

Mr. Chauncey’s teaching career was short-lived.  He died at a very young age in the spring of 1824 in the home of Mr. Nelson, marking the first death within the limits of what is now Olney Township.  The history book, “Counties of Cumberland, Jasper and Richland, Illinois,” published in 1884, offers the following account of Mr. Chauncey’s burial:

“After his death, the question arose as to what they should do for a casket.  At the time there were no sawmills in the country.  John Evins had just erected a cabin in what is now Noble Township, of Richland County, in which he had laid a very nice puncheon floor (pieces of broad, heavy timber, roughly dressed, with one face finished flat).  It was proposed to take some puncheons out of the floor of this cabin with which to construct the coffin.  This suggestion was acted upon and John Evins, John Keffries, John Jathews, John Nelson and Elijah Nelson constructed the coffin.

“Thus, in a rude casket made of slabs was one of the first teachers of Richland County, Illinois, consigned to his last home.”

“Educate and inform the whole mass of people…they are the only sure reliance for preservation of our liberty.”    -- Thomas Jefferson

By 1825, the State of Illinois, which had been admitted to the union in 1818, began to legislate the development of schools in the state.  The first public school law in Illinois was the Free School Act of 1825, which provided that common schools should be established in each county of the state, and they were to be free and open to all white citizens between the ages of five and 21.  The law stated that 2 percent of all income must be used to support education, and that states can create and levy taxes to support schools.

The law was amended in 1827 because some families that did not have children did not want to pay taxes to support schools.  This weakened the law to the point that few public schools were established. (Source: Illinois Education Timeline – Illinois State Board of Education)

According to the “Early Schools in Olney,” by Levi Tennyson, Olney’s local historian and a product of the early schools, “The first school within the present limits of Olney was taught by a Mr. Pierce, an educated gentleman who came from the State of Vermont in 1836.”

Schools at that time were subscription schools, in which the families paid the teacher directly, rather than through taxes.  Parents “signed” as many children as they had, or had ability to pay.  This method of schooling was used until about 1841 or 1842.

By 1841, the year Richland County was formed and Olney named the county seat, there were four schools in the county – one at Fairview (now Calhoun), one in the Antioch Baptist Church near
Claremont, one at the Morehouse schoolhouse two miles east of Olney, and another in the McsBurg neighborhood four miles north of Olney.  (A successor frame structure to the original McsBurg log schoolhouse was built in 1874-75 and has been restored and moved next to the Heritage House Museum in Olney and is open to the public.  More about that schoolhouse in a later part.)

We do know that the four schools that existed at the time of Richland County’s formation were indeed subscription schools, since the public fund was so meager that the people refused to organize a school under the state law.  Thus, the concept of subscription schools had been developed as a means of parents paying the teacher directly for his services.  If the parents were too poor to pay this fee, the local unit of government levied a poor tax, which, among other things, was used to ensure education for the indigent.

But even the subscription schools couldn’t exist long under the monetary system that was prevalent in rural areas at the time.

“It soon became obvious that (teachers) could not teach for nothing,” wrote Pixley, the former educator.  “Frequently, this subscription was paid in goods and services, not in money, since money was always hard to come by in rural America.  For example, garden produce, corn, wheat or firewood, and even room and board, were often provided in lieu of cash money.  These kept the teacher alive, but did not provide much for the purchase of any items not available through the barter system.”

Despite the difficulties of supporting the early schools, the quest for improved public education continued on in Illinois…and locally, especially now that the area had its own county.

The first true school in the village of Olney was located in a log structure that served three purposes.  That building, no longer standing, was located across the tracks from the old Illinois Central Railroad depot in Olney.  The train depot also no longer exists.

Built in 1842, the building served as a county courthouse until 1847, when the first official courthouse was built where the present courthouse stands on Main Street.  The First Methodist Church also used the building for its worship services for several years.  And, it housed Olney’s first school, the subscription school taught by Mr. Pierce.  Later, a more “select” subscription school was opened in the home of Mrs. Sofia Power, an Olney widow who wished to teach.


An early photograph of Olney’s first true school outside the home.  This building served three purposes at the same time – a school, the first official courthouse until 1847, and the First Methodist Church.


In following the chronology of the public schools in Richland County, there is some question as to the role and the relationship of the Olney Seminary, which apparently was another name for the Olney Female Academy, operated by the Methodist Church.  According to a story titled “Schools of Olney,” which appeared in the 1935 Olnean yearbook, “The first definite printed record of a school that we came upon was ‘The First Annual Catalogue of Olney Seminary, 1858.’”

The article states, “This school (Olney Seminary) was established in 1855 with Mr. David Holmes in charge.  It included instruction from the very first grade through the academy and college, and it noted that every scholar between the ages of five and twenty-one living in the district would have the benefit of the school fund when that was paid over.

“Olney Seminary is located in the flourishing town of Olney, the seat of justice for Richland County, Illinois.  This town is situated on the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad, the great thorough(fare) of the West, thirty miles west of Vincennes and one hundred twenty east of St. Louis.  It has four houses of worship and is distinguished for its morality, health, and the general intelligence and enterprise of its inhabitants.  The population of the town is rapidly increasing and private residences are being erected to the number of nearly one hundred annually.

“The design of the school is to furnish students of both sexes with a thorough Classical and Scientific Education, and to offer to young Ladies the same advantages of mental discipline and collegiate honors as to young Gentlemen.”

In 1855, additional state legislation had been approved to provide a free public school system in Illinois.  The proliferation of the one-room school throughout Illinois was largely due to this legislation, which gave townships the ability to establish school districts with elected boards, which in turn had the power to levy taxes.

Since the few early schools were already partially supported by taxes, it was just a small step to total tax support.  The taxes were usually levied by the local school board, collected by the county and then returned to the school board for disbursement.  There was usually a county superintendent of schools elected by the entire county.  This person was frequently the most powerful and influential elected county official.

                The 1860 census showed the population of Richland County to be 9,711, of whom 2,750 had “attended” school, while 3,344 could not read and 526 could not write – most of these being of foreign birth.

First Public School Buildings are built in Olney

                In 1866, and immediately following the Civil War, the citizes 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.  The lot was bordered by Kitchell Street to the east, Camp Street to the west, and Elm and Cherry streets to the north and south.  The three-story brick building, plus a full basement, contained 12 rooms.  Erected in 1867, it was completed for $30,000, the full amount of the approved bonds, and considered one of the finest buildings in southern Illinois.

Photo of first public school in Richland County

The first public school in Richland County, built in 1867 at a cost of $30,000, was considered one of the finest school buildings in southern Illinois.  The building was the forerunner of the original Central School and stood at approximately the same location as that building, which would serve the school district for many years.


                The school was considered a very well-located facility at first, but the completion of the P.D. & E. Railroad on Kitchell Street, which later became the Illinois Central Railroad and still later the location of the C. & O. Railroad to the west on Camp Avenue, did not improve it as a school location for either safety or silence.

                During the early 1870s, to the west of Olney, some of the most prominent citizens of Noble came from New York and other eastern states to settle and build fine homes in that community.  They would come arrive via the B & O Railroad and like the community well enough to settle there.

                Like its neighbor to the east, the early schools in the western part of the county also began as private and subscription schools, but by 1870, Noble had built a two-story building in the south part of town to house its students.  The building was located just west and south of the gymnasium at the former West Richland Grade School.

                There were also numerous other school buildings being built or rented and used throughout what became the West Richland district.  During its peak, the Noble area included 29 elementary districts.  These were in addition to the elementary districts that were springing up in the eastern half of Richland County.

                By 1871, a west wing, also three stories high, was added to the three-story building that was erected at Elm and Cherry streets in Olney in 1867, making a total of 15 rooms in the building.  Under Supt. Edmiston, room No. 15 was designated as the high school and a course two years beyond the regular eight grades was added.

                Education beyond the eighth grade was hard to come by in the 1870s, and the residents of Olney were justifiably proud of their new one-room, two-year high school.  The teacher was expected to discipline the student when necessary, and the teachers were warned that in inflicting corporal punishment, no other instrument than a common switch could be employed.

                Olney High School graduated its first class of four, all girls, in 1873.

“Olney needs school facilities.  We have one public school, with about 1,000 or 1,200 children in the building surrounded on two sides by railroads.  The school building is in the west end of town and very inconvenient to a large number of pupils.  Every disease to which children are subject, when it breaks out, exposes the whole school.  A fire or a cyclone puts the lives of more than a thousand children in impertinent peril.”  -- Olney Times, March 14, 1883

                During the winter of 1907, the people of Olney decided to build a new school building in the east part of town, and in the following summer the building was erected that (was) known as the East Cherry Street School.

                In 1914, the building at Elm and Cherry streets, which opened with such fanfare in 1867, was found to be unsafe and a new building, housing the former Central School, was erected on the site in 1915.


We close Part I of “THE BIG YELLOW BUS: The Beginning of Formal Education in Richland County.”  We have discussed the reason for education in a free country, the evolution of teaching from the home to the development of subscription schools, the beginning of the public school movement and the first schools in Olney and Noble.

Part II will discuss the next step in our education system: the proliferation of the 80-plus one-room rural schools in Richland County and the development of the larger urban schools in Olney and Noble.  The schools will be identified, revealing how many of them got their names, and quotes from those who attended the schools will be included.

They existed during a time when schools were the center of activity in the community, offering a place and a reason for families to congregate during a time when travel was difficult and most people never got more than a few miles from their home.  It was an educational system that many say helped both the slower and brighter students.  And it was an era that is remembered by many with great nostalgia.


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 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.


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