Elkhart County Historical Museum
The Elkhart County Historical Museum
Operating in Bristol for over 40 years, the Elkhart County Historical Museum fosters appreciation and preservation of local history and culture through exhibits, educational programs, and an accessible library and archives. Staff from the museum will be blogging about what’s going at the museum and all things Elkhart County history.

Elkhart County Historical Museum's curator of education reflects on learning in one-room schoolhouses

While learning in school has changed a lot throughout history, many things have stayed the same.

Posted on May 30, 2014 at 7:56 a.m.

Patrick McGuire is the Elkhart County Historical Museum’s curator of education. He is a regular contributor to The Elkhart Truth through the museum’s community blog, Elkhart County History.

I get some great opportunities to do a lot of fun things as part of my job. As curator of education at the Elkhart County Historical Museum, I get to interact with people of all ages, share facts and stories from our past, work with artifacts over 100 years old and plan fun programs that revolve around history.

I spend most of my time at the museum, but every once in a while I get the opportunity to do things off-site at various places in the county. One of those places is the Baldwin One Room Schoolhouse, which is at Bonneyville Mill Park. Lately, I have spent a lot of time at the one-room schoolhouse for the “Day in the One Room Schoolhouse” program offered to school groups. With the school year ending, many classes have been taking field trips, which entail students experiencing what school was like the past. They sit in wooden desks, write on slate boards and read from McGuffey Readers. My part in the experience is to play the schoolmaster, dressed in historically accurate 19th century clothing, and put the students through their lessons just as it was done over 100 years ago.

This got me thinking – how different is school today than it was in the past?

Of course, schools are consolidated and bigger, and the material has changed, but the overall life of a student has not changed all that much. The school day was the same amount of time, the subjects are similar and school still begins and ends with the ringing of a bell. I’m sure generations ago, students still looked forward to lunch and recess as they went through their lessons. We can even thank these students and those who went to one-room schoolhouses for our summers off from school. The reason they took time off was not to go on vacation, but to work on the farm. I’m sure students today are thankful for it.

What has changed between the time of one-room schoolhouses and school today is mostly outside the instruction. Students didn't ride buses, but would walk to school (are you hearing your grandparents voice talking about walking one mile, uphill, in the snow on the way school?)  

Imagine cramming elementary and middle school students into one room, where they would be taught by one person. First through eighth grades were taught inside these schoolhouses, and I’m sure it was always a challenge to get the whole class on the same page. Boys and girls would sit on opposite sides of the classrooms, and if they had to, would share their desks during the day. In some cases, they didn't even have desk tops and would have to use their laps. The three R’s dominated students’ educations: reading, writing and arithmetic. Back then, they felt these were the main skills people needed to be contributing members of society. Also, boys could be pulled out of school permanently at 8 or 9 years old to pursue apprenticeships for trades or professions.

One of the biggest and most enjoyable differences for parents who chaperone field trips to the one room schoolhouse are the rules that ran the classroom 100 years ago.

Here are the rules that students were expected to follow:

1. Obey thy elders

2. Speak only when spoken to

3. Idleness is sinful

4. Busy hands maketh a quiet mouth

5. Cleanliness is next to godliness

6. Stand thy body tall to recite

7. Hold thy tongue when others speak

8. Honor thy father and thy mother

9. Give thanks for life’s blessing

10. Children should be seen and not heard

See why chaperones enjoy these rules? The emphasis was mostly on being quiet and keeping busy in class, which makes sense having so many children and different ages in one room. The other point that teachers (back then called schoolmasters or schoolmarms) tried to make is that these rules were not only be followed at school, but also outside of school. How students behaved was important to schoolmasters and schoolmarms, as it reflected how well they were doing their jobs. If behavior wasn't good among the children of a town, it could put their jobs in jeopardy.

It is quite interesting doing this program and looking back on how life in a schoolhouse operated in the past. I’m sure many people have heard stories or can even remember being taught in one-room schoolhouses. 

Would you like to become one of The Elkhart Truth’s community bloggers? Get in touch with our community manager, Ann Elise Taylor, at ataylor@elkharttruth.com with a little information about yourself and what you’d like to blog about.

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