Following the Homestead Act of 1862, one-room schools were quickly built to keep up with the new communities and farms spread out across Kansas. The number of schools being built during the first twenty years of statehood reflected the growth of our great state.
At the peak of growth up to 9,000 schoolhouses were stretched across the plains. The post-war baby boom called for a construction of larger schools and in 1945, the number of one-room schools dropped to 7,200. By 1963, the Kansas Legislature unified rural schools into districts. Then, there were only 427 one-room schools, mostly in eastern Kansas. Due to the declining number of farms and students, the increasing use of automobiles, and school unification, one-room schools are no longer used in Kansas.
An example of a one-room schoolhouse is the Green Elm School, District 41 built in the 1870's in southeast Kansas. It was in the southwest corner of Crawford County, seven miles north and one mile west of McCune, Kansas. The school held classes between 1872-1955 and employed sixty-six different teachers. The school's name was based upon an elm tree located near the school. The school was also used as a church until October 1910. The organization of the United Chapel Church first began meeting and worship services in the Green Elm school house in 1883.
Many of the teachers were only a year or two older than the students and their first teaching contracts lasted only three months. They were boarded at area homes during their contracts. One teacher had the responsibility of teaching all the students, ranging from first grade to eighth grade.
The school was heated by a large coal stove, to which the teacher and larger boys hauled coal from the coal shed south of the school. The teacher also carried a bucket of water from a nearby well inside the schoolhouse, from which everyone drank with a cup or dipper. Within the school, there was always a water pail and dipper to keep one's cool during the hot summer months. Nearly all the students walked to school on dirt roads, as none were paved or covered with crushed rock. The students enjoyed two recesses and a noon play time on a big slide and swings.
The rules of conduct for teachers also varied greatly by circumstance. Here is a list of rules from 1872 from Raymond Bial, One-Room School (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999).
Teachers each day will fill lamps, clean chimneys.
Each teacher will bring a bucket of water and a scuttle of coal for the day’s session.
Men teachers may take one evening each week for courting purposes, or two evenings a week if they go to church.
After ten hours in school, the teachers may spend the remaining time reading the Bible or other good books.
Women teachers who marry or engage in unseemly conduct will be dismissed.
Every good teacher should lay aside from each pay a goodly sum of his earnings for his benefit during his declining years so that he will not be a burden on society.
Any teacher who smokes uses liquor in any form frequents pool or public halls, or gets shaved in a barber shop will give good reason to suspect his worth, intention, integrity, and honesty.
The teacher who performs his labor faithfully and without fault for five years will be given an increase of twenty-five cents per week in his pay, providing the Board of Education approves.
Did you know the first schoolhouse in Pittsburg was built in 1877 and later became the citys first hospital in 1894? The two-story schoolhouse, with just one room upstairs and one room downstairs, was located on the West side of Walnut between 5th and 6th Street. As Pittsburg grew, so did the need for a larger schoolhouse. The two-story schoolhouse moved to 3rd and Walnut becoming the first city hospital and Central School was built on the previous lot. The first schoolhouse/city hospital was torn down in 1934.
The one-room schoolhouse serves to remind us of our past and continues to remind us of our teachers dedication to education, both past and present. The Green Elm schoolhouse was moved to the George E. Nettles Elementary School playground in Pittsburg, in 1976. It was later moved to the museum in March 1981. The one-room schoolhouse is an important addition to the Crawford County Historical Museum and is enjoyed by numerous visitors, especially students on Kansas Day, who are given a unique experience of school days gone by.
Remember, history is fun!
— Amanda Minton is the director of the Crawford County Historical Museum, as well as a lecturer of history at Pittsburg State University.