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Memories Of An Old Country School


Daniel Ohmann


Not many years ago one could travel throughout Minnesota and see numerous rural schools in session. Now, they have become as scarce as the loon and the moccasin flower.

With the Homestead Act of 1862, settlers established claims for lands in every part of our state, until the countryside was sprinkled with pioneer homes.

One of the first things Red River Valley settlers had to think about was the education of their children.

Often families volunteered to have pupils come to their homes and mothers or fathers would teach them as much as they could. Often the extent of their knowledge in math wasn't past the 4th grade.

Communities in the valley grew, and so the settlers would soon decide to organize a school district and would elect a school board of 3 members to supervise school work.

The work of erecting a school was done by volunteers. The first schools were of logs but later when sawmills started and lumber became available, frames for schools were constructed.

The building was usually a one room affair about 16 feet by 13 feet. As years went by though, some schools built a small entrance to the door. There was room here for wood logs and nails to hand coat son.

A schoolroom this size could hold three rows of double desks. Two or three children sat in each desk to share books so the district wouldn’t have so much expense.

Up to 60 pupils enrolled in some schools and so few as2 or 3 in others. The more pupils in a school, the more state aid a district could claim. But, there was one hitch in this program - a pupil had to attend school at least 40 days during the school term, to be eligible for the state money.

Children set their lunch pails under a pot-bellied stove during the winter to keep them from freezing. When the pails were opened at noon, what an aroma spread across the room! Crackers and cheese, sour bread dough, gamma last, or perhaps the smell of a meat sandwich or a precious drumstick. But many youngsters opened their lunch to find a lard, syrup, or molasses sandwich, as butter was at a premium during these winter months when the cow was dry.

In addition to the stove, the room was furnished with a desk for the teacher, some board shelves for the few library books, two or three blackboards with shiny black paint that chipped with use, and a rolled up map of the world over the blackboard.

At one corner of the room was a homemade stand for the water pail which was generally empty. Bigger boys were often sent to the nearest neighbor to bring back the water supply. Dippers were in common use for many years - until people became germ conscious after a serious outbreak of diphtheria. Then the school board installed water coolers with faucets and children had to bring their own collapsible drinking cups.

The teachers were often young, many had just completed the 8th grade. They became qualified to teach after a two week session at a summer school in the Valley. Wages ranged from $25 to $30 a month.$12 to $15 of this went to the family who boarded the teacher. Often she stayed a few miles from the school. In winter, the teachers trudged through drifted snow to be at the school by 8:00 to get the stove started before the children arrived. The rooms were not usually insulated against the notorious Red River Valley winds, so it took a long time to get them comfortable. Children marched around the room or did active jumping exercises to get warmed up before classes were started. Sometimes this didn't work, however, many children suffered painful chilblains in the cold rooms.

Teacher and children enjoyed the recesses and noon hour playing outdoors. Some popular games were Fox and Geese, Red Line, Anti-I-Over, Tag, Pump-Pump-Pullaway, Drop the Handkerchief, Baseball, and sliding on patches of ice.

With a minimum of supplies, the teacher made her own flashcards and phonics cards.

With the close of the school day, the teacher's work was not ended. There were blackboards to wash, the floor to sweep, assignments to write on the blackboard and preparations to make for the next days’ classes.

People may wonder how children could learn anything in a 10 minute class period. Perhaps children, then, retained more from watching other classes recite than from their own assignments. There was a constant reminder of the previous year's work, as the younger classes learned what the student learned in his last grade.

With all the advantages and disadvantages, children of the one room rural schools did learn their 3 R's - Readin', Ritin' and Rithmatic'- and to such an extent that they grew into adulthood and put their knowledge to use in a way that made the Red River Valley what it is today, a center of agriculture and industry.

The old country school might be gone, but it surely isn’t forgotten in the annals of Red River Valley history.


Bratlien, Charlotte, Humboldt, MN, Interview, January 14,1974

Footsteps in Education 1894-1970, A History of Roseau County Rural Schools

Hylland, Mrs. Martin, Badger, MN, Interview, January 4,1974

al Schools

Hylland, Mrs. Martin, Badger, MN, Interview, January 4,1974