October/november 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 6
Often for good and sufficient reasons, the American West of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is perceived as a Dionysian mix of careless enthusiasm, greed, violence, and irresponsibility—its icon the lone cowboy on horseback, its principal institution the swinging-door saloon, its communities slipshod arrangements of dirt streets and false fronts, occasionally disturbed by the sound of gunfire.
This perception, for all the germ of truth that lies behind it, obscures something else about the West—the strain of ironclad respectability that infested any town that survived long enough to acquire a family population. Which is to say, wives and mothers. The most visible expressions of this respectability were churches and schools. Especially the schools. A woman would put up with a great many things on the frontier: she would endure isolation; she would work herself in the house and in the fields until exhaustion drove her to a premature old age and an early death; she would survive the primitive amenities and masculine excesses of a rowdy little industrial mining city or a dusty cowtown. But she would not let her children go uneducated.
So, the country schoolhouse. Most were not much to look at. Few had more than one room and many would fit the description given by Curtis Harnack of the Kansas schoolhouse of his youth: “Because each year was expected to be the last, the schoolhouse had slipped into disrepair and listed to one side over its foundation of cracked limestone. The building was about the size of our corn-crib, large and peeling-white, with sparrows’ nests straggling from the eaves.… When a high gale blew off the flat cornfields, the loose shingles fluttered and snapped like the flag we ceremoniously raised aloft each morning.” The pupils crowded into such schools ranged tremendously in age. In one room there might be five- and six-year-olds painfully studying their first McGuffey reader next to a twentyyear-old studying—often with equal pain—his last. Scholastic standards were not high.
They could not have been. The salaries offered to both men and women teachers were grotesque, anywhere from $180 to $600 a year, and the rules and regulations laid down by local school boards frequently were oppressive, particularly for women. “Women teachers are not to keep company with men,” the school board of Mount Harris, Colorado, proclaimed as late as 1927, “and agree to be home between the hours of 8 P.M. and 6 A.M. … Women teachers agree not to get married. This contract becomes null and void immediately if a woman teacher marries. … Women teachers are to dress and conduct themselves in a puritanical manner as follows: Not to dress in bright colors, not to dye her hair, to wear at least two petticoats, not to wear dresses more than two inches above the ankle, not to use face powder, mascara, or paint the lips.” Under the circumstances, teachers, male or female, painted or unpainted, were hard to come by, and a school board was more often than not willing to hire anyone who could demonstrate learning a cut or two above that of the students to be taught—and the toughness necessary to keep a roomful of them in line. “We got discipline of the kind that teaches to do it now and don’t ask foolish questions,” Henry Seidel Canby wrote of his own one-room education. “We got reading and reciting; and for the rest of the time were inflated with the rapidly multiplying volume of things to know which was to leave most of us with cluttered minds and weakened judgment.”
However imperfect, such corncrib schooling was the only education millions of children ever received, and if it fell below brilliance, it at least rose above outright ignorance. There were at the turn of the century an estimated two hundred thousand one-room schools in this country. Today there are only a little over one thousand of them still functioning, and in a generation or two there probably will be none. They have become cultural artifacts, and if it is not possible—or even particularly desirable—to preserve the experience they represented, it is possible to keep its memory intact as an important part of the American story.
That, at least, is the goal of a project now under way in eight of the Western states: “Country School Legacy: Humanities on the Frontier.” The eighteen-month project—scheduled to conclude in 1982—has been funded by a $275,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and is sponsored by the Mountain Plains Library Association, which serves Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming. Project Director Andrew GuOiford has outlined some of the questions for which it seeks answers: “What were the ‘basics’ as taught in country schools? How were values important in education and how was discipline handled? How did teachers cope with a classroom full of students all at different age levels and with different ethnic backgrounds?”
To do the job, twenty-three researchers in the eight states have been gathering oral histories, reminiscences, articles, books, photographs, and other documents relating to the countryschool experience.
Among the most remarkable finds is an unpublished manuscript—written in Norwegian—by O. E. Rölvaag, author of Giants in the Earth and himself a country-school teacher. Such materials will be deposited in various state archives for the use of researchers. As well, seminars on the subject began last summer in the first of 240 libraries and historical societies across the West. The seminars include a twenty-fiveminute film and a small traveling exhibit of photographs.
This is the stuff of which what Ray Alien Billington called “history from the bottom up” is made. It demonstrates, among other things, that even under the most abysmal circumstances, the people of the frontier were determined to heed the dictum of Euripides twenty-five hundred years ago: “Whoso neglects learning in his youth/Loses the past and is dead for the future.”