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· Sargent School ·
What image do you conjure up when you think of a one-room schoolhouse? Do you remember reading a novel by Laura Ingalls Wilder? She wrote the Little House on the Prairie series of children’s books based on her experiences as a settler, pioneer family, and teacher.
Or maybe you recall watching the TV series that was based on the “Little House” books where the children received their textbook education in a one-room schoolhouse. The drama was set on the prairie in the 1870s.
In 1900, Kansas had approximately 9,000 one-room public schools. The astounding number was due to the need of having a school within walking distance of the students. By 1945 the number had dropped to 7,200 due in large part to the ease of transportation, the cost savings of larger schools, and the desire for an expanded curriculum. By 1963 and the unification of schools into districts, the state claimed only 427 one-room schools. (http://kansasoneroomschools.blogspot.com/)
My brief examination of the one-room schoolhouse is largely based on the personal memory of a friend of mine, Allen Marshall, age 87. He was a student in Kansas elementary schools from first grade through eighth grade during the years 1936 through 1945.
Five-year-old Allen, the seventh son of his parents, started school in 1936 when his family lived in Lyon County. He was enrolled a year earlier than expected due to a shortage of students at the country school.
School started September 7th and ended April 24th for a total of 158 school days.
Mrs. Violet DeShazer, his first teacher, taught all eight grades at School #52. First grade subjects were the 3 R’s (Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic), Language, Social Studies, and Drawing. “Traits of Pupil” were also graded. They consisted of: Interest, Conduct, Preparation of Lessons, Carefulness, and Health Habits.
The subjects in Allen’s second grade, taught by Bertha Newton, were the following: Social Studies, Language Arts, Arithmetic, Music, and Art.
After a family move to Wabaunsee County, Allen (third grade) and his brother Orval had an unforgettable school year with teacher Art Masters.
From the outside looking in, the parents might have accepted everything as normal. The subjects were standard: the 3 R’s, Spelling, Language, and Music. The traits taught were commendable: Industry (tries hard), Dependability (keeps promises), Self-reliant (initiative), and Co-operation (join with others).
But according to Allen, Mr. Masters “was a kook. For one thing, he was apt to pick up girls and carry them around which wouldn’t work today. He would put ammunition on the wood stove until it went off. He just did crazy things.”
Unable to comprehend why a teacher would put ammunition on a hot stove, I asked Allen: “Was it a scientific experiment?”
“No, just because he was crazy . . . it was just crazy. I saw him hit my brother over the head with a geography book. Art Masters would have been in big trouble in today’s age. I don’t know why he wasn’t turned in.”
Thanks to Allen, my image of hard-working, dedicated, godly educators teaching on the plains of Kansas is forever tarnished. But he assures me that Masters was indeed an oddball who was an exception to the rule of psychological stability in the rural school system.
If Masters had been my teacher, I would have been scared to death to attend school! Unfortunately for Allen and Orval, their family didn’t move until a year later when Allen was in the fourth grade.
In 1939 the Marshall family moved back to Reno County just a few miles away from where Allen was born. Home was a piece of country about two miles west of Sylvia and 1.5 miles south. This was one mile east of the Stafford county line. They lived down a little road from the one-room school called Sargent School, No. 145. It was about a block away. (See map Portion of 1902 Plat of Sylvia Township)
Good thing they lived nearby, because the Marshall family didn’t have transportation—no horse and buggy, and no automobile. Allen’s father, Ray, never drove a car in his life.
The school building was built in 1885 and was named after Mr. Sargent, who donated the land. The first teacher was Mattie Balantyne. She taught for many years for only $20 a month. (Sylvia, Kansas, 1887-1987: Pride in the Past, Faith in the Future)
According to Allen, Sargent School was “just a plain old white school building with a little old coal shed out behind.” Allen remembers that the school’s wood stove was centrally located and that in 7th or 8th grade he was in charge of tending the fire.
The five dollars he was paid each month was considerable since the Marshall family was “on the county, we were so poor.” The Great Depression made the hard times worse.
Just like today, lunch and recess were the few times during the school day that the children got to escape the academic routine. Allen recalls a merry-go-round, slippery slide, tetter totter, and some basketball goals. Everyone brought their lunch.
Allen remembers his teachers at Sargent School as all being women and all nice. There were no discipline problems and no ammunition sitting on a hot stove.
Here is a list of Sargent School’s teachers during Allen’s schooling from 4th through 8th grade:
- Ferne Krey (4th), 1939-40
- Opal Davidson (4th and 5th), 1940-41, 1941-42
- Mrs. Dorene Prior (6th), 1942-43
- Vevea Viola Miller (7th), 1943-44
- Alice Hackler (8th). 1944-45
In fourth grade Allen was seriously ill. His oldest brother Floyd, who was married and out of the house, drove Allen to Turon by car to see Dr. Greeves. Allen was diagnosed with Bright’s (kidney) disease and missed so much school that he had to repeat 4th grade. Dr. Greeves treated Allen and told him that had he waited another week before seeking help, it would have been too late.
Allen recalls that there were usually not more than twelve or thirteen students in his whole school so it wasn’t uncommon to be the only student in a single grade.
He remembers some of the other students. They were Willadean Sowers, Verda Sowers, and Dwight Sowers; Keith Mann and Lorene Mann; and of course his older brother, Orval Marshall.
I asked Allen if the school building was still standing. No, it had been sold and moved away like many a country school house. (Sylvia’s centennial book remarks that the building was moved one mile north where it was used as a barn.)
Allen has sure come a long way. He recalls: “My father went to school ‘till the fifth grade and he was bigger than the teachers. Orval, my older brother, quit school before eighth grade.”
Those were different days when eking out a living was a priority over education.
On April 27, 1945, eighth grade student (5 A’s and 3 B’s) Allen Marshall was promoted to freshman in high school. He was Sargent School’s last graduate. The school closed its doors. (Losing Your Local School) The following year the Marshall family moved to Sylvia where Allen could walk to Sylvia High School.
The last active one-room public school in Kansas was Dermot, in Morton County. It closed in 1990.
Today it’s common for families to privately homeschool their children. (There are 29,744 non-credited private schools listed as “active” in Kansas. Non-Credited Private Schools in Kansas) The pupils often have only one teacher in charge—usually their mother—who may or may not rely on interactive computer-based curriculum.
Unlike the old-time days, this teacher is often responsible for making lunch for her students.
The interest towards homeschooling today, with one person in charge of all grades and all subjects, reminds me of when Allen Marshall was growing up, receiving his education in a one-room schoolhouse.
Which also reminds me of a proverb: “Everything old is new again.”
Until next time, happy writing and reading!