My Little Red School Houses Were White

My Little Red School Houses Were White

Memories of teaching in Portage County Rural schools in the 20’s and 30’s by Ethelyn Wrolstad Aanrud [Family History Number: A2D5-D]
‘ Teacher ‘

The little one-room country schools are now a thing of the past. You could see them throughout Portage County and throughout the state of Wisconsin from the late 1800’s on into the 40’s.

They were all very much alike: a large white sided building with a front porch and a bell tower, three large windows on either side with the flag post and a pump. In the back were two outside toilets and a woodshed. The yard was large enough for a play ground.

Each township had to provide education for their children from the first through 8th grades. The township was divided into school districts. Each had a schoolhouse that was within the two-mile walking distance of the homes.

Each school district was governed by the school board which consisted of the clerk, the director, and treasurer.

The clerk had to hire the teacher, see to it that the schoolhouse was cleaned (usually twice a year) provide wood for the stoves and generally supervise. To get her salary the teacher had to get an order from the clerk, have it countersigned by the director and then issued by the treasurer. Most of the time you had to see these people every month to get your check.

The teacher’s salary was paid from the general property taxes in the township and the funds were then allocated to the school treasurer. Salaries ranged from $75 a month to $115 for an 8 or 9 months term.

The country rural teachers were under the supervision of the county superintendent and two supervising teachers. The beginning teachers were visited the first week of school to check on text books and given advice on teaching methods, discipline and given general help. All teachers were visited at least twice a school term.

Teachers were given written criticisms. These were also sent to the school board. Teachers were hired for a year’s term. Then they had to apply again, Usually, they stayed two years and then applied in another district. There was a continual turnover of teachers.

The Story of a Country School Teacher

The old schoolhouses have been part of this community for over a hundred years. My father and mother attended them as I did and my children. They were part of our lives, not especially interesting but as the old schools have become a thing of the past and are rarely seen anymore “an old school ma’am’ may have a story to tell:

My Education

“Why do you want to teach?” an old professor asked us. There were a variety of answers. Most liked the good wages which teachers were paid during the depression days. I answered that I had always wanted to teach – an answer he seemed good. In the 1920’s you were given a teacher’s certificate to teach in the one room rural schools if you were graduated from a high school and took one year of training in a state normal school or county training school.

I entered classes in the fall of 1925 in the Stevens Point Normal school mostly because it was nearest to my home – about 20 miles, and that I could board with my aunt who lived there. The one year rural people had the attic classrooms in the west wing of Old Main which consisted of one large assembly room and two or three small classrooms. The director was a gray, pleasant, smiling Irishman Prof. Oscar Neale – just a perfect teacher. Two other Irisher’s were with him. Miss Mary Hanna who was a tall, elderly woman who spoke with a slight lisp — also an excellent teacher, and Miss Roach, who was a brown-haired smiling woman with a wonderful gift of story telling. These gave us a glimpse of the 4 r’s which we were to teach and also some down-to-earth advice about problems at school. There were other classes in history, agriculture, art, music, hot lunch, art and gym.

At the spring of the year we were given practical teaching in the Demonstration rooms of Old Main, also in the little Campus Demonstration school in charge of Miss LaVigne, one of those wonderful teachers you never forget, and one week out in a rural school in southern Portage County. Anyway – after that year we were to go out to teach. Pity the poor kids! Scared to death, we went out to apply for jobs and most of us were hired.

The School House

I was hired to teach in the Oak Grove school, a pretty, white-sided school house surrounded by big oak trees on about half an acre of land.  It had, besides the school building, a woodshed and two toilets with wooden screens in front of them -one marked “girls”, the other “boys” (only the Loberg school had Chemical indoor closets) also, “girls”, the other “boys” (only the Loberg school had chemical indoor closets) also, the flag pole and the pump.

As you entered the school house with its double doors, there was an entry with clothes rooms on either side;  Above the clothes hooks were shelves for dinner pails. From the ceiling hung the rope of the school bell. In the large main room there were rows of desks to seat any number from 20 to 38 pupils.

In front of the room was a long recitation bench and the teacher’s desk holding a row of textbooks and perhaps a globe. On either side and across the front walls were slate blackboards with eraser trays underneath.  Above the blackboards were roll-down maps of North and South America, US and Europe. Also Wisconsin.  Three or four large framed pictures were found in every school; “The Angelus”, “Song of the Lark” – ‘Washington” – “Lincoln”. Shelves of library books were either in the back of the room or on side walls – wherever there was an empty space. Also a bulletin board. In the back corner was a sink, an earthen-ware water cooler with a bubbler – a sanitary item which replaced the water pail and common dipper. Some schools had the dinner bucket shelves on the inside. The windows had short, white curtains and shades.  The room was heated by large sheet iron covered stoves or furnaces.

A School Day

It began about 7:30 and you’d go into the cold school room. The fire had to be started in the big wood stove. You’d empty  the wastepaper basket into it, add some split kindling and chunks of wood and listen to it roar. Usually the room was warm by 9 O’clock.

It was time to write assignments on the black boards and plan the classes for the day. The eight grades had to be taught reading, writing, arithmetic, language, geography, history, civics, art, spelling and music. You began with music after ringing the bell at 9 ‘clock and everyone had settled down.

The “Golden Song Books” were used.  Also songs from the Churchill-Grendal books were s taught. They learned the Stephen Foster song – the patriotic song, nursery songs, and many others. I played the piano. Some schools had the “music appreciation records” and used the phonograph.

In every rural school the same routine of classes could be found as the teachers followed a manual prepared by the Wisconsin Education Department which contained the order of classes, material to be covered in each class for the year.

The text books were fairly good. The children learned to read from the “Dick and Jane” books, the Elson Readers and others. Most knew how to read well by the time they were through the 8th grade.

Each class was from 10 to 15 minutes in length. There were two recess periods and an hour at noon – they were dismissed at 4. So the teacher taught, gave help, and scolded through the last minutes of the day. After helping to put on overshoes, hunting for lost mittens and saying “good night” there came a time to just sit and perhaps cry.

After school

The day still wasn’t over. There was housekeeping to be done. >From a large tin can in the entry, a handful of green oily sawdust was sprinkled on the floor in front of the black boards to be swept down the aisles – paper was picked up and put into the wastebasket in preparation for the morning fire.  Sometimes I had paid some big girl to do sweeping for me at 10 cents an evening. In one or two schools I paid someone to fire-up for me. In the winter the water cooler had to be emptied for fear it might freeze to pieces. That happened to me at Pioneer and I had to replace it. Also the blackboards had to be washed and some assignments written for the next day.

When the room looked tidy, it was time to correct papers, a never ending chore. In the late fall it meant sitting by lamp light as it usually was pitch dark by 4:30. It was sort of an eerie feeling being alone in the dark, quiet room with light shadows on the wall reflecting unusual patterns. Maybe a mouse scampered across the room.

In those days few cars ever passed the school house so I was never  frightened except for one time.  I heard the sound of fumbling hands on the outside door knob and soon an old man walked in, red eyed and dirty looking. He had been walking home after visiting his son up the road and having seen the light in the school house, wondered if the teacher had forgotten to put out the lamp.

When I realized who he was, I asked if he wanted a ride home -he did- so I put my work away and gave him a ride about a mile down the road. He spoke in Norwegian and he soon learned who my folks were, where I lived and who I was related to.

I drove on home –  I lived at home most of my teaching days driving the good Model T Fords about six or eight miles.

The Socials

One of the things we were expected to do in the fall was to prepare for the school “social”. The school budget was usually very tight so there was no money for extra things a teacher might want. To raise money she put on a “social” – there were several kinds: “Basket” socials, “pie” socials” or “shadow” socials were the common ones. Usually there was a program or one act play. Extra lunch was served too. After the lunch was over, the seats were pushed aside and we’d play singing folk games: “Somebody’s Waiting” – “The Needles Eye” – “London Bridge” – “The Farmer in the Dell” and others. Once in awhile there was square dancing but only if a fiddler was available

In the Peru School, enough money was made to have a swing and a teeter-totter purchased.


The three weeks before Christmas were spent in preparing for the Christmas program. It meant finding material from the “normal  Instructor” or recitation books. Every child wanted to take part. Some spoke “pieces”, others had parts in dialogues (little plays). Many Christmas songs were learned. There were drills, acrostics and rhythm band music.

A large Christmas tree was put up the last week before the program. In Peru, the big boys were allowed to go into the woods to chop down a balsam tree, haul it to school and set it up. The big girls would then decorate it with trimmings from home or paper chains, lanterns or knotted crimson crepe paper. It was Pretty!

The program was usually given the Friday evening before Christmas vacation.  The teacher came early to light the lames.  Sometimes a gas lantern was borrowed. When the parents had arrived and it was tine to begin, the teacher welcomed the visitors and announced each number of the program. Usually, it was well done and much enjoyed.  When it was time for Santa Claus to come, to make sure every child received a gift, it was the custom to exchange names and bring a present to the person whose name you received. The teacher always provided bags of candy and peanuts and apples for each pupil. She usually received a gift from the pupils.  So the people slowly left the school house. A few stayed to help the teacher pick up wrapping papers and peanut shells.  It was a good feeling that the evening was over and everything had worked out well.

Then home to enjoy two weeks of being able to sleep late and enjoy the Christmas vacation.

Valentines Day

After Christmas the pupils loved to prepare for Valentine’s Day. A pretty box with a slotted cover was decorated with white paper and red hearts and placed near the library. The children colored paper hearts and Valentines to their hearts content and placed them in this box. By Valentine’s Day this box was almost full.

The last hour of this day was set aside for the opening and distributing of Valentines. Each pupil usually had a pretty boughten one for the teacher. She had some for them, too, and a special treat. The most popular boy usually received the most valentines.

Towards the end of my teaching days there was more money to spend so less and less of the Valentines were hand made. I missed them. I have a box of Valentines that have become collector’s items. Its nice to have a day when one can say “I love you” in such a lovely way.

Winter days and on into spring

After Valentine’s Day there was a let-down. It was much harder to find things to do. The weather usually was very cold. Pupils were often sick and had to stay home from school. It was easier when the days got warmer and everyone could go ‘out to play’ and then be tired enough  to settle down to school work after the bell rang.

Spring brought singing and declamation contests. Each school took part in a township contest.  The winners there took part in the final one held in the Stevens Point Normal Auditorium. I had several county winners ‘Epaminonds’ and ‘Little Black Sambo’ a singing group from the Loberg school won a trophy and the traveling cup.

In late spring the 8th graders had to prepare for graduation by taking final tests centers such as Rosholt or Nelsonville.  By passing these tests and by completing their special credit work, they received their 8th grade diploma on graduation day in Stevens Point held in the Auditorium of the State Normal School. This was a very special day. Most of the 8th graders went on to high school.

The Last Day

After nine months both the teacher and the pupils were glad when the last day came around. The mother came to watch a program, help with the lunch and then helped gather up the school papers and books, then to say good-bye to the teacher. Thankfully the teacher put the textbooks away in their cupboards – she picked up her own materials, took one more look around the room and locked the door.

An Afterthought

You might ask if the pupils got a good education in these small one-room rural schools. Could they compete with the Village schools? I think they did. What one teacher lacked, the next one made up for. Most teachers stayed in one school for two years to be replaced by someone else. I’m sure the pupils I taught learned more about music and art than they did from other teachers. Perhaps I couldn’t teach fractions, but those who went on to high school seemed to do as well as those in the Village graded schools.

One wonders about the influence for good you may have had. Now, 40 years later I meet them; the teachers, nurses, or housewives. One girl became a missionary to Colombia. One man taught music in a Japanese concentration camp and later directed the band at West Point. Several were in World War II and were cited for unusual bravery. One died. You meet the fine farmers, mechanics, carpenters and their fine families.

Its hard to describe the warm feeling you get when they meet you and say, “you were “you were my teacher” or “I remember how strict you were.” “I got a hundred in Spelling every day for you.”  “You taught me to play the piano”. “You told me to go on to high school”. My sister said I was fair.

Now, those little schoolhouses are gone. They are torn down or made into homes. The Garfield school is a museum in the Rosholt Fair Grounds.

Parents wanted something better for their children so the districts were consolidated and school buses are used to transport them to bigger schools where there are more advantages.But – let me say this – I know those schools produced as fine a group of citizens as you’ll find anywhere today! 

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