Early Iowans believed that everyone needed some education. Children needed to learn how to read and to write. Adults needed enough arithmetic to solve daily problems like keeping records of money spent or earned, paying taxes or measuring land. Early schools taught these basic skills to both boys and girls.
The Very First School
The first schoolhouse in Iowa was built in 1830 in Lee County. Lee County is the southeastern tip of Iowa. In fact it was illegal to be in Iowa at that time. However, a few settlers had settled on the west side of the Mississippi River. The schoolhouse was a log cabin. Berryman Jennings was the first teacher. Berryman wanted to become a doctor. Dr. Isacc Galland hired Berryman to teach school. He allowed Berryman to read the doctor’s medical books before and after school. Most doctors learned medicine by studying with experienced doctors rather than by going to medical school.
One-room schools sprang up in rural areas all over the state. Parents wanted schoolhouses close to their homes so students could get to school and back easily. Students often walked. Sometimes they rode a horse or came in a buggy. Teachers lived with a nearby farm family and sometimes moved from house to house through the school year.
Iowa’s first teachers were usually men. During the Civil War, however, men were needed for the army, and women began replacing them in the classroom. After the war, women continued to teach because it was one of the few jobs open to them. Because pay for teachers was so low, many teachers taught only for a year or two. Women often taught school until they were married. When they had their own homes and families, they did not return to teaching.
A Simpler Time
Early schools were simple buildings. Often the desks were built of logs. Blackboards were just that—boards painted black. Students wrote on them with pieces of soft limestone and erased them with sheepskin. They used whatever books were available. Families sent whatever books they had to school. When one child completed a book, it was given to a younger child. Many young children on the frontier learned to read out of the Bible when textbooks were scarce.
The school year was often divided into three parts—fall, winter and spring. Sometimes there was a different teacher for each part. A local school board hired the teacher and made sure the schoolhouse was in good repair. Residents of the school district elected the school board members. Because most families had children who attended the school, they were interested in providing a good school.
The teacher was in charge of daily chores. An older boy often carried in water from an outside pump. Sometimes all the students and the teacher drank from the same cup. In the winter the teacher often arrived early to start a fire in the stove to heat the schoolroom. Students sitting close to the stove were often too hot, but those far away were cold. Students could heat up their noon lunch on the stove. In the winter they dried their woolen mittens by hanging them up toward the heat. Restrooms were outside in an outhouse. Often there was one for the boys and a separate one for the girls.
Less Time in School for Boys
Older children, especially the boys, were needed to work on the farm in spring and fall. Sometimes they could attend school only in the winter. Because they spent less time in school, older boys sometimes had the same lessons as younger children. Classes covered reading, penmanship (writing), spelling, geography and arithmetic. Sometimes students also learned how to give talks or to recite poetry in public. These classes were called elocution and included how to stand tall and use the voice effectively. Public speaking was important.
Spelling Bees Were Big Events
Most of the learning involved memorization. Education in early times meant knowing facts and how to use them. Students memorized poems and tables of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. They learned the capitals of nations and of states. One teacher made her students learn the names and county seats of all 99 counties in Iowa. A popular event was the spelling bee. Students lined up along the wall. The teacher gave the student at the head of the line a word to spell. If he or she spelled it correctly, the student remained standing. If not, the student sat down. The teacher continued giving words until only one student was still standing. That student was the winner.
Sometimes the spelling bee was at the end of the year and the families of students came to watch. Families also came to hear students recite poems or give speeches. Some schools presented Christmas plays. On election day, the schoolhouse might be used as a place to vote. The school was the center of many neighborhood activities.
Most one-room schools divided the day into many short periods. To keep students busy, the teacher made assignments and then called students to her desk to recite what they had learned. While a few students recited, others continued to work on their own. For example, a teacher might call up the third grade geography students for 15 minutes. She would ask them questions about their assignment. When they were finished, she would give them their next assignment and send them back to their desks to learn it. Then she would call up the fifth grade arithmetic students. This went on all day. At their desks students read their books or worked problems with chalk on slates. To make sure they were really working, some teachers made students read aloud to themselves. With many students reading aloud, the schoolroom could be a noisy place!
Few High Schools
Before World War I, there were not many high schools in the state. Most students took classes only in one-room schools and then stopped. Those who wanted to continue took an examination to see if they were ready for high school. The test was often given in the county seat and took a full day. Country students who had had good teachers and had studied hard often did very well on the test.
The country schools did their work well. Most Iowans learned how to read and write. In fact, Iowa led the nation in the percentage in literacy. Iowa has always been proud of its schools.
Written for Iowa Pathways by Tom Morain.