Jane Porter: One Room School Houses

A former teacher, I come from a long line of passionate educators. My father was a history and political science professor. My brother Thom is a business professor at UNC Wilmington, and my great grandfather was a professor of refrigeration engineering at Purdue University.

With teaching in my blood, it’s a given that I’ll write a story or two about teachers (Kit Brennan in The Good Daughter teaches English at a Catholic High School in Oakland, California and Jesslyn from The Sheikh’s Chosen Queen teaches at an international school in the UAE), I’ve never written about a teacher in a one room school house…until now.

My new story, The Lost Sheenan’s Bride, which releases on Friday, July 8th, is about a young teacher taking a long-term substitute job at one-room schoolhouse in Montana. The story wasn’t about the one-room school, but you wouldn’t know it from my research. I’m fascinated by Montana history, and in particular the intrepid women who first settled there.

Some facts from http://montanawomenshistory.org:

  • It’s estimated that up to 18 percent of homesteaders in Montana were unmarried women.
  • Passage of the Homestead Act of 1862 allowed any twenty-one-year-old head of household the right to homestead federal land. Single, widowed, and divorced women fit this description, and they crossed the country to file homestead claims of 160 acres.

Many of the homesteading women in Montana also became the state’s first teachers. Because of the Homestead Act of 1862, one-room schoolhouses were built all over the state.   Historians estimate that there were once 2,600 rural schools in Montana, and those rural schools served a multitude of purposes for each community, from education to social gatherings. In America today, there are still 200 operational one-room schoolhouses, with 62 of them located in Montana.

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The one room school house in Paradise Valley that inspired my story (photo courtesy Megan Crane )

Last month in early June I returned to Montana for eight days, and on my flight from Seattle to Kalispell I sat next to a woman who worked for the Swan Valley school district which still has an operational one-room school in the town of Salmon Prairie. The woman, a school clerk, loves the one-room school in Salmon Prairie and told me about the exceptional quality of education the children receive, the time teacher is able to devote with his students, the ability to individualize lessons and even better, the opportunity for a teacher to truly teach Montana—morning nature walks, visits to local parks (Glacier National Forest, Yellowstone, etc). The teacher doesn’t just teach math and reading, but hunts and fishes with his students and embraces what it means to be a Montanan. (Here is a story on the school in Salmon Prairie! Photographers document Montana’s disappearing one-room schools)

I was able to work a little of that fascinating conversation into my story, but its impossible to convey the history for Montana’s one-room schools in a 50,000 word contemporary romance, but I’ll try to share a bit more here with you since I know you’re all history and western buffs, too.

In 2013, The National Trust for Historic Preservation added Montana’s one-room schoolhouses to their list of the Nation’s 11 Most Endangered Historical Places.

Today at Montana’s Divide School, built in 1870, teacher Judy Boyle functions as teacher, principal, and guidance counselor. Grades K-8 are taught in the same room to as many as eight students. This year she had 3 students, and as there are no janitors, it is part of the kids’ responsibility to help clean the school daily.

As an American Studies major at UCLA, I focused on Frontier literature with my senior thesis on Mark Twain, and you can’t immerse yourself in Frontier lit without understanding the significance of the one-room schoolhouse scattered across vast prairies and in the snug valleys nestled between the Rockies. The schools represented hope and opportunity, and education was a big part of that opportunity. Homesteaders and miners, ranchers and railroad workers wanted their children to succeed, and the best way to succeed was by getting an education, and the sheer number of the schools still standing today are a reminder of the commitment Montanans made to their children.

Another historic school house in Paradise Valley, this one still in operation.

Many of us grew up with Little House on the Prairie, or are fans of Hallmark’s popular series, When Calls the Heart, so we can picture the one room school. There was very little variation from one school to another:

  • Teachers were typically male. If the teacher was a woman, she had to be single. Married teachers were not allowed.
  • Frequently, families in the rural towns would take turns boarding the teacher, with every family contributing towards the teacher’s salary.
  • Schoolhouses had only a few windows and one door. Bigger schools might have two doors for separate entrances for the boys and girls.
  • The teacher’s desk was located at the front of the room and the teacher wrote the lessons on a large slate board, much like chalkboards or white boards in classrooms today.
  • There was no bathroom or running water. Students used an outhouse.
  • The children sat at narrow wooden desks and/or on long wooden benches, with boys sat on one side and the girls on the other.
  • Schoolhouses were heated by one stove with the older students responsible for keeping the fire going.

One of my favorite books I bought in Montana several years ago, that probably also helped inspire my new story was Visions and Voices: Montana’s One-Room Schoolhouses. The pictures are worth the price of the book alone, but there are also wonderful quotes and stories from former students who were educated in these schools.

Visions and Voices: Montana’s One-Room Schoolhouses
by Charlotte Caldwell
Link: http://amzn.com/0985497106


Three other favorites books from my shelves on Montana and women homesteaders:

Nothing to Tell: Extraordinary Stories of Montana Ranch Women
by Donna Gray
Link: http://amzn.com/0762779098

Montana Women Homesteaders: A Field of One’s Own
by Sarah Carter
Link: http://amzn.com/1560374497

Staking Her Claim: Women Homesteading the West
by Marcia Meredith Hensley
Link: http://amzn.com/0931271908

To celebrate the release of my new book, The Lost Sheenan’s Bride, featuring Jet Diekerhof, the teacher of a one-room schoolhouse in Paradise Valley, Montana, I’m giving away a signed print copy of the book, plus lots of fun reader swag. Interested? Tell me if you think you would have enjoyed attending school at a one-room school. One comment will be drawn and the winner will be announced on Wednesday, July 13th so do check back and see if that was you!

Look for The Sheenans’s Lost Bride at these online retailers:
Amazon | iBooks | Amazon UK


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24 thoughts on “Jane Porter: One Room School Houses”

  1. Great blog, Loved all the information. I actually had 2nd cousins that 30 yrs ago attended a one room schoolhouse in Southern Indiana. Looking forward to reading your latest release. (I already have my copy pre-ordered, so do not include me in the drawing.)

  2. Loved your post! To be honest, I don’t think I would have liked being in a one room schoolhouse. My mom grew up in Humansville, Missouri until the age of 12 she went to a one room schoolhouse. When she was getting close to 13 they moved to Henderson, Nevada and went to a regular school. I think she liked being in a classroom of her same grade because she learned more.

    Cindy W.

  3. I think the children would have had a better learning experience attending a one room schoolhouse. I believe the teachers would be more committed to their jobs and a child who struggled with something would get better attention and helped through the subjects. I believe if I had gone to a school like this instead of a big one where I was pretty much overlooked when I had troubles, I might have actually learned more and stayed in school.

  4. Wonderful post, Jane. I can vouch for the quality of education coming out one-room school houses–at least the one my dad went to. He’s one smart man. My great grandfather donated the land (In Illinois) and the neighbors all donated materials and helped build the schoolhouse. It still stands on the corner of the farm property, but it was turned into a regular house about thirty years ago. I’ve heard lots of great stories from my dad about that school and his adventures. He wasn’t exactly a “model” student. He played a few interesting pranks on the other kids–and had a few played on him.

  5. I am sure there would have been many advantages of having gone to a one-room school house, but with having four brother’s being with them 24/7 would have driven me to distraction. No I am glad I went to a big school…

  6. Love the history you shared. Both of my parents attended one-room schools in the 40s&50s: Dad in Tennessee, Mom in Lancaster County, PA. My mom has a desk from her school which was converted to a home in the early 80s. The Amish still have one-room schools.

    I find them fascinating, but I’m glad to have attended a traditional k-12 system in buildings with plumbing, no a/c though.

  7. I attended a 2 room school through 8th grade, so I know I would have enjoyed a one room school.

  8. It would be an interesting way to learn… Where I grew up we had a one room school house that was turned into a museum… it was something to see!

  9. I never could understand why the women couldn’t be married. When I first started school the majority of the teachers were single women. Eventually it changed thank goodness.

  10. Hi Jane, what a terrific and informative post. Thanks for the reference books, too. I know I’ll be checking back here. As a high school teacher whose classes left every fifty minutes, I doubt I’d like teaching on a one room school. There was usually one kid (only one, funny!) that I was glad to see leave lol.

  11. My mother was taught in a one room schoolhouse before she moved to a big city. It was a great education.

  12. I enjoyed this informative and fascinating post. Very nostalgic and special. I knew family who were educated in a one room school.

  13. My sisters and brother were taught in a one room schoolhouse.I am looking forward to reading The Lost Sheenan’s Bride by Jane Porter.Thank you for the opportunity to win. I enjoy reading your books.Have a wonderful week.

  14. I am a former teacher and I loved that you shared this post. One room school houses are fascinating to me and I visit any one I come in contact with.

  15. I honestly don’t know how much I would have enjoyed it — in part because I’m not at all fond of snow and would rather not experience a long snowy winter. 😉

    I do know a young man who attended a one room school in Montana until his mother moved them to Florida midway through his high school years. He says it was major culture shock.

  16. This was a wonderful blog Jane. I don’t know if I would have liked attending a one-school school house or not. I can say that I’ve dreamt about teaching in one, but I became a secondary licensed teacher (in Math & Science). For that reason it wouldn’t have worked. However, I do like to find them when my hubby & I visit places where one exists. There’s an old two-room schoolhouse in Bodie Ghost Town near Yosemite in California. It’s really neat to look through the windows to see it displayed. Here are two links to read about it. http://www.neverendingvoyage.com/bodie-ghost-town-california/ and http://www.desertusa.com/bodie/bodie.html We really enjoyed our visit there.

  17. I would have loved to be a student or teacher in a one room schoolhouse. The opportunity to individualize lessons for you students is something teachers in regular schools seldom have the luxury of doing. Being able to be flexible and to extra and special activities would be heaven.
    Most people think of the West when they hear about one room schoolhouses. They were found throughout the country early on. My sister lives in a remodeled one room schoolhouse in Northeast New York. It was where the children went up until at least the late 1800’s and probably into the early 1900’s.

  18. i think i would have liked to have spent k-5 in a one room schoolhouse. from 6th to 12th i would rather be in a traditional school system because of the socialization aspect.

  19. I think it would been fun to be taught in a one room school house because not only would you have learned from the teacher but you would of been helping the younger students too.

  20. Really enjoyed reading your article. I grew up in Colorado in a very small community that was far from a town. There were about 8 children who attended the one room schoolhouse. I remember having to go outside to the outhouse-I was always afraid there would be a snake in it. I was in the first grade and there was a 5th grade girl that rode her horse everyday from about 10 miles away on a different ranch. There was a shed like place where her horse stayed and she went out at lunch to feed it some hay.
    There was a big black cast-iron stove to keep us warm. I was envious that the 8th grade boys got to go out and bring in the wood.
    For playground equipment there was a tire swing. For lunch it was pretty much peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a couple of homemade cookies.
    The last time I went home, I saw that the school house was still there. I think they have refurbished it and it serves as a community center.

  21. Yes, I think I would have enjoyed learning in a one room schoolhouse. I always do better with a smaller group – easier for me to join in the discussion. I think the Salmon Prairie school sounds wonderful. I’ve always said I couldn’t be a teacher, but really I could, if it was with a smaller group of children. It’s the big groups that shut me down.

    Thanks for an interesting post and your book sounds great too.

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