Life at a One-Room Schoolhouse

01 August 2008
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Published in History
One-room schoolhouses were once scattered across the McHenry County landscape. Few remain today, silent now for decades, yet they evoke memories of simpler times and a certain nostalgia for our county's rural past.

Neither Tardy nor Absent

Nellie Doherty was a star pupil at Holcombville School. She earned a certificate of commendation at the end of the 1910 school year for her outstanding record of being "neither tardy nor absent" for six straight months. In 1919, Nellie returned as Miss Doherty to teach at this same one-room schoolhouse.

A typical day found her taking attendance, leading local farm boys and girls in reciting scripture, in doing their "sums" upon the blackboard and in perfecting their penmanship upon their writing slates. Perhaps, on a frigid December morning, teacher and students huddled around the warmth of a potbelly stove reading from the pages of Louisa May Alcott’s "Little Women" or another popular title of classic American fiction.

Miss Doherty was, of course, the only teacher at Holcombville School that year. She governed a classroom of up to 25 first through eighth graders. The school year went from early September through May, the school day from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Every lesson, students later recalled, was "designed to build moral character."

The contract between School District 43 and Miss Doherty stipulated that she duly perform her tasks at Holcombville School, including "all janitorial work," for a sum of $72 per month. A few years later, her brother, Neill Doherty, assumed teaching duties at Holcombville.

"Teaching as an occupation did seem to run in certain families," said Bob Frenz, author of the new book "Historic Country Schools of McHenry County, Illinois." "A number of Knox girls taught in the Crystal Lake-McHenry area. Generations of Wilson girls taught in the Marengo area. And, in the 19th Century, a good number of teachers were male. I think this had a lot to do with the peculiarities of the winter term, when primarily farm boys [freed by the season from doing farm work] attended school."

Most teachers, lured by substantially higher pay to the town schools, did not stay at the rural schoolhouses longer than a year or two.

A Simple Red Brick Structure

Holcombville School was already 60 years old when Nellie Doherty returned there to teach. The simple red brick structure was named for one of the area’s first settlers, Colonel Holcombe, whose farmstead was located nearby. This "modern" schoolhouse was built in 1858, after a wood-and-plank-roofed structure had operated in the vicinity for 20 years.

By 1877, more than 100 one-room schools were scattered across McHenry County’s rural landscape. Most farm children lived within two miles of one. In the early days, the family with the most school-aged children, by virtue of mere numbers, often had the luxury of a schoolhouse being located on their property. When those children were grown, the schoolhouse (not yet made of brick) was simply lifted and moved to another farmer’s property, nearly always at a crossroads.

The typical one-room schoolhouse, even in later decades, was scarcely equipped by today’s standards. Furnishing ranged from crude split-log benches to fancier double desks (shared by two students) with wrought-iron legs, inkwells, and shelves for storing books and writing tablets. The potbelly stove provided heat in the winter and often kept the fresh stew or potatoes delivered by "neighborhood" mothers warm for lunchtime. Likely décor included a U.S. map, a U.S. flag and a globe.

No doubt, then as now, recess was the highlight of every child’s school day. The surrounding woods provided the playground. Girls played house and served tea in acorn cups and saucers. Boys tended to rougher antics: using pliable young hickory trees to catapult younger classmates, according to some recollections, or using jackknifes to carve their names and initials into the school’s brick, as several lasting engravings ("H.F.," "R.B.," "John Powers") on Holcombville School’s exterior walls attest. All partook in games with colorful names like "Run, Sheep, Run," "Prisoner’s Base" or "Pom-Pom-Pullaway"—until, that is, teacher rang the bell.

Most of McHenry County’s one-room schoolhouses had closed their doors to consolidation by the late 1940s, when rural students began taking the bus to town schools.

A Schoolboy’s Memories

Ken Pearson, a lifelong McHenry County resident, was born in Algonquin in 1918. His family sharecropped the land where a shopping center now stands, on the southwest corner of Algonquin and Randall roads. Some years later, they rented a farm outside Crystal Lake, where Ken and his older sister, Agnes, attended Terra Cotta School.

"The one-room school house sat on a dirt road off 31," said Pearson. "We lived on the first farm north of Terra Cotta, a mile or a mile and a half from the school. So, we walked to school, often picking up with neighbor kids from down the road along the way. My dad had a flatbed Model T. I remember one time, dad needed to drive into Crystal Lake that day, and just as us kids were walking to school he pulled to the side of the road. A bunch of us hopped right on. He drove all us kids and backed right up to the porch of the schoolhouse. It was perfectly level with the flatbed, so we hopped right off. Right on to the porch. Perfect. I was so proud of my dad."

So much for walking through 10 feet of snow, up hill both ways. For an 8-year-old Pearson, however, getting to Terra Cotta School was only half the fun. It was there that he saw Myrtle Hoffman.

"I was sweet on her," said Pearson. "One time, they held a basket social to raise money for the school. Moms and daughters made baskets full of food to bid on. Most bids went for 25, maybe 50 cents. I let my dad know I wanted to bid on Myrtle’s basket. Dad gave me a dollar and a quarter. When her basket came up, I bid all of it right away, yelling ‘a dollar and a quarter’ just as loud as could be. It really brought down the house. Everybody laughed. You see, the winning bidder got to share the basket with who made it. So I had my picnic with Myrtle."

Today, at 90 years young, Pearson operates an antique car garage on Pyott Road. (It’s quite a fine collection.) When asked what happened to Hoffman, he shrugs his shoulders. "As far as I know she still lives in Crystal Lake," he said. "I ran across her in town about a year ago."