Historical Markers
One-Room Schoolhouse Historical Marker
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One-Room Schoolhouse

Hershey/Gettysburg/Dutch Country Region


Marker Location:
696 at Shippensburg University

Dedication Date:
May 29, 1970

Behind the Marker

Interior image of Daggett Schoolhouse. Desks, a globe, a heater, and a piano are all visible.
Interior of the Daggett Historic One Room School, Daggett, PA.
Now viewed with nostalgia as a quaint reminder of an age long gone, the one-room schoolhouse was once a vital American institution. From Maine to Florida to Massachusetts to New Mexico, the one-room school flourished in nineteenth-century America. Long associated with rural and small-town life, the design was simple and functional. Small structures built of wood, brick, stone or sod, they could be square, or rectangular, or even octagonal in shape. Inside, students of different ages sat on backless benches surrounding a coal or wood-burning stove. Here, teachers successfully imparted the principles and practical knowledge necessary to make one's way in the world. The 3 R's they called it: reading, writing, and 'rithmetic. Education in these rural, often isolated schoolhouses, however, often left a great deal to be desired.
Exterior, Birchardville One Room School with students posing in front.
The Birchardville School, Birchardville, PA, circa 1915.

In the 1700s, Pennsylvanians who could not afford private schooling set up their own schools, and in the process came to view basic education as the responsibility of local communities.

After American independence, rural schools changed little until the 1830s. Communities created a school when they felt the need to do so, then chose a location, raised the funds, and selected the teacher. Most teachers did not stay long on the job, for the wages were low and school sessions short.

Teaching itself was based on rote repetition, and lessons drilled, line by line, with the frequent help of "a little birch" or other forms of physical punishment. Children usually studied with texts their families sent with them to school, so the Old and New Testaments were common reading. As a result, teaching enjoyed little respect as a profession, and teachers were often portrayed then as drunken, ignorant, and foreign in the popular culture.

Local school districts, however, liked their itinerant, low-paid, inexperienced teachers quite well, for they cost little and remained firmly under community control. Locals controlled both what subjects were taught, and the length of school sessions, which were much shorter than today. In 1848, for example, the average school year in Pennsylvania was still less than five months, and after the age of ten, many children attended only winter session, a time when farm work was slack.
Here students and their families gather at the schoolhouse door at year's end.
The last day of school, Birchardville School, Birchardville, PA 1917.

Concerned about the future of the republic and the need for an educated citizenry, reformers mounted a national movement for state systems with the power to establish, finance, and regulate public schools. When the Pennsylvania legislature created its common school plan under marker Governor George Wolf in 1834, the overwhelming majority of the state's residents lived in small towns and across the rural countryside.

As the public school system evolved in the decades that followed, directors of Pennsylvania's 1,000 local school districts built structures that served the immediate needs of the school-age population. Unlike larger urban schools, rural students shared a common space and attended to their different lessons under the tutelage of the same teacher.
Exterior of a red brick school building.
The "Little Red Schoolhouse," Shippensburg, PA, circa 1960.

Students matriculated from grade to grade in the same building. A lucky few were able to go on to a public high school. To better prepare teachers for the now state-controlled "common school" system, the Pennsylvania legislature in 1854 authorized creation of markerstate normal schools, each of which was to be affiliated with a local common school, to assist in teacher training and to try out new ideas. Opened in 1873 as the Cumberland Valley Normal School in 1873, today's Shippensburg University was part of the expanding network of schools dedicated to improve teacher training in the Commonwealth.

To commemorate its early mission to improve public education in rural Pennsylvania, Shippensburg State College in the late 1960s raised $25,000 to move the Mount Jackson one-room school house from nearby Newburg to its campus. In use from 1865 until 1954, Mount Jackson, also known as the Potato Point School, had educated generations of local children, ages five through twenty-one, and served as a community center, staging hundreds of spelling bees and scores of Christmas programs. "I was the teacher, janitor, play ground supervisor, bus driver, school nurse, the community leader, home and school visitor," the school's last teacher wrote after the building was moved to Shippensburg. He also recalled whipping errant students and making them stand on their toes at the front of the room, their noses placed firm against a ring he drew on the blackboard.

The one-room schoolhouse did not survive the dramatic social and economic changes brought on by the industrial-urban revolution. The movement of population away from the countryside transformed schooling after the First World War. One-room schoolhouses continued to operate across Pennsylvania into the 1930s, but the Great Depression also forced the closing of schools, including many of the old one-room schoolhouses, across the Commonwealth.

The post-war consolidation of schools and districts in the name of efficiency and standardization proved too great for this once commonplace educational institution. While the state halved the number of school districts that existed prior to World War II, ever-larger school buildings and ever increasing numbers of students changed the shape of Pennsylvania's educational future. The one-room schoolhouse of today is more often a private residence or a local museum housing the artifacts and memories of a different educational culture long out of season.
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