Saturday, June 28, 2014

Rural School Districts

Many people, especially those of us raised in urban areas associate one-room schoolhouses with Little House on the Prairie. The reality is that Geary County had rural school districts until 1965 with all the districts were unified into USD 475 or districts in the surrounding counties. While populations in these rural school districts fluctuated a good portion of Geary County residents were educated in a rural schoolhouse. Over the course of 110 years, 1855-1965, Geary County had 44 rural school districts.  The schoolhouses, many of which still stand today, were scattered throughout the county hosting anywhere from one to dozens of children.  After unification in 1965, one-room schoolhouses quickly became nostalgic icons of days gone by. 
The book, Project Heritage, compiled by Junction City Area of Retired Teachers in 1979, is rich with stories about life at Geary County schools. Life in the rural schools was certainly different than it is now.  Usually students that attended rural schools attended their first eight grades in one room.  The teacher taught all the grades and older students often had to help the younger ones with lessons.  Imagine trying to memorize your lesson for that day or the next while one of the other grades is standing at the front of the room reciting theirs. 
Geary County Joint District 88.
In rural districts students only attended until they completed the eighth grade.  While most eight graders are thirteen these days, on the frontier older children often missed part of the year so they could tend crops.  The result was that some students were well past the age of 13 before they completed their eighth grade.  According to Project Heritage, it was common at the time “to have 18, 19, 20, and 21-year-old boys in school.”
With boys as big as or old as grown men discipline could be a problem in schools. Today if you misbehave you’re given detention or sent to the office, but teachers today would never hit or throw things at students who misbehave. This was not always the case in the rural schools.  At the Alida School in Joint District #6, Mrs. Lester Elsasser remembers, “one teacher carried an open pocketknife and if one of the pupils misbehaved he threw the knife, sailing it right past their heads, sticking it into the wall behind them.”
Discipline isn’t the only thing that has changed. Imagine being a first grader, small and intimidated enough by the prospect of going to school and on your first day you’re confronted by full grown adults. When Mrs. Gilbert Blanken first arrived at Weston School in 1904 she remembers thinking there “were boys so large that they appeared to her to be grown men.” Imagine sharing your classroom as a six year old with someone the size of your father. 
What may surprise many people are the similarities between frontier schools and school today.  As many of us probably remember and hear children talk about there are favorite times of day; like now, recess and lunch were favored by rural students. They got to run around outside and play on the playground equipment, if the school was lucky enough to have it. Also, in the rural school districts, much like today, if students play around after school they’d likely miss the bus, or horse as the case may be. At Antelope School one group of children rode to school in a buggy and during the day the horse stayed in the barn at the school and in the afternoon the students would pile in and ride home.  One day the students decided to play only to realize later that the horse knew when school was out and headed home without them. 
Other behaviors displayed by students are very similar as well. When it comes to appearance no one is more self-conscious than teen and pre-teen girls. Christine “Crissie” Amthauer attended Weston School on Humboldt Creek Road.  She wasn’t allowed to wear her nice shoes in poor conditions so she wore 4-buckle overshoes during the walk and she would remove them about a half-mile from the school and hide the unattractive shoes among the rocks and walk the rest of the way in her nice shoes.  Many students today, especially the girls, are guilty of the same behavior; many wait until they’re at school before changing their shirts or putting on make-up so they can hide it from their parents.
If you take the time to look and learn about the rural schools in Geary County you just might discover how similar those students were to you and your children. If you want to read more about the Geary County schools including Junction City you can buy a copy of Project Heritage at the Museum Gift Shop.
The Geary County Historical Society is in the midst of creating a driving tour of our rural schools. We are looking for stories of your own or your family’s experiences to include in the tour. If you have an amusing, interesting, or important story you would like to share with us please call or come by the museum. You can also write it down and send it to us at 530 N. Adams, Junction City, KS 66441 or