One-room schoolhouse restorers reminisce about class in rural Michigan
Rural life in a one-room school district was simpler than today. Doors were seldom locked. There is a one-room school in St. Joseph County which has been preserved for students and others to experience that time in American education called the Nottawa Stone School.
In 1966, the unique one-room schoolhouse, beautifully crafted of stone in 1870, was scheduled for demolition. Two men who had both attended other one-room schoolhouses got together to save it as a living museum. Warren Lawrence worked at the Intermediate School District in Kalamazoo when he became interested in the restoration and preservation of the school. He became a part of a team of many people who worked on the restoration. Lawrence also worked on designing the materials that teachers use when they bring students to recreate a day in a one-room school.
“One-room schools were all over the Midwest, part of the old Northwest Ordinance," says Lawrence. "The sixteenth section of every township, the money had to be used for schools and often the school was located right on the sixteenth section because that was the center of the township.”
Dick Cripe is the curator of the museum, which the Nottawa Community School District owns. But for about 40 years, a corporation is responsible for the maintenance, the yard and repairs. The funding comes from the St. Joseph County Intermediate School District. Cripe describes how the principal of his school in Springfield, Ohio (whom he thought was at least 40 feet tall) would come out and ring a hand bell when recess was over.
“We were expected to freeze, wherever we were," says Cripe. "If you were on a swing, you’d better stop.”
Cripe said they waited until she rang the bell again, and then, they lined up. The recitation bench was where the teacher taught classes.
Lawrence says the teacher "was constantly shuffling these children all day.”
Cripe adds, “My mother graduated from high school in 1911, down here in LaGrange County, Indiana. And, she went 6 weeks in the summer to what they called a Normal School and in the Fall, she was a one-room school teacher. In the day of these one-room schools, the majority of the students did not go beyond eighth grade. And, a high school education was a real privilege and it was rare. I think there were 122 or so one-room schools in this county.”
When Cripe and Lawrence started to restore the building there was no antiques in it.
“It had been totally retrofitted,” Cripe says. “So, it didn’t resemble a one-room school as it would have been when it was built. But, the wainscot in here and all the window sash, the glass is original. It would have had two privies out back, a boy’s and a girl’s. And, would have had seating much like you see here.”
Lawrence says one of the issues of teaching in a one-room schoolhouse was the acoustics.
Lawrence says, “I didn’t realize it. I just thought we hired mean teachers. They were always on us, ‘Quit wiggling!’ And, then when Dick and I restored this school, everything squeaks.”
Cripe demonstrates how the seats on the desks went up and down with a bang. He adds, “The reason these ceilings were so high in many of these buildings was strictly for ventilation. Basically, the theory was that if there’s more fresh air, there’s less disease and so on.”
Lawrence says a lot of these schools weren't insulated.
“I remember sitting doing school work with your coat on and your gloves on, waiting for the building to warm up," he says. "It’s here for other generations. What they do with it, Dick and I have often talked about it. That will be their business.”
“At eighty years old,” Cripe says, “I know that the good Lord doesn’t intend for me to stay forever and both of us are in a bit of a quandary as to what’s going to happen next. We’ll see!”