Monday, September 3, 2012

Teaching in 19th Century Rural Michigan: My, How Times Have Changed

 (updated September 2018)
'Hear the children gaily shout, 
"Half past four and school is out!" '

It's September and, as tradition holds, the kids are back in school.
We've seen on TV in such shows as Little House on the Prairie what school was like for children in the 19th century and, believe it or not, they're not too off the mark - for the most part they have portrayed it fairly accurately. Yes, there are a few things here and there that could be a bit more accurate, but the main idea is there and done pretty well.
I have some excerpts here from a few of the books I have about what it was like to go to school 100-plus years ago that I would like to share. Now, I wrote a posting nearly three years ago on this subject but I have been able to add more information as well as a few more photos.
Do you have your school supplies?
According to a transcript of an interview with a student who attended the Eastpointe/Halfway one-room schoolhouse (that still stands!) back at the turn of the 20th century, school began at 9 and went til 4. They would begin the day with a prayer, a song or two, and then go into the recitations and other school work. Teachers would teach all grades, but group the kids separately by sex and age, and sometimes would have the older children help out those in younger grades.
The girls would be separated from the boys and would even enter the school in that manner - boys on one side and girls on the other. In fact, they didn't even share cloakrooms. As one former student from Halfway (now Eastpointe) Michigan described, "The cloakrooms were on each side of the front door when you came in. Right in the middle was the bell rope and somebody rang the bell for recess - and people (in surrounding homes) didn't have clocks (so) many used the time of the (school bell.).
"(The cloakroom) was cold. Only inside the big room (classroom) was heated with two big round stoves that were fed by wood - chunks of wood from the woodshed out back. Between the two little outhouses was the woodshed. (And we) just had kerosene lights."
She went on to say that she and the other children would bring their lunches in tin buckets, consisting of cold sweet potatoes with butter "because people ate what they raised." .
She also explained that when school began in September that the count of around 30 students was low initially. "There were a lot more than that in the winter, because as soon as the crops were in all the big boys came."

The 1872 Halfway Schoolhouse, located in Eastpointe, Michigan (formerly Halfway, Mich.) in Macomb County. 
The students were taught reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, and history. "They stressed history. We got very good history and geography."
The school year ran all the way until mid-June, though many students, especially the bigger boys, left earlier in the spring to help on their farms. "Some (farmers) had plenty of sons, and they would ordinarily have been in school and loved it, but they had no choice (but to work on the farm)."
Another story involving the old Halfway Schoolhouse was when "Some boys took a pair (of the outside wooden window blinds/shutters) down and made a sled. The farmers would haul the ice cut from Lake St. Clair for the summer for the butter or whatever they made. The ice hauling up and down 9 Mile Road (then called School Road) was quite a period."
As for punishments: "They were allowed to give them a whipping if it was necessary. I know some boys were sent to the cloak room, but whether they were whipped or not...I don't think the women (teachers) ever resorted to it. They respected the men teachers more, I must say, than they did the women."

Photograph taken in the late 19th century of the inside of the Halfway Schoolhouse (courtesy of the East Detroit Historical Society)
Now that we've heard a bit from a student's point of view, let's hear from a couple of teachers who taught around 150 years ago.
The following journal/diary entries are taken from the book "Michigan Voices." It's a fine collection of Michigan history stories compiled by Joe Grimm, written by those who lived it. This is the third in my series of Michigan/midwest social history entries - my attempt to breathe life into the folks who once lived in this general area in the mid-19th century.

In the mid-19th century, Michigan schoolhouses were one-room buildings, and the teachers were mainly young single women who were paid $3 to $5 a week in the wintertime, and $2 a week during the summer months. Most teachers boarded at pupil's homes - a different home every week or month, depending on the agreement made - which could be very lonesome for the young girls, whose families were likely many miles away.

What the inside of the Halfway Schoolhouse looks like today

This first collection is from the 1857 journal of Elizabeth Wilcox, age 22, a homesick teacher living in Macomb County (the county, north of Detroit, in which I now reside!):

July 5 - Mr. Cone came for me. I was soon ready and in a short time arrived at my new home, when I was possessed with a feeling of loneliness which I could not overcome. And to-morrow morning I am to enter upon my duties for the coming summer. 'Tis a dread.

July 6
- A little more reconciled to my lot. To-day I met eight of the scholars that are to be trusted in my care for a few weeks. Eight strange faces and as many different dispositions to become acquainted with.

July 10
- At Mr. Hill's again to-night. Oh dear me, the miseries of school teaching. Here am I, afflicted most to death with the toothache. And what is still worse, I have been obliged to play sociable for the last two hours. But to every day there follows a bedtime and how glad I am it has come so early to-night. Now I am left to myself. No one to speak to me and if there was, I should be uncivil enough not to answer.

July 11
- Back again at Mr. Cone's. It is almost as good a home as my own. I could ask for no better, at least no person can find better when away from their own home and friends.

July 13
- To-day I had five new scholars. To-night am to Mr. Gibson's. I made my appearance unexpected to them as the little boy forgot to tell them I was coming.

July 14 - To-night went to Mr. Brant's from school. Never before has my courage so failed me as it did the moment I entered his house. Mrs. B. came running up as though she was going to take off my bonnet and shawl for me and at last pointed me to a seat. I soon found there was to be no formalities as each one was to help themselves. After dinner, a brother of Mr. B's came. Just returned from Kansas. Also two gentlemen from Detroit and one from the old country. All gentlemanly appearing Dutchmen. All was gibberish and jabbering, and with the tobacco smoke which I had to endure, for all were smoking. Was a little more than I could stand, so I excused myself to Mrs. B and made my way back to Mr. Cone and here I shall spend the remainder of the night unless there is an army of Dutchmen coming or something else of importance to prevent.

Miss Wilcox overcame her homesickness and taught in Macomb County until 1862, when she married Charles King and moved to a farm near Port Huron, Michigan.
In 1847, a white clapboard schoolhouse was built on the Huckins family property near the southeast corner of Peck and Wildcat Roads in Lexington Township, Sanilac County.  The school housed eight grades of students in its one busy room for 100 years.  For many years the building also doubled as a church on Sundays.  At times the building was covered in brick and in 1905 a bell tower was added.  It was finally closed and shuttered in 1948.
It has been restored and sits inside the historic open-air museum of the Port Sanilac Historical Society, just south of Port Sanilac, Michigan.

Next we have Eliza Moore, a young lady who was living on her family's homestead farm, located between Belleville and Pullen's Corners (now Romulus) Michigan (about 22 miles west of Detroit). Word came to her that Smithville, located in Hillsdale County, near the Ohio border, needed a teacher.
The following comes from Miss Moore's 1866 diary:
Scotch Settlement School of Dearborn, Michigan - built in 1861 - now located in Greenfield Village. This is not the schoolhouse in which Miss Moore taught, but it is the school where Henry Ford attended in the 1870's!

Jan. 2 - Father and (brother) Jasper butchered three hogs and started with two of them for Detroit about 9 o'clock this evening. I don't envy our folks their ride to Detroit tonight.

Jan. 3
- Our folks came home about dark, cold, tired, hungry, and sleepy, which is apt to be the case in riding so far. They sold their pork for $11 per hundred weight. Oats 37 cents per bushel; butter 31 cents per pound, eggs 35 cents per doz. Mother and I knitting in the evening. Our folks gone to bed.

Lee School - Charlton Park, Hastings
The Lee School, originally located two miles west of Woodland, Michigan in Barry County, was constructed in 1869 on land previously owned by William Lee. The Lee School was closed after the 1922-23 school year and, in 1973, was moved to historic Charlton Park in Hastings, Michigan.
Jan. 6 - J.L. from Smithville came here in search of teacher for Smithville school, their teacher having left.

Jan. 18
- About 11 o'clock Mr. B from Smithville came to see me about teaching school there. I agreed to teach for $5 per week and board to commence next Monday.

Jan. 21
- Very cold this morning, almost too cold to venture out, but teachers must go in all kinds of weather. Father started about noon and had rather a cold ride. The roads are so icy that it is very hard traveling for a horse.

Jan. 22
- School commenced this morning. I have 25 scholars of all ages and sizes. They are strictly speaking rather a rough set, but I hope they will improve. There is plenty of room for improvement. One of the inspectors called at school this morning. He asked me some questions this evening and is to give me a certificate.

Teaching inside of Lee School
 Jan. 29 - Instead of washing day as usual, it is school day. I have several large boys who all seem to try to study, for which I am very glad. I was intending to go to Mr. L to-night but it is so sloppy that I went to Mr. B, which is not so far from the schoolhouse. I have now 38 - rather a larger school than expected.

Jan. 31
- Some colder this morning and not as good a fire at the schoolhouse as Freddie generally has.

Feb. 5
- Now have all the scholars that the schoolhouse can conveniently hold and now I have to crowd them together as I have 89 names.

Feb. 9
- Another sleigh ride to school this morning. I am lucky. School has passed off as usual except the smoke the stovepipe has given out, and we had more smoke than I agreed for, but it was not as bad as might be.

Feb. 20
- A teacher living around has a good opportunity of observing the government of children. How many different ways there is of doing the same thing and no two persons govern alike. I can tell by being a short time in a house whether obedience from children is through love or fear, and there are some who have no government at all. I like to see people at home to judge of their good qualities or bad ones. Some have two faces, one for home and one for abroad. The face at home is usually clouded by a frown and every word is harsh. But while they are away, smiles are on their faces always, and all say what a pleasant person that is, but little do they know the real character.

The 1863 Stanley School from Genessee County Michigan, now located in Crossroads Village

In 1868, Eliza Moore married Zurial Monroe, a Civil War veteran who served in the 5th Michigan Cavalry under General George Custer.

My, how times have changed!
The inside of the Stanley School

And now we'll head over to Livonia, Michigan where we find inside Historic Greenmead Village, another beautifully restored 19th century schoolhouse:
From 1863 we have the Newburg School, a one-room schoolhouse originally built at the corner of Ann Arbor Trail and Newburg Road, and was built for $400.00. It was used until 1922, when it was replaced with a new brick building. The brick replacement building was demolished in 1974, and this schoolhouse was moved to Greenmead Historic Village (in Livonia, Michigan) in 1987.

They hold a Civil War reenactment at Greenmead every September and, well, you know how our civilians are, right? Yeah...we like to go that extra mile and bring the past to life, which is what Kristen did here at Newburg School.
It's the first day of school and here we see Miss Mrozek, the new teacher, waiting for her scholars to show at the newly-built Newburg Schoolhouse.

First Day Class Picture from the circuit-riding photographer.
Miss Mrozek explained that when school began that September the count of the students was low initially. "There were a lot more than that in the winter, because as soon as the crops were in all the big boys came."

We have plenty of children in our reenacting group who are willing to take part in scenarios - and they do such a good job, too.

I hope you have enjoyed this excursion into our social past and that I have given you an idea of what going to school was like over a hundred years ago.  More importantly, I hope it helped to bring the past to life for you as it did for me as I was writing this.
Now, take some time and visit the old school houses dotted around our area

~   ~   ~


the bee guy said...

Great post Ken! Keep up the good work.

GinaBVictorian said...

Hi Ken! Thanks for the great post on school life of long ago. All I know is what I have seen from watching Little House on the Prairie. I do love old school houses though and luckily my mom has photos of many of them from around this area. Have a great week! Gina

Historical Ken said...

Gina -
You should post some of the photos on your blog. I'd love to see them!

Thanks Bee Guy!