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Chester County Press

Memories of one-room schools shared at reunion

09/24/2015 09:03AM ● By J. Chambless

The class of Penns Grove School in 1931.

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

In the tattered photographs, the children are lined up on the schoolhouse steps, with their hair brushed and shirttails tucked, dutifully looking at the photographer. On Sept. 19, some of those children gathered to look back over some 60 years or more, to a time when they were taught reading and writing and arithmetic in a one-room schoolhouse.

Students at Oak Grove School.

 Aside from Amish children, who are still educated in one-room schools, this generation of students is the last to experience learning in a room where a single teacher moved from desk to desk, instructing children in everything from basic ABCs to essay writing. There were actually five one-room schools in Upper Oxford Township, beginning in the 1860s and in continuous use until 1954, when the schools were consolidated into the Oxford Area School District. Before that, students from first grade to eighth grade attended Oak Grove, Maple Plain, Penns Grove, Villa Nova or Pleasant View. They were architecturally very similar – nothing fancy, just a brick building with a porch, large side windows and outhouses out back. Their surroundings were – and to a large extent, still are – rural, with working farms and old farmhouses dotting the countryside.

Iris Gray Dowling is now an author. Her mother taught at Oak Grove School, where Iris also attended.

 At the reunion, held at Manor Presbyterian Church near Russellville, Iris Gray Dowling stood by a tri-fold display for Oak Grove School and pointed to a photo of her mother, Ethel Gray, who attended Oak Grove as a student and then taught there for six years. Iris went to Oak Grove from first to eighth grade as well. The teaching process, she said, “was to put assignments on the board for the other grades, and then start with first grade reading, and go through each of the grades. Then you tried to cover math with each grade. The nice thing was that if anybody needed help, you could get some of the older ones to help the younger ones.

“There was a lot of independence,” Dowling said. “I remember, as a student, I would sit and outline history books and draw maps, because I'd have my work done. It really increased my love of history and geography.”

Dowling is now an author of local histories, and she's been a large part of the one-room school reunions, which have been held every other year since they were started in 2003 by local resident Vivian Miller, who was interested in the area's history.

Mildred Harris Fisher recalled her days at school, sitting at desks like the one displayed at the reunion.

 Mildred Harris Fisher went to Penns Grove, and was in the eighth grade in 1941. Her grandfather had been in charge of selecting which textbooks would be used in the one-room schools.

Given the unpredictability of enrollment, sometimes there might be one student in a grade, or sometimes four. Or if there was nobody in a certain grade, the teacher could combine grades. There were usually around 30 students in each school.

When Fisher was to be in fourth grade, it was only her and another girl, “and the one girl was sick a lot and had a long way to walk, so I was usually the only one there,” she said,. “I would quickly do my school work. Next to me was a fifth-grader who had pretty good grades, so I would borrow her books and listen to her class. When the teacher found out about it, she let me turn my work in with the fifth graders, so in that way I skipped the fourth grade.”

Fisher, 87, can recall the names of her elementary school teachers. “Let's see, we had Mrs. Bush one year, and then we had Miss Freeland for two years,” she said.

The memories of her school are still vivid. “We had a water cooler at the back of the room, and we used to go down to the neighbor's house with a bucket to get water from their pump and carry it back to the school and dump it into the cooler,” she said. “Underneath, there was a basin, and everybody washed their hands in the same basin.

“We had a cloak room where you'd hang up your coat and lunchbox. There were hooks on one side for the boys and hooks on the other side for the girls. In the basement, there was a concrete floor, and there was a coal furnace. We could play down there if the weather was bad.”

Fisher remembers roller-skating to school and leaving her skates on during lessons. During recess, she skated in the basement.

The Pleasant View School in 1949.

 She walked to school every day, and in the dark days of the Depression, “we were a little limited on food,” she said, “so we used to climb up the bank by the road and grab a turnip from the field to eat on the way home from school.”

School wasn't canceled for snow, she said. “The road that I walked to school had high banks on either side, so when it would snow it would blow and cover that. You could walk on top of it, but sometimes you'd be walking along and just sink right in. You'd just dig yourself out.”

Looking at an antique school desk on display at the reunion, Fisher smiled. “I remember this one girl who had pigtails and sat in front of me, and I dipped her hair into the inkwell,” she said. She doesn't remember why. “I was just a bratty kid, I guess,” she added, laughing.

Every month, each student got a new pencil and a writing tablet. “If you were conservative, you had a couple left over at the end of the year,” Fisher said. Fridays had art and penmanship classes, she recalled.

One of the textbooks used in the one-room schools.

 Outside, “we'd get a ball and a stick and play baseball. We didn't have supervision in our games. If there was a bully, we'd eventually get together and un-bully him,” she said with a grin. “We were self-sufficient. We made our own rules, and the majority ruled.” In the winter, students sat close to the one heat grate in the school. When it was rainy and dark, the only light came from a kerosene lamp that hung from the ceiling and had to be lit with a match. There was an outhouse for boys and one for girls in back of the school, Fisher said, so trips during the winter were likely to be quick.

The displays about each school had photos of the children who attended, and photos of the buildings when they were in use. There were news clippings as well, from the days when good attendance warranted a list of the student names in the local newspaper.

Some of the displays had then-and-now photos of the schools. Pleasant View is now the Upper Oxford Township Building. The site of the Villa Nova school has its own historical marker, installed last winter at routes 926 and 10. The building itself is now a house. Oak Grove was destroyed by winds from Hurricane Hazel and a house was built on its foundation. Penns Grove is now a house. And Maple Plain, now a house, is up for auction on Nov. 4. Dowling spoke about how it would be great to buy the building and restore it to look the way it did long ago.

To open the reunion program after lunch, Dowling's sister, Hazel Gray Duncan, handed out the lyrics to “The Little Red Schoolhouse.”

“I sang this song the first time in seventh grade,” Duncan said. “That was a long time ago. I was probably as nervous then as I am now.”

She led the crowd in the wavering sing-along:

When I was a kid, gee, how I hated

The little place where I was educated.

Although I didn't know it, I was lucky then

I wish that I was back again...

Along with awards to who came the farthest (New Mexico), and the person over 90 who attended the most years in a one-room school, the program spotlighted Jesse Thomas, who went to first grade at Oak Grove, and grew up to be one of the men raising the American flag at Okinawa in a famous photograph. The only one of those four soldiers still alive, Thomas walked slowly to the podium to be recognized with loud applause.

Jesse Thomas, who raised the American flag on Okinawa, was saluted at the reunion.

 Dowling noted that the only living teacher from any of the five one-room schools is George Wickersham, who is in his 90s and couldn't attend this year's reunion. Former student Lawrence Waltman went to Penns Grove, but also could not attend this year. Dowling said she was honored to be able to interview Thomas recently, and noted that he enlisted in the Army at 17, and served three years. The assignment to climb the hill and raise the flag was not a welcome one, Dowling said, because the soldiers were under fire the whole time. “I had three wounds,” Thomas said. “I'd like to thank everybody for recognizing what I did, and I'm glad I came out alive,” he added quietly.

At one point, memories that have been printed in a memorial book were read aloud by Sylvia Reyburn and Doanne Gordon Freese:

“Remember when measles, mumps and those little critters were shared?

“The boys wanted to impress the girls by seeing how long they could hang onto Mr. Graybill's electric fence.

“A fellow student, Andy, told everybody that if you ate poison ivy, you wouldn't get it. So he did, and he missed a week of school.

“During the war year, convoys of military vehicles would travel down Route 122, now Route 10. We purchased war bonds and collected newspapers and scrap metal in the school basement for the war effort.

“The smells of the one-room school were in our noses. The cloak room, lunches being opened, the furnace burning, and the green stuff they put down and swept away to keep the dust down on the wooden floors, and the smell of the chalk.

“Remember when a prayer was said each morning, and the pledge to our flag was recited? That was the beginning of every new school day. Those days we will never forget.”

The men and women sitting at the long tables nodded as they listened, and perhaps – for a moment – they were back at their wooden desks, watching the teacher teach cursive writing on the chalkboard.

And then a few of them smiled.

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email

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