Wisconsin’s Old-Time Schoolhouses    

I travel throughout Wisconsin with great affection for the state’s rural areas. I have learned there are many old-time schoolhouses still standing, the famous one-room school. I did not attend one, but they fascinate me. I’ll share photos of the ones I have found to captivate you.

Brandon Bustead commented in Forbes in November 2020, “The one-room schoolhouse was once a signature of the American education landscape with roughly 190,000 such schools in 1919. Today, roughly 400 remain. What many would characterize as a relic of the past or a remnant of rural America, the one-room schoolhouse may instead be a vision for the future of education.”

Richard Fidler, writing “One-Room Schools a Hundred Years Ago: Of Study Time, Recitations, and Recess,” acknowledges he is fascinated by one-room schools, suggesting they are “memorials to the past (that) grace the countryside.” However, he opines they are not good models for today’s education because kids today need to do more than memorize and write neatly. Nonetheless, he says these schoolhouses dotting our landscape are “delightful artifacts of a bygone age.”

L. Kissinger, writing a History of Buffalo County published in 1888, has a great section on education in Buffalo County. It provides great insight into what education in the small schoolhouses was like in the late 19th century.

To start, and this is a hoot, he wrote:

“In practice education is very often the restraint of human minds by straight-jackets of many fashions, by shackles and manacles worked out by cranks and fanatics." 

He noted that most settlers came from “civilized countries and had such an education as opportunity had afforded him.” he said they all wanted their children to get a good education. he spent a bit of time talk about how the system was organized and comments, “The schoolhouse is in fact the first visible effort at education in most districts..” He comments that schoolhouse architecture, like most homes of the day, was “primitive.” Only a few in Buffalo County were made of brick. Most were made of logs or framed.

Kessinger said, 

“In moist places, however, there was a desire to patch and mend so as to keep the room at least warm, but this was not always possible, and now and then totally neglected, in which case ventilation prevailed to an uncomfortable degree. And then the long benches, which among many uncomfortable qualities had the one, especially annoying, to compel the whole school to get into commotion when a class of three or four pupils was wanted upon the floor.”

Students were “roasted” when sitting close to the stove and “shivered” in the corners or along the walls. 

Many schools lacked blackboards and other equipment. School libraries were few and far between. Teachers found creative ways to make do. 

I commend a book to you by Dr. Jerry Apps, professor emeritus for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a rural historian, and prolific writer. 

His book, “One Room Country Schools, History and Recollections from Wisconsin,” is available online.

I, too, am attracted to these old schoolhouses. Most often, I find them sitting out there alone. They are monuments to another day, sometimes in good shape, sometimes collapsing or ready to collapse.  Whatever the case, I’ve grown to admire them. They served our nation well.