Looking Back


Returning to the One Room and Two Room Schoolhouses of Yesteryear


Think learning in your livingroom is anything new? Think again, kids.


History has been known to repeat itself.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic this year, today’s school-age children are experiencing home schooling as some of their ancestors did in the early days of the United States.  Learning and teaching inside of a space no larger than the modern family room or kitchen isn’t anything new.  Generations before were educated in the latter part of the 19th and 20th centuries inside sometimes the smallest of one room and two room schoolhouses.

At the turn of the 19th Century, for instance, Allegany County alone had more than 100 rural one-teacher and one room schools.  But between 1921 and 1958 about 85 of them had closed.

Today, Allegany County has only one one-room schoolhouse that has been restored to its original 1901 condition.  It is located in Dickens at 13220 Mason Road, northeast of Cumberland, and the only one still located on the original property.  (Allegany Magazine conducted a “fashion shoot” inside the school in 2018). Like the Brooke Whiting House, the Gordon Roberts House and the Lavale Tollhouse, the schoolhouse is under the care of the Allegany County Historical Society and available by appointment for tours.  The restored building is dedicated to the memory of the late Howard Buchanan, Historical Society Board member and local building supply owner, who was instrumental in its renovation.  It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The restored Union Grove One-Room Schoolhouse was built in 1901 to replace the Wilson Academy, which was built in 1874. It served children who lived along the rural Mason Road area and was a community center for the surrounding area.  The late Jack Smouse owned the land that the school was built on and donated the land and the building to the Allegany College of Maryland Forestry Program. In 1946, the Allegany County Board of Education deeded the school and property to the Boys 4-H Club who used it as a club house.

After being vacant for many years, the 4-H Club donated the school to the Allegany County Historical Society in October 2007.   The Historical Society completely restored it by matching funds with a grant from the Maryland Historical Trust.

To dig deep into the past and the education that was had inside the area’s schools one hundred and even 200 years ago, one of the most valuable resources is work already conducted by Franklin Leonias Fatkin Jr. whose findings and original sketches appear in two volumes of the Journal of the Alleghenies (2013 and 2014).

Fatlin's father attended the Loartown School, a one-room school, and his mother attended the Vale Summit (Pompey Smash) School, a two-room school.  Both schools had eight grades and were closed in 1946 when the new Beall High School in Frostburg opened, according to Dr. Anthony E. Crosby Jr., editor of the Journal.

Other published works by writers by Anton Urbas (1994), Charlotte G. Folk (1982), and Ruth Eash Yoder (1981) appear in the spiral bound annual journal.  In 1991, Harold L. Scott published a book, Glorious Old Pompey Smash, which contained additional memories of the school.  The late Mr. Scott was a renowned local historian who published several books on local history and was retired from the Allegany County Board of Education.

According to records and stories from most of the writers who have done the research before me, discipline was strictly enforced in the small schools.  Some of the punishments for misbehaving offenders were standing in the back corner of the room facing the wall, writing 100 times “I must not...,” putting the head down on the desk in the back of the room, and staying after school and doing chores in the classroom and outside in the yard.  Remember washing the chalk board? In those days, corporal punishment – that could include switches broken from local tree limbs – was also not uncommon. Later, in the larger schools, if a pupil misbehaved and was unfortunate enough to be sent to the principal's office, it was a stern lecture from the principal or vice principal.  Then the offender was told to bend over and received five whacks with the paddle.  Remember the spelling rule, “The principal is your pal?”

The students’ basic educational curriculum was similar to present day, but only in a one-room schoolhouse where younger students were close in proximity to older students who were learning advanced material.  Drawing the alphabet letters properly and neat handwriting were required, of course.  Cursive writing was still an art. The aforementioned chalk boards were still used.  Teachers – both male and female – called school to order with a school bell.  It is believed summer and holiday vacations became a custom when one room schoolhouses existed because the enclosed wooden and sometimes log buildings would be too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. Most students during this time walked to school every day.  There were no laptops, kindles, overheard projectors, or Smart Boards but there was the McGuffey Reader.

If a younger student was having problems with English, math, or history, an older student was assigned to help with their lessons.  All they had to do was move together in a corner of the room for one-on-one mentoring and instruction. 

Today’s schools – of course -- are much larger and much more technologically savvy. Computers and other electronic devices and engineering advancements have been implemented over the century. 

Yet, one day – perhaps soon – when the classrooms reopen in our public schools and the students pour back into their centers of learning – we can all take note that the actual “blueprint” of the classroom – modern as it is – has not changed much since our great grandparents were educated.  Each individual classroom feels like it did in 1920 -- there are still bells that signal the beginning and end of the school day; there are still four walls, windows, students sitting at desks equally willing and unwilling to pay attention, and a dedicated teacher at the front and heart of the classroom imparting wisdom and knowledge to future generations.   In that regard, some things should never change.


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