The location of the one-room school in any district was very important. The farmers of the district, whose children attended these one-room schools, generally tried to place the schoolhouse in a central location so that no child had to walk more than two miles to school. Sometimes, because the farmers were very poor, the schoolhouses were built on the least expensive land: land that was unfit for farming. This land was not always in the center of a district, which made some children's walk to school longer than two miles. Sometimes the wealthier farmers would have the leverage to have schools built on a portion of their property. Many times, the other farmers gave into such a request (or demand as the case may be) because it would have been very difficult to build the schoolhouse without the offered funding and support of the wealthy farmer.
A good discussion about the locations generally chosen for one-room schoolhouses can be found in Walter E. Fuller's The Old Country School (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1982) beginning on page 61.
Many one-room schoolhouses were simple buildings. The farmers who built them had little money to pay for a fancy school. These little schoolhouses were built to accommodate the number of students in the area and could run anywhere from 16 by 18 feet to 30 by 50 feet. Generally, the school was rectangular with three windows on each side and a door at the front. The floor was either dirt or wood planks. Many schools had little or no insulation, so they would get pretty cold in the winter. The school was normally painted white, not red, because white paint was less expensive for the farmers. Schools built in the early 1800s did not have cloakrooms or bell towers. These were added around the end of the 19th century if the district could afford them.
Outhouses were also a part of the building process. The number and size of the outhouses depended on the wealth of the farmers in the district. Many of the poorer schools had only one outhouse that served both the boys and the girls. If the farmers were wealthy, they built separate outhouses for the boys and girls. Also, some outhouses accommodated only one child at a time. However, if money was available, it was possible to build an outhouse to accommodate two or three children at once. These outhouses were placed a distance away from the school. Sometimes they were placed at separate corners of the school property, such as the girls' facility on the northwest corner and the boys' on the southwest corner.
Each school had a different location for its water supply. Sometimes, a pump was placed in front of the school so the children did not have to go far for water. Other times, water would have to be carried over from the neighbor's well in a large bucket.
Myrna J. Grove gives a good description of one-room schoolhouses in her book, Legacy of One-Room Schools (Morgantown, PA: Mastof Press, 2000), beginning on page 29.
A one-room school had very little as far as modern equipment is concerned. The teacher had the very basics. The oak desks in the room were either one or two seaters, depending on how much the district could spend. Each desk was bolted to the floor. This practice did not allow for movement of the desks, which is common in schoolrooms today. These desks had a lid that lifted and a hole, normally at the front right side of the desk, for an ink well. The desks ranged in size, as did the students. The smallest desks were in the front of the classroom where the smallest children sat. The desks gradually got bigger towards the back of the room to accommodate the older and bigger children. The teacher's desk sat at the front of the classroom.
Along the wall near the teacher's desk was the recitation bench, a plain wood bench that served as seats for the students reciting their lessons. Often at the front of the class were pictures of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, a blackboard with the alphabet above it, a United States flag and a clock. If students were thirsty (or antsy), they would go to the back of the room for a drink out of the large earthen container called the water cooler. Sometimes, students would bring their own cups to get a drink out of the container. In poorer school districts, the entire class used a community dipper to get a drink out of the container. This community dipper spread germs, which meant that many of the children were sick at the same time. Sometimes, when a particularly bad illness was passed around, the school would close until most students were healthy again. (And we tell children not to put their mouths on the drinking fountain!) By the 1920's, the communal dipper was deemed unsanitary and no longer used.
Slates and slate pencils were very handy in one-room schools. Children were able to do their work on slates and show the teacher, then correct the mistakes without using any paper. Paper was expensive. Either children did not have any or tried not to use the little they had. The slate boards made it easy to teach a lesson, erase the work and move on to another lesson without any waste. By the 1930s, slate boards had largely been replaced by paper and pencils. Today, some teachers use small dry-erase boards during their classes. These dry erase boards are about the same size as slate boards and serve a very similar purpose. Slate pencils were still produced and used in the early 1900s but were replaced by chalk by the 1930s. In many classrooms today, white boards and dry-erase markers are replacing chalk and chalkboards, which were predominately made out of slate from the late 1800s until the 1960s.
One of the more famous (or infamous) pieces of equipment in the one-room school was the pot-bellied stove. Many former students have written about their experiences with the pot-bellied stove which was normally placed in the middle of the classroom. They alternately loved it and hated it. Usually students sitting near the stove in winter roasted while those far from the stove froze. Most schools were not well insulated, so cold air would leak into the building. Schools started replacing the ill-suited potbelly stove as early as 1900 with a better heating system. The Milan Township District #83 Schoolhouse was built with a basement that housed the heating system and a grate that allowed the heat to rise into the schoolroom and heat the building. With this method, there were no unlucky children who roasted.
Much has been written about the equipment of one-room country schools. Information about desks was gathered from http://www.pbs.org/kcet/publicschool/evolving_classroom/furniture.html (accessed 15 March 2004) and from page 3 of Jerry Apps’ One-Room Country Schools: History and Recollections from Wisconsin (U.S.: Palmer Publications, 1996).
Information about the recitation bench was found on page 50 of Myrna J. Grove’s Legacy of One-Room Country Schools (Morgantown, PA: Mastof Press, 2000).
Information about items found at the front of the room can be found on page 3 of Jerry Apps’ One-Room Country Schools: History and Recollections from Wisconsin (U.S.: Palmer Publications, 1996).
Information about the community dipper was found on page 15 of Good Old Days Remembers the Little Country Schoolhouse (Berne, ID: House of White Birches, 1999) edited by Ken and Janice Tate; page XVIII of Luther Bryan Clegg’s The Empty Schoolhouse: Memories of One-Room Texas Schools (U. S.: Texas A&M University Press, 1997); and at the website http://www.mapmaker.rutgers.edu/NorhtBrunswick/oldnorthbrunswick.html (accessed 15 March 2004).
Information about one-room school libraries can be found on page 60 of Myrna J. Grove’s Legacy of One-Room Country Schools (Morgantown, PA: Mastof Press, 2000).
Information about slates and slate pencils was found at the website: http://www.pbs.org/kcet/publicschool/evolving_classroom/slate.html (accessed 15 March 2004) and at http://www.pioneerscholesschool.org/pages/manual/copybooks.html (accessed 29 March 2004). The latter website also contains information about copybooks. Also, http://www.historychannel.com/exhibits/toys/crayons.html (accessed 16 March 2004) contains information about slate pencils, chalk and Crayola crayons. The dates mentioned about chalkboards were found at http://www.cnn.com/2002/fyi/teachers.ednews/06/02/chalkboard.history.ap/ (accessed 15 March 2004).
Information about the potbelly stove can be found on page 14 of Raymond Bial’s One-Room School (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999).