Aug 12, 2023


September means back to school for most people today, but in 1870 when Virginia

September means back to school for most people today, but in 1870 when Virginia passed the Education Act establishing a system of public education, many school sessions in rural areas were only five months long.

Children were needed to harvest fall crops and to help with spring planting, so school often began in late October and ended in March, depending on the growing season.

Schools were located to serve students living within a radius of four or five miles, which was considered to be walking distance. There was no public transportation in most counties until after World War I, when automobiles and trucks came into general use and roads improved.

The first school buses were trucks with a covered body built over the chassis. These accommodations were greeted with great approval by rural families whose children had either been walking to school, riding a horse or driving a buggy.

The typical one-room school stood in a location central to the community. It was a frame building about 20 feet by 30 feet, with a hip roof and a heavy front door.

Opposite the door was a platform about 12 inches high that extended across the width of the room. On it stood the teacher's desk and chair and behind it was a blackboard. Sometimes a set of maps might be available.

There were windows covered with heavy wooden shutters on each side. There was no lighting or plumbing.

The central feature of the room was a large,cast-iron stove that stood in a box of sand. A safety measure, the sandbox caught the live coals that often fell from the stove when it was being stoked.

It was the teacher's duty to kindle the fire each winter morning, but older boys among the pupils split the kindling and brought in the wood.

Pupils’ seats were handmade to accommodate four or five children. The desk top slanted so that anything put on it slid off into the pupil's lap or on the floor.

All desks were the same size, so the younger children sat with their feet dangling inches from the floor. Such desks were not built for comfort.

Teachers took a qualifying examination and were issued a first- or second-grade certificate. Few had attended college. Young men would often take a teaching job for a year or so while preparing for some other vocation.

Most teachers were unmarried women who gave up teaching if they married. Salaries in the first decade of this century were as low as $22.50 per month in some counties.

The teacher was expected to teach all subjects, though the three Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic) formed the basic curriculum.

Instruction was minimal. The teacher assigned some pages to be studied. The pupil studied in his seat until the teacher called him to "hear his lesson." She asked questions on the content and expected rote answers. Sums to be worked were often written on a slate.

Joe Major, 93, of Saluda, who attended Frog Pond Academy at Stormont, recalls using such a slate. "I’d spit on it and wipe it off with my sleeve after the teacher had corrected it," he said. Paper was scarce; slates lasted indefinitely.

At "big" recess, the students ate a lunch brought in a tin bucket with a close-fitting top. It usually consisted of biscuits, meat, preserves, perhaps a sweet potato or an apple.

After lunch, the pupils enjoyed vigorous group games such as "prisoner's base," "run, sheep, run" or "annie over." There was no equipment and no organized recreation or physical education.

As the century advanced, the school year lengthened. Mrs. Emma Eastman Wrightson, 87, taught in a one-room school at Samos in Middlesex County for the session of 1921-22.

By this time, there was an eight-month term, but attendance was poor in the early fall and late spring, she said. Farmers who needed their children to help in the fields did not hesitate to keep them at home.

By the second decade of the century, interest in public education was increasing. Many communities struggled to raise money to build schools that offered at least several years of high school work, but many one- and two-teacher units continued.

The division superintendent's annual report of Mathews County, session 1921-22, is representative of the surrounding rural counties.

That year the following high schools were in operation: Cobbs Creek, seven teachers; Gwynns, five teachers; Peninsula, five; New Point, six; and Lee-Jackson, seven. All had terms of nine months, but only the schools with seven teachers provided four years of high school work.

Some students attended private schools, which offered college preparatory courses. Others, like Saluda residents, Mrs. Bettie Woodward James, Mrs. Louise Harwood Hedrick and Mrs. Eleanor Ball Kipps, finished high school at Fredericksburg Normal School (now Mary Washington College), which offered two years of high school and two years of college.

Separate elementary schools operating in Mathews the same year were Hallieford, two teachers; Cattail, two; North, one; Foster, two; Haven, three; Beaver Dam, one; Winter Harbor, three; and Peary, one. Several of these had seven-month sessions.

The report also listed the following nine "colored" one- and-two-teacher schools: Hudgins, two; North, two; Blakes, one; Haven, two; Glebe, one; Cardinal, two; Antioch, two; Wayland, one; and Hamburg, one, all of which ran for seven months. There were no schools offering education beyond the seventh grade.

Nine years later (1930-31), the superintendent's annual report showed considerable change. Sessions were longer. Teacher certification showed more collegiate and normal professional certificates and fewer special certificates.

Salaries had not risen greatly, due to the Depression, but the lowest salary listed was $55 per month. In 1921-22, approximately half the elementary teachers had received $55 monthly but 14 received only $35 a month.

While these statistics refer to only one county, they are representative of most rural counties on the Middle Peninsula in the same period.

After World War I, public transportation made possible the consolidation of high schools to offer a broader curriculum. Single-teacher units gradually disappeared, and a modern system of education slowly developed.

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