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The Legacy of the Rural Schools That 'Americanized' Western Immigrants

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There were 200,000 one-room schools in the United States at the turn of the century. Today, there are a little over 1,000 in operation. Fire, intentional demolition, neglect, and natural deterioration have destroyed many of the buildings as well as the larger rural schools that used to exist.

These schools, with colorful names like Broken Bone, Fly Gulch, Sleepy Cat, and Pokey Hoodle, have been neglected by state historical societies, scholars, and historical preservationists, according to Andrew Gulliford, who studied them with a $275,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (neh).

"For too long, the historic preservation movement has focused on those houses, estates, and public buildings that utilized only the finest of materials to create architectural showpieces," Mr. Gulliford has written.

"What," he asked, "of those immigrants who arrived on these shores to work for day wages, sleep in tents, and begin anew in the West?"

As it turned out, the neh rejected Mr. Gulliford's first application to study the rural schools many of these new Americans attended. "They thought it wasn't a legitimate idea," he says. "You're talking about a 50-to-80-year mindset about the [lack of] importance of country schools."

The two least-understood facets of country schools, he says, are the role they played in "Americanizing" immigrants who surged across the prairies into the West, and their value as community centers.

In the West, schools were often the first community structures built. At the first town meeting in the mining town of Rhyolite, Nev., one miner said, "See here boys, if we're going to have a camp that will win, we got to have a school. I got three kids wild as burros, and I want to get them in school."

Such stories, and the photographs on these two pages, were gathered as part of Mr. Gulliford's project, "Country School Legacy: Humanities On The Frontier."

An elementary-school teacher in Silt, Colo., Mr. Gulliford organized research by 23 volunteers in North Dakota, South Dakota, Colorado, Kansas, Utah, Wyoming, Nevada, and Nebraska (where one-third of the total number of country schools are located).

The researchers examined the teachers, the quality of education, and the architecture of country schools, as well as the process of Americanization carried out in them and their use as community centers. The study also looked at the current state of country schools.

Local exhibits and seminars have been held in the participating states since last summer, presenting a film, "Country School Legacy," which Mr. Gulliford and a colleague produced. He also is expanding a booklet on the project into a book for possible publication by the Preservation Press of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Although some rural schools were deservedly sources of community pride, Mr. Gulliford points out, the typical country school was a primitive structure architecturally. It was made from whatever material was at hand--wood, stone, logs, adobe, brick, and sod.

Classroom discipline, he notes, was a serious problem. As a result, country schools employed more men as teachers than the familiar image of the frontier schoolmarm would suggest. One observer wrote of the way a teacher earned respect in rural Nebraska:

The first teacher in Raymond school [Neb.] was run out by boys, who used stones as weapons of assault. The second met the same gang, but when he had soundly thrashed one boy, and youth's father coming to take up the battle shared the same fate, the reign of terror ended abruptly, and a new respect for the school was established. Many of the fellows considered the teacher Public Enemy Number One.

The women who chose to serve in country schools also formed an indispensable part of the rural teacher force. Catharine Beecher, daughter of a New England family of educators, wrote in 1845 in "The Duty of American Women to Their Country":

"It is WOMAN who is to come in at this emergency and meet the demand. Woman, whom experience and testing have shown to be the best, as well as the cheapest, guardian and teacher of childhood."

For further information on the project or the film, contact Andrew Gulliford at Country School Legacy, Box 305, Silt, Colo. 81652.

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