North Dakota's One-Room "Country Schools"


Above:  My grandmother, Helga Swang, in 1921 sitting outside the Canfield School in North Dakota, where she taught.

One of the most amazing chapters of North Dakota history involves the one-room "country schools" that were scattered across the state from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s.  I've done a lot of research over the past few years on country schools and have become pretty interested in them.  Teachers (who were usually women) and students in the one-room schools endured incredible hardships and difficulties, and it's amazing to me that children were able to learn anything at all, especially considering that many of them, newly arrived in America, spoke no English.


One-room schoolhouses were a logical solution to the problem of a scattered population and very poor road infrastructure.  Children today can ride a school bus 20 or 30 miles to go to school.  A commute that far in 1900 might take the entire day.  Consequently, small schools called "country schools" (as opposed to "town schools") were built about every three miles or so, within a reasonable walking or horseback-riding distance from their farms.  Yes, those stories that your parents or grandparents told you about having to walk 3 miles in the snow to go to school were really true! 


Soon after graduating from Fessenden High School in 1915, my grandmother, Helga Swang, taught in a one-room country school for several years, perhaps like the ones shown below.  She went to Minot State Normal School in 1920, graduated the next year with a teaching degree, and got a job a few months later at the three-classroom Canfield country school near Regan, where she met and married my grandfather.  I've written more about Helga and the Canfield School in News:  October 18 Part 2, 2001.


This page will give you a glimpse of what teaching in a country school was like back in those days.


The following is from the South Dakota Historical society.  How times have changed:


Instructions to Teachers, Dakota Territory

(September, 1872)


1.  Teachers will fill lamps, clean chimneys and trim wicks daily.

2.  Each teacher will bring a scuttle of coal and a bucket of water for the day's use.

3.  Make your pens carefully.  You may whittle nibs for the individual tastes of the children.

4.  Men teachers may take one evening each week for courting purposes or two evenings a week if they go to church regularly.

5.  After ten hours in school, the teacher should spend the remaining time reading the Bible or other good books.

6.  Women teachers who marry or engage in other unseemly conduct will be dismissed.

7.  Every teacher should lay aside from his pay a goodly sum for his declining years so that he will not become a burden on society.

8.  Any teacher who smokes, uses liquor in any form, frequents a pool or public hall, or gets shaved in a barber shop will give good reason for suspecting his worth, intentions, integrity and honesty.

9.  The teacher who performs his labors faithfully and without fault for five years will be given an increase of 25 cents a week in his pay providing the Board of Education approves.


Photos of North Dakota Country Schools



Above left:  Many of the one-room country schools scattered throughout North Dakota were simply tar-paper shacks, like this one in Williams County.  Most early schools had no electricity, of course, and the heat was usually provided by a single pot-bellied stove.  The teachers were responsible for starting the fire in the morning and banking the coals in the afternoon before they left.  

Above right:  The winter school bus.  The kids in each family would bundle up and ride the sleigh to school.  Most schools had barns, sheltering the horses during the day.  There were numerous small country schools scattered around the state because of the diffuse settlement and poor roads.



Above left:  Recess photos.

Above right:  This is the Opperud School in Williams County, North Dakota, which operated from 1903 to 1913.  I don't believe this one had Internet access.



Above left:  A sod schoolhouse.

Above right:  An early Morton County school.



Above left:  My grandmother Helga's country school in 1921.  The little girl in the front row, partly in the shadow and standing behind the boy holding the rifle, was six-year old Hester Bailey, a kindergartener.

Above right:  By an amazing coincidence, I met Hester (left) during my visit to North Dakota eighty years later in 2001.  She told me lots of interesting stories about my grandparents and great-grandparents (see News:  Oct. 18, 2001 - Part 2).


If you'd like to learn more about the North Dakota's country schools, I recommend reading a book called, "The Legacy of North Dakota's Country Schools" by Everett Albers and Warren Henke.  I've read it and it's a wonderful book.