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Going Back to the 'Ol School


Once found along many country roads, iconic one-room schoolhouses are disappearing. Some are going back to these old schools in an effort to preserve a part of rural history.
Going Back to the 'Ol School

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Kickball, recess and lunch are among fondest memories of one-room schoolhouses.
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Every schoolhouse tells a story and brings a different time and place. Do you remember?
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Children no longer get their education in a one-room building, but these schools should be preserved.
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Every time I pass by my old grade school, my mind becomes flooded with fond memories. I recall playing kickball at recess, my favorite lunches, book reports and the teachers who could always make learning exciting. To any other passerby, it might just be a big brick building, but to me it is where I grew up and learned many lessons that I still carry with me today.

Many former students share the same sentiment. Norma Tolbert holds memories of her school days at Liberty dear to her heart. Liberty School, located north of Springfield, might appear to be another old run-down building. However, as soon as Tolbert and other alumni of the school step inside their traditional one-room schoolhouse, they recall the same fond memories. To the alumni and the community, Liberty School is more than just a building, and that is why the community is working to restore it.

Tolbert, Missouri Farm Bureau member and director of the Saving Liberty Project, attended Liberty School beginning in 1947 until the school closed in 1951. Tolbert, her sister, and mother attended Liberty School. Tolbert reminisces, “I remember pie suppers, I remember losing my first tooth on the teeter-totter, and I remember graduations. My sister, who’s two years older, has memories of playing softball, red rover and kick the can. My mom remembers math contests, spelling bees and those types of things.”

In order to preserve these memories, alumni along with the Friends of the Gray-Campbell Farmstead, are working to relocate and restore the building.

The idea of the project stemmed from the late Vera Chandler, a member of Friends of the Gray-Campbell Farmstead. Although she attended a neighboring one-room school, her sister taught at Liberty School for 10 years.

The Farmstead sits on Nathanael Greene Park in Springfield and includes the oldest house in town along with a barn, a kitchen and granary. Many fifth grade classes spend a day at Gray-Campbell to learn about Missouri history through demonstrations and hands-on learning. When Chandler was a member of Friends of Gray-Campbell, she heard the Farmstead was looking to add an historic schoolhouse to the grounds. She thought Liberty would be the perfect fit. In 2008, Chandler gathered alumni, family members, community members and Friends of Gray-Campbell members together in an effort to move the school.

“We believe that preserving history is important. We believe that keeping our roots alive helps identify and define who we are today. That’s the way we feel about the farmstead and moving the school is part of that mentality. We want children to see what it was like to go to a one-room school,” says Michelle Atkinson, Missouri Farm Bureau member and President of Friends of Gray-Campbell.

Liberty School, already moved from its original location, is in restorable condition. However, finding funds to move the building is proving a difficult task for the people involved with the project. 

“I’ve had estimates anywhere between $30,000 and $50,000. I’ve even heard more than that. If we got $30,000, that would be enough for us to start,” Tolbert says. The Saving Liberty fund currently has collected nearly $8,000 from private donations and fundraisers. 

Liberty is just one of many examples of one-room schoolhouses scattered throughout Missouri. Some of these schools have been restored into homes or community centers, while some sit vacant. According to David Burton, a community development specialist with the University of Missouri Extension Service, there are around 62 schoolhouses still standing in Greene County alone. He is researching one-room schools in the Ozarks.

“The one-room school is kind of an iconic image,” Burton says, “People have different thoughts about the schools, usually warm and fuzzy memories about them, and it just harkens back to a different era. They are romanticized to some degree, which is why people take such great interest in them.” 

Every schoolhouse tells a story and brings us back to a different time and place before phones, cars and computers. Children really did have to walk to school – usually a couple of miles. Tolbert and her sister did. “My sister and I walked what was a mile or two to school, but it was never really a problem. We would meet up with other kids further down the road and walk with them,” she says. 

Early schoolhouses also bring us back to the beginning of American education. Burton says one basic goal was to bring literacy to America and that was accomplished. 

Tolbert recalls getting a great education at Liberty. “I probably learned as much in the four years there as I did in the eight years later,” she says, attributing the classroom set up, which is much different than today’s typical classroom. 

“It really was a good education because you observed and heard what the third grader was doing, or the fifth grader, or the eighth grader. I don’t remember it being a problem not being able to do my work. You had the benefit to see what they were doing and learn from them.”

Burton echoes Tolbert’s recollections. “You had a lot of cooperative learning going on with older kids helping teach the younger kids,” he says.

One-room schoolhouses certainly had their advantages, but they fell short in some areas. Schools began to consolidate in the 1930s and almost all schools were forced to consolidate by 1950. Ideas of what schools should offer changed. “They just couldn’t keep up with the expectations and amenities people wanted for their kids,” says Burton.

Although children no longer get their education in a one-room building, Tolbert, Burton and Atkinson agree these schools should be preserved.

“I think the same thing that we often say about a Civil War battlefield which is ‘You can’t tell the story of the Civil War without seeing where that took place,’” Burton says, “Where it took place is part of what you need to understand about how that happened and how it transpired. I think the same applies to historic buildings such as schools. How do you teach the story of American history or how our ancestors in this area were educated without having some examples to show to people? For me, that’s a big part of the historical value of them, having that so you can tell the story. There are good lessons to be learned from the one-room school process.”

Tolbert agrees. “It’s kind of hard to know where to go if you don’t know where you’ve been,” she says, “You have to have some kind of reflection of what your ancestors and forefathers did before you and how they made things work. They had to figure out things rather than having information at the snap of your fingers.”

One-room schoolhouses, like Liberty, can teach future generations about a time that shaped who we are today. 

According to Burton, nothing gives you a better appreciation of history than the experience. “It’s hands on learning and it sticks with you more. It’s a great way to teach elements of Missouri history as well as early educational history. That’s a big part of our culture and who we are. The one-room schools that produced the greatest generation are part of that historical narrative.” 


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