Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Pioneer Schools
Nature Bulletin No. 283-A   November 18, 1967
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Richard B. Ogilvie, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. 

Our big city schools and our modern consolidated schools in the smaller rural communities are so familiar that we are apt to forget the crude one-room schoolhouses where our forefathers learned the 3 R's --- readin', writin' and 'rithmetic -- and the part they played in our national history. In the Middle West, in pioneer days, people were too busy clearing land for fields, draining swamps, building roads and struggling for bare existence, to think much about education. Besides, children were needed to help tend crops, do the chores, and help their mother.

Although the Ordinance of 1787, which created the Northwest Territory, decreed that a square mile of land -- Section 16 -- be set aside in each township for the support of its schools, the first free tax- supported schools were not established here in the Middle West until about a hundred years ago and, because of the hardships of the Civil War, did not become widespread until the 1870's. Since most of the population lived on farms or in small towns, and because transportation was very difficult, the one-room schoolhouse with one teacher was the rule.

Before that time, many of our ancestors learned to read and write, if at all, from their own parents or from part-time teachers, called "masters", who were paid a small amount for each child and boarded around, in turn, at the homes of the pupils. Generally, the teacher was a young man studying for the ministry or the law; or a young farmer or laborer who arranged to teach in some vacant building for several weeks during late fall and winter. In many cases, the discipline was harsh and whippings were common. Sometimes the older boys whipped the teacher. Most children, like young Abraham Lincoln, had only one or two years of schooling. School books were very scarce. In addition to reading, spelling and penmanship, he sometimes taught a little arithmetic -- "ciphering".

The first free school was often a log cabin with a fireplace and a dirt floor, built by the parents themselves. The teacher had a pulpit-like desk at the front and the pupils sat on split-log benches along the sides. Later, when they could afford a frame building with a floor, it was heated by a big pot-bellied wood-burning stove in the center, and the children sat at long desks. Lessons were prepared on slates, framed with wood, and written with a squeaking slate pencil. They were erased with a damp piece of sponge tied to the frame with string, or by spitting on the slate and subbing it with one's sleeve. The early pens were made of goose quills, and the ink from dry ink-powder. Paper was scarce.

In colonial times, spelling was not standardized and even well-educated men often spelled the same word in two or three different ways on the same page. Noah Webster prepared an American speller long before he did his dictionary, and spelling became one of the most popular pastimes. Both grownups and children took part in "spell downs' at the school or in winter evenings at home. There were few readers until the 50's when McGuffy's readers became widely used. There were contests in mental arithmetic, reciting the multiplication tables, and ciphering matches at the blackboard. On Friday afternoons, and at the end of each term, prizes were given for the best recitation of poetry and for the best piece of oratory. Formal debates between older pupils, or adults, were very popular and the subjects usually chosen were such controversial questions as "Flood is worse than Fire", or.

Resolved: That the Pen is mightier than the Sword.

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