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The Rural Little Schools

Nestled along the side roads of 19th century America, little schoolhouses dotted the landscape. Their building shapes were as unique as the people entering through their doors. From simple designs to an elaborate architectural theme, these structures defined character and future dreams. The size depended on the need, which corresponded with the population of the area. But, each one was just as important as all the others. Spelling, history, recitations, geography, and multiplication echoed within the classroom. Excitement and frustration fill the air as eyes open to a brand new world filled with knowledge and daily tasks that made up a small part of the average curriculum. It was in one of these little schoolhouses that our ancestors learned to read, enjoyed the company of their friends, and experienced some of life’s best moments.

Piney Grove School now located at 4th of July Park in Kernersville, NC. (courtesy of Ollie Thomas-flickr)

One such school was located just outside the small town of Kernersville. The area sits along the southeastern sections of Forsyth County, NC, and encompasses history dating to the mid 18th century. By 1880, Kernersville had developed into a thriving community filled with several tobacco warehouses, a furniture factory, and Main Street with general stores displaying the latest merchandise. The area known as Piney Grove lies just a few miles northeast of Kernersville. The tall vast pine trees cascade over the landscape in this once very rural area of Forsyth County. Comprised mainly of tobacco farmers, the families all knew each other well and worked together to prosper their wealth and well-being. As the area grew, the local children needed a school. Kernersville had schools within the town limits, and these did not benefit the rural areas beyond Kernersville. A new school emerged in 1870 with the name of Piney Grove School.

It was this school that my great grandfather and grandfather enrolled as students. I have in my family collection report cards displaying my grandfather’s grades, and I also have several of his school books. The school bordered John Motsinger’s property, my 2nd great grandfather. When the original building became too small for the attending students, John Motsinger donated one acre of his property for a larger structure. The original building sits at the 4th of July Park located in Kernersville. Several events are held throughout the year to view the school. The rules of the school during 1870 allowed girls to enter the school first, and boys followed. Girls were seated on the left side of the room while boys sat on the right. All children remained standing until the Pledge of Allegiance was read. Good manners were required, or a student could find themselves in a sit-in-the-corner chair.

One Room Schoolhouse Setting (courtesy of educationviews.org)

The teacher taught grades 1 through 8 in this setting, one room, one source of heat, one slate board (chalkboard), and one clock. The school term began after Labor Day in September and continued for 132 days, but this changed throughout different areas. Before completing the 8th grade, a student takes a final exam. Can you pass the average final exam of 1880? Five questions or problems for each subject usually make up the final exam. I have included one question for each topic below. Order for questions is Grammar, Arithmetic, U.S. History, and Orthography.

What are the principal parts of a verb? Give the Principal parts of do, lie, lay and run.
a wagon box is 2ft. deep, 10ft. long and 3ft wide. How many bushels of wheat will it hold?
describe three of the most prominent battles of the rebellion.
what are the following and give examples. trigraph, subvocals, diphthong, cognate, linguals.

By the 1920s, the one-room schoolhouses were disappearing. The children who once attended these rural schools shared stories with the younger generation. We have all heard how many miles they walked to get to school. By the 1930s, transportation provided students a way to get to school, and school meals served in the cafeteria were available for each student. The metal lunch pails, replaced with modern lunch boxes or brown paper bags. The teacher became teachers, and schools became several buildings with gyms, auditoriums, baseball, and football fields.

A family historian can gain interesting material from researching these early rural schools. Many have become restoration projects like the case of Piney Grove School. Several records stored within local historical organizations give a glimpse into the past and how these schools operated. The little schools helped to shape this country with not only education but with the interaction of others. Opinions, debates, presentations, and simple talks during recess all played a significant role with the future. Many of the U.S. presidents and leaders obtained their initial start in a one-room schoolhouse. The Piney Grove School continued in the one-room building until 1898. The room measured only 16’x21′. After the completion of the new building, the school became a storage area for cured tobacco.

First school in Vienna, Virginia (photo courtesy of Library of Congress)

Going back in time and reflecting upon my school days, it is hard to imagine the daily routine of attending school with all grades in one room. The teachers must have felt overwhelmed at times and frustrated while maintaining the overall class with control. The average attendance ranged from 10 to 30 students, and I believe this allowed more one-on-one guidance and direction between teacher and pupil. How many of you answered the final exam questions? Share your answer to the math problem in the comments. Research the rural schools and their records. You may be surprised at your findings. Enjoy Your Journey To The Past !!


7 replies »

  1. Like all of your posts, this one was very interesting. Thank you for your great work. However, you should know that Kernersville is in the Eastern part of Forsyth County, not the Southwestern part as you stated.


    Liked by 1 person

    • (laughing at myself) You are absolutely right and I will correct that right now. You would think I would know where my hometown is located. Thanks for pointing this out to me Clarence and wishing you well with your journey to the past !!


  2. Carol, I went to Mill Creek Country School in Union Co, Il. for 8 years. Same teacher for 7 years. The school was in operation until about 1960 when the country schools all merged. I graduated in 1954 we had 7 in our grade a large class.
    My Dad born 1890 went to Miller School in Union Co, IL. I think he only went 4 or 5 years. His Dad died 1910 and mother 1912. My mother went to Holshouser School in Union Co, IL. It was on her family farm.

    Thank you for your article. It brought back many memories. The older kids would help teach the younger one in the back of the room or in the coat room.

    Weldon Brown 1939–

    Liked by 1 person

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