New book focuses on Indiana County's one-room schools
Two local writers and history buffs have added to the annals of Indiana County's past by researching, writing and publishing a 150-page book about the county's one-room schools.
Dorie Leathers of Blairsville Patricia Johner of Indiana co-authored the compilation, titled “A Country School Primer,” in a painstaking process that involved months of digging through dusty volumes and identifying people in decades-old school photos.
“We just kept at it” over two years' time, said Leathers.
According to Leathers, the book was sparked by a comment from Coleen Chambers, executive director of the Historical and Genealogical Society of Indiana County, who noted that many patrons were coming to the society's Indiana museum and library with questions about one-room schools.
The book covers the structures that were on the front line of Indiana County education from the early 1800s through the mid-20th century. Classes were sometimes held in a home or an abandoned log cabin until enough money was gathered to build a school.
Johner said one of the first local one-room schools popped up in Indiana shortly after it was incorporated as a borough, on March 11, 1816.
The borough school was unusual among the more than 230 one-room schools the authors were able to identify in Indiana County.
“Basically, they're your rural, country schools,” Leathers said. “The town schools were always more than one room.”
The majority of the one-room buildings were phased out by the mid-20th century as a number of schools were consolidated.
“It was pretty much over by then. They started to shut them down based on population,” said Leathers, though several are still standing today.
“There are a few that are still in very good shape,” she said, noting that one in Smicksburg now houses an antique shop.
Much of the material for the book was gleaned from information available at the Historical and Genealogical Society of Indiana County, including two older history compilations — one known as Caldwell's History of Indiana County and the other produced by J.T. Stewart, a former superintendent of county schools. Leathers and Johner also referred to the late Clarence Stephenson's more recent multi-volume history of the county.
Newspaper clippings, histories of education in Indiana County and memorabilia from the schools, some dating back to the late 1800s, were also used. Another source of information was booklets student groups distributed when they held school reunions.
Johner said the book features reproductions of old maps, some showing where school district borders once were located in each of the county's townships.
“We tried to map out where the schools were, but...the names of the schools often changed as they moved to a different location,” often from one farm to another, Johner said. “Some were identified just by a number. That was the most time-consuming part of the research that Dorie did, identifying which school matched the numbers on the maps.”
Along with the historic maps, Leathers incorporated modern photographs of school buildings that still stand today, as well as period photos of teachers and students taken at many of the one-room schools.
Leathers said one of the main objectives with the book project was to obtain photos of old one-room schools and to identify the students shown in them and in ones already in the society archives.
She said the pair checked with other historical societies in the county and issued requests for people to loan old school photos to be scanned for the book.
Appeals for photographs, memorabilia and other information about the one-room schools in the county were made through the historical society's monthly newsletter, “Clark House News,” which Leathers edits, and through newspaper announcements.
“A number of people brought in photographs they have, and those were very helpful,” Johner said.
“I waited and waited for more photographs to come in,” said Leathers. “We did get a good many responses. I tried to go with the photos for the most part that had the identifications with them. A good many do identify all the students in the picture and the teacher. They're from the late 1800s right through the 1940s.”
When collecting firsthand accounts from former one-room school students, Leathers said she was amazed by “how loyal they are to these schools, how they look back with very fond memories. That's the kind of thing we were trying to get across.”
Johner indicated that the majority of the work on the book was done by Leathers, who located, identified and scanned photos, compiled information and designed the cover. Leathers also wrote the index, “which is not easy to do,” Johner said.
Along with completing a lot of the research, Johner said she wrote a number of the book's essays and compiled the list of sources they used while also editing and proofreading the content.
As an English major, Johner said she loves to write, “So I really enjoyed this. This was a fun project to work on.
“I did a lot of the writing, but Dorie does all of the design.”
Leathers and Johner worked separately throughout most of the process, coming together toward the end to decide on the book's layout.
Johner, a research librarian, has volunteered at the county historical society and has helped numerous people who have come to trace their family history. Her interest in genealogy stems from her mother's research into their own family roots, which led back to some of the original settlers in the county.
“It's fun to help people with their research,” Johner said.
The book's pages were reproduced from a flash drive at an Indiana copy shop. But, Leathers used her own equipment to fasten a spiral binding on all of the copies.
“I do my own binding,” she said. “It saves money not having it professionally bound. There aren't very many places where you can get a short-run publication done.”
Originally, 100 copies of the book were made, and the publication is selling well, Johner said.
The books are available only at the Historical and Genealogical Society of Indiana County and are sold for $24.95, with all proceeds benefiting the historical society.
The book was made available in November, but the first big push to sell them occurred at the historical society's holiday open house, on Dec. 13.
Johner said people at the open house were flipping through the book, and many of them were pleasantly surprised to find photos of their mothers, who were schoolteachers. Some even recognizing themselves in class photos.
The book's essays cover topics from the McGuffey readers and how important they were in early education to past disciplinary measures.
One chapter features student essays from the 1900s written by 12- and 13-year-olds on subject matters that were of interest to them. Everything from Thanksgiving to lumbering to snow were addressed by the young writers.
“You read these things — they're 12 or 13, and they did a really good job writing,” Johner said.
One chapter deals with the participation of Indiana County schools in the 1904 World's Fair at St. Louis, Mo. That year, teachers in one-room schools across the county worked to put together a display of their students' work to be judged in a state-wide competition.
The Indiana County display included photographs, drawings, writing systems and student work in language, arithmetic and botany.
The Indiana County display won the state competition, taking $30 in prize money, and then was entered at the World's Fair, where it won the gold medal from among rural schools throughout the United States, Johner said.
“We just hit on it by accident reading the old newspapers,” Leathers said of the award. She credits Johner for writing the account of that honor that appears in the pair's book.
Other essay topics included keeping order in the classroom; reading, writing and ciphering; schoolteachers' required training; the relationship between the schools and the community; and former students' memories of their teachers.
Former students Leathers talked with had many common memories, she said.
“They remembered that they literally put petroleum down on the floor to keep the dust down,” she recalled. “The smell permeated everything in the fall,” when the students arrived for the new term.
“Another thing everybody seemed to comment on was how warm it was by the potbelly stove and how frigid cold it was over by the windows.”
In early school days, students wrote on individual slates instead of paper.
Pre-dating the traditional textbook were hornbooks, which are discussed in another of the book's essays. As Johner explained it, hornbooks were fashioned when a piece of paper, usually featuring the alphabet or a proverb, was fixed to a wooden paddle and then covered with a thin, translucent layer of cattle horn. Next came more advanced “battledores” that often included illustrations. These were made of cardboard that was shaped into a rectangle and folded into thirds, Johner said.
Leathers described the Germany School in West Wheatfield Township as one of the most attractive of the old school buildings for which she'd found a photo.
While the authors obtained a few photos showing only the exteriors of old school buildings, Leathers noted most are of students lined up posing with their teacher.
“Photographers would come through every year,” stopping in turn at the different schools to take the class photos outside of the building, said Leathers.
Leathers remarked that some concepts in teaching have come full circle to the days of the one-room schools, when one teacher was often responsible for knowing and responding to the varying strengths and weaknesses of individual students across a broad range of grade levels.
“Nowadays the big thrust is on individualized instruction,” Leathers said. “They sure knew how to do it then.”
Teachers in one-room schools also were responsible for things that would be handled in modern times by janitorial or maintenance staff, or distributors of ready-made school supplies.
At one time, Leathers noted, teachers were “to bring water and coal and whittle the nibs” for student's old-fashioned quill pens.
Johner also pointed out, “People got together to raise money for these schools.”
She noted, before taxes became one of the main sources of funding for public schools, parents had to purchase subscriptions to a school, which paid the teachers' salaries. Fundraisers such as pie socials were held to raise money for textbooks, musical instruments and other items.
Leathers noted that many of the old school buildings were used for more than just lessons during the regular school day: “They were used for churches, singing societies, for spelling bees, literary societies....”
She said the Gordon School in Blacklick Township was known for a long-running literary society.
“There was no separation of church and state back then,” Johner said. “Religion was a very important component in these early schools,” with Bibles serving as many of the students' first textbooks.
Leathers said she previously published other volumes for the historical society, including lists of births, deaths and marriages in the county.
Johner aided Leathers in many of these endeavors. She wrote an introduction, edited and proofread a history of covered bridges for Leathers, and they collaborated on two genealogical research aides — one a listing of obituaries, another a compilation of wills that had been published in newspapers.
Leathers hopes people will continue to submit photos, particularly from the southern end of Indiana County. Help is also needed with some photos showing students that remain unidentified.
“I'm hoping in the long run this might encourage people to go digging through their attics,” to look for old school photos to share, Leathers said.
She's hoping to get more photos and information on one-room schools from several local municipalities including Burrell and Young townships.
Any additional material received could show up in the society newsletters or possibly a follow-up book on more county one-room schools.
Johner said if enough information can be gleaned from the research they've done, she would be open to helping with a follow-up book on one-room schools that are still standing in the county.
Those wishing to donate hard copies of old school photos can bring or mail them to the Historical and Genealogical Society of Indiana County, 621 Wayne Ave., Indiana, Pa. 15701. Digital copies of photos can be e-mailed to Leathers at DSL246@verizon.net.
Gina DelFavero is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2915 or email@example.com.