Reflections – Rural School Remnants

August 18, 2022

In spite of the demands of surviving on the open prairie, DeKalb County settlers began efforts to set up schools almost immediately after they arrived in the 1830s. And though rural schools were a remnant of the county’s earliest educational efforts, it’s likely that you know someone who attended DeKalb County’s rural schools.

According to “Rural School Journeys: A Legacy of Learning,” the outstanding 2006 book by the DeKalb County Historical-Genealogical Society, “Between the late 1830s and 1957, when the last one-room school closed, DeKalb County children were educated primarily in approximately 160 one-room schools scattered throughout 19 townships.”

The earliest schools were built of logs and furnished with wooden benches. They were poorly heated by fire and occasionally had a well for water.

The school “was often named by the last name of the farmer who donated land for the school or whose land surrounded (or was across the road from) the school.” Other school names were based on the location of the school. But the names of some schools, as well as their district number, changed quite frequently.

Slade School, DeKalb Township, c. 1889

According to early reports, “By 1862, DeKalb had 144 schools (one-room and graded) attended by over 6,000 scholars.” An 1885 history relates that DeKalb County was “divided into 165 districts, in which are 170 school-houses, and employs 215 teachers, 62 of whom teach in the 12 graded schools” and the “old log school-houses of the earlier days have all given place to frame and brick buildings.”

After 1929, Northern Illinois State Teachers College (NIU) “used three DeKalb County one-room schools–Lovell, Five Points, and Coltonville–as training schools.”

Mary E. Safford (1868-1949) recalled, “The winter terms used to begin in November, when corn was husked, so the big boys and girls could attend. My first winter there were about fifty pupils including two engaged couples! They were very discreet, however, for small boys and girls can make embarrassing remarks.” “The summer term began in May, and lasted four months with a two weeks’ vacation in August,” Safford wrote.

Students were sometimes older than today. According to “Rural School Journeys,” “Many boys attended school only when they could snatch time from the heavy demands of farming. The result was that male students as old as 17 or even 25 were sometimes sitting in a one-room school.” As a result, teachers “had to teach a variety of subjects to students of varying ages and competencies.”

Over time, rural schools “closed because of many factors–fewer rural students, better roads and school buses, a broader school curriculum,” among other challenges. This meant that “DeKalb County was among the first in the state to consolidate schools into a larger district, when eight schools in Paw Paw township combined to form Rollo Consolidated school in 1912.”

Church School, Somonauk Township, c. 1887

“The last DeKalb County one-room school to close was Fay District #107 located in Squaw Grove Township, about two miles southwest of the village of Hinckley,” according to “Rural School Journeys.” When it closed in 1957, “it had twelve students, two of whom [Nancy Davis and Janet Larson] were graduating eighth-graders.”

Schoolhouses and the lands owned by the school district were auctioned off. Most of the rural schools that still stand today are homes or storage buildings.

Information provided by the DeKalb County History Center. For more information visit
www.DeKalbCountyHistory.org.


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