By Kris Leonhardt
“Since the schools are supported in part by local taxation, their condition may be taken as an index to the prosperity, liberality, and public spirit of the people. Hence, citizens of Clark County point with pride to the white school houses that dot the green sward of the playgrounds at short intervals along every highway. In many districts the first schoolhouse was built of logs as it could be quickly and cheaply constructed, but few of these remain, and the neatly painted frame buildings and the substantial brick structures put to shame many older communities in less progressive lands.” — 1890 Clark County School Superintendent Geo E. Crothers.
These words by Crothers reflect the progressiveness of the public school system in Wisconsin’s early days. In the early 1840s Wisconsin territorial legislature passed laws for the formation of school districts, school tax levies, and commissioners to oversee teachers’ exams and school inspections.
However, it was the communities that ultimately provided for the children’s education. Schools were locally controlled and often privately funded due to low public support. The communities were responsible for the hiring of teachers and the construction of school facilities.
When Article X of the Wisconsin Constitution was created in 1848, Wisconsin became a forerunner in providing free education. Article X provided for free public schools for all children ages 4 to 18 with local taxes for school support. It was not until 1865 that free education was available throughout the United States.
The goals of early schools included building abilities for work and introducing life skills such as good health, moral conduct, and citizenship. In the 1930s there were 6,500 one-room schools in the state of Wisconsin.
Students worked at their desks with either slates or paper with ink and pen. They were given three recesses, one in the morning, the evening, and at lunchtime. Students were also given chores like fetching drinking water, carrying the stove wood, or erasing the blackboard.
The schools had no running water. Drinking water needed to be pumped from the well outside. Students also needed to ask permission to use the outhouse and had to wash their hands in a basin at the back of the school room.
Lessons were given according to ability, not age. Students were permitted to “learn ahead” or listen in on classes given to more advanced students. When classes were missed, students were also allowed to catch up by listening to lessons already given.
Teachers worked for meager pay and changed schools often. They were responsible for all eight grades and gave 20 class sessions per day. The curriculum was often based on the “three R’s:” reading, writing, and arithmetic. Students also received lessons in spelling, penmanship, grammar, history, and geography.
Many times teachers were just barely older than their students, as was the case for Marshfield resident Ivy Sorenson. Sorenson, now 105, was 16 years old when she began her teaching career at the Sunshine School west of Unity.
“I was just 16 years old when I started,” said Sorenson. “Two boys were 15 and in the eighth grade.”
Next week: The life of a school teacher