Rural Missouri Magazine

Schoolhouse Lessons
Restored one-room Rockford School
brings history of public education alive

by Bob McEowen

Shawna Sheldon, a fourth-grade student at Pleasant Hill Elementary School gets a taste of old-fashioned school discipline writing “I will not talk out in class” repeatedly on the blackboard at the Rockford School, a restored one-room schoolhouse. Located at McEowen Elementary School in Harrisonville, the schoolhouse serves as a living-history classroom where students from Cass County can experience early public education.

There’s an uncommon formality in Teresa Lally’s fourth-grade class at Rockford School. Students sit upright at their desks, raise their hands and wait to be called on.

Accustomed to greater freedom in the classroom, Shawna Sheldon speaks out of turn and finds herself the subject of unwelcome attention from her teacher.

“Shawna, go to the blackboard and write 100 times, ‘I will not talk out in class,’” Lally says.

Sheldon laughs off the instruction but Lally is serious. Even standing in front of the painted blackboard with chalk in hand the fourth-grader hesitates and looks to the class and again to her teacher for some clue that the joke is finished. It isn’t.

When Sheldon has completed about 10 lines of her assignment Lally smiles and tells her she may sit down. This was just one of many lessons in 19th and early 20th-century classroom discipline this day as Lally asks one student to stand with her nose to a circle drawn on the blackboard and even suggests to another there might be a switch waiting outside.

“They don’t have that concept that a teacher could mistreat them and that would be fine,” Lally says. “I don’t think it’s appropriate. But it’s kind of fun to play with it a little bit.”

Classroom discipline is just one subject of learning as students from Pleasant Hill spend the day at Rockford School, a restored 19th-century one-room schoolhouse located on the grounds of Harrisonville’s D.W. McEowen Elementary School. The children also write with a quill pen, read aloud from McGuffey’s Eclectic Reader and compete in an old-fashioned spelling bee using words from the book.

Students arrive by bus at Rockford School, where children originally walked or rode ponies to school.

The Rockford School, originally built in 1876 and closed in 1957, is now a living history classroom where today’s students can experience public education as it was in the days before school buses and computers in every classroom.

“I had a long-time dream that we ought to bring a rural school in so we could preserve a little bit of our rural heritage,” says John Foster, a retired building contractor who attended Rockford School from 1941 through 1949 and spearheaded the effort to save the old school.

“I wanted them to realize that we had farm chores to do. We walked to school or we rode our pony. There were a lot of economically deprived people but we got an education.”

Judging from the results of the spelling bee, it was a pretty good education. McGuffey’s vocabulary is a lot tougher than what students are taught today. “Academy,” the first word on the list knocked 20 of Lally’s 24 students out of the spelling bee.

“They were expected to do a lot harder things than we have to do now,” says Stacy Greufe, another Pleasant Hill teacher who brought her students to the Rockford School recently. “I think it’s good for them to see that.”

Katie Graham tries writing with a quill pen. Students visiting the one-room schoolhouse are encouraged to dress in period costume.

As much as the old lessons differ from today’s curriculum, the aim of the school is not to highlight any failings in today’s schools.

“It’s definitely not about the good old days. Today is the good old days,” Foster says. “It’s about public education. We have to remember our roots and what made this nation great. Public education is one of the keys.”

Foster is quick to recall the history of public education in Cass County where Rockford was one of 128 schools prior to school consolidations. It’s a matter of pride to him that the first school superintendent was hired in 1855, just 20 years after the county was platted. He’s also proud of the education he received both at Harrisonville High School and at the Rockford School.

“I would not be the one to ask about spelling, but math, yes. Man, it was tremendously interesting to me from the time I was a first grader,” he says.

“I’ve used that math all the way through life. As a carpenter I was the guy who was asked to cut the rafters and the stairs and things like that because I understood how that went and could read the framing square.”

Foster went on to operate his own company building homes and commercial buildings. In 1995 he dismissed his crews and retired to ply his skills on volunteer projects. One of his top priorities was finding an old school.

In the summer of 1999 Foster heard his old school was available. The building, then located about five miles west of its current location, had been used as a hunting cabin but was soon to be destroyed.

“A fella came by and told me, ‘John, they’re going to burn your old school down,” Foster recalls. “It took me about 15 seconds to make the decision that I’m going to go get that building.”

John Foster answers questions from fourth-graders in the Rockford School. Foster attended the school and it was his idea to recreate it as a living history classroom. The retired building contractor often drops in on visiting classes.

Foster convinced the owners to let him have the schoolhouse and rather than try to move the building he dismantled it. Once he had the building safely squirreled away in a warehouse, Foster approached the Harrisonville School Board with his idea for a living history classroom aimed at fourth-grade students. Foster pitched the schoolhouse as a way to make Missouri history — part of the fourth-grade curriculum — come alive. The district was sold.

A 10-member committee made up of Foster, community volunteers and several educators set to work to raise funds. By the time the building was dedicated in September 2001, they had raised $145,000 in cash and in-kind contributions. Even with that the project isn’t done. They’re still raising money to complete a rural schools archive in the basement.

While that seems like a lot to spend on a simple schoolhouse, times indeed have changed. Not only does today’s Rockford School have electricity — the original school was not wired until 1951 — but also air conditioning, central heat and a security system. It is also wheelchair accessible.

Pleasant Hill Elementary School teacher Teresa Lally quizzes her fourth-grade students on vocabulary words from “McGuffey’s Eclectic Reader.” The spelling bee based on the 19th-century schoolbook proved difficult for the modern students.

Also, there’s not a lot of the original building left. Because of the age of the building and the widespread use of lead paint it was necessary to discard nearly anything exposed. Only the original flooring and framing lumber were saved, as were a couple of light fixtures.

Despite the reconstruction and up-to-date amenities, the Rockford School retains enough history to allow children to slip back into another time.

“Kids can go and role play history for the day and imagine themselves living at that time,” says Donna Pfautsch, a gifted students specialist for Harrisonville schools who developed the curriculum teachers use while visiting the Rockford School.“It’s active learning. Besides seeing and reading, you actually do.”

The Rockford School has only been in use for a few months but it’s fast becoming a valuable resource not only for Harrisonville teachers but also for schools throughout Cass County. Foster, who often drops in on visiting classes to answer questions, says he hopes it will be used even more in the future.

“There’s 95 fourth-grade classes in Cass County. If all the superintendents of schools and the elementary principals would understand what we’ve got here, what a great teaching tool for kids this is,” he says, his voice trailing off as if considering the impact his dream could have on children.

“It’s great. It’s just great to see these little guys here,” Foster says.

For more information call the Harrisonville Public School Foundation at (816) 380-2727.

Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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