Exactly how many schools?

Counting all rural schools at the turn of the last century, most of which were one room and often with a single teacher, then one comes up with the astounding number of 9,000 one room schools dotting the Kansas landscape like so many sunflowers. This number peaked as an influx of homesteaders and emigrants swelled the population.And the tide reversed itself as cities were built, farms combined, or were abandoned by homesteaders who discovered the vagaries of Kansas weather. Farming practices would change radically with the arrival of the automobile and the reaper. Automobiles made it possible to transport children to district schools.

Where a school was built had to do with the location of a rural community, or, if in the countryside, then the location often had to do a friendly landowner who donated space in his fields. A general rule is that schools in the countryside needed to be within walking distance or accessible by horseback.

By 1945, the number of schools dropped to 7,200. By 1963, the Kansas Legislature unified rural schools into districts. Then, there were only 427 one-room schools, mostly in eastern Kansas.

Preserving the remaining schools and the memories of teachers and students is an on-going project. Kansas Heritage One Room School Project.

The materials used in constructing the schools often mirrored that of the community. In eastern Kansas, early schools like Arvonia were built of native limestone, or as with the Shawnee Indian Mission, of brick. Many schools throughout Kansas were built of wooden clapboard, such as the German Lutheran School. In western Kansas, some early schools, like the Thomas County School, were "soddies", because of the lack of timber and stone.

Shawnee Indian Mission School

The distinction of the first school in Kansas goes to the Shawnee Indian Mission School established in 1839. The mission is located in Fairway, Kansas, a suburb of Kansas City, just off of Shawnee Mission Parkway and west of the Plaza shopping area.The school was founded by the Reverend Thomas Johnson, for whom Johnson County is named. Reverend Johnson began his mission to the Indians in 1832, and began construction of the brick school in 1839.

A good account of the history of the Shawnee Indian Mission School. The History of Johnson County, by Ed Blair

At its height the mission covered 2,000 acres with 16 buildings, including the three brick buildings housing male and female students and teachers, and still stand today. The school had an enrollment of nearly 200 Indian boys and girls from the ages of five to 23, who were taught English and manual trades. Kansapedia. The boys building is today a museum.

Settling Kansas

In 1854 passage of the Kansas–Nebraska Act opened Kansas and Nebraska to settlement. And a rush was on to find good land. Settlers poured in from Iowa, Missouri, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, and many of the other states of the Union. The early days of settlement was a contest between Free-Staters and Slaveholders to determine how Kansas would be admitted to the Union. Conflicting constitutions were passed and Kansas had its own bloody conflict before the Civil War.

A second rush of emigration in Kansas took place after the Civil War and with the passage of the Homestead Act providing for 160 acres of land to anyone who could "prove" a claim. In addition, Land Companies, which had bought up huge tracts of land sold farmsteads cheaply to easterners hungry for a new opportunity.


Perhaps the most widely read book about Kansas' one room schools comes from Laura Ingalls Wilder. Little House on the Prairie, relates the years 1869 and 1870, when the Ingalls family settled on land owned by the Osage Indians near Independence, Kansas.Unsettled claims to the land likely forced the family to move north to Minnesota.

Laura was herself a teacher. Shortly before her sixteenth birthday, Laura accepted her first teaching position, teaching three terms in one-room schools in Desmet, South Dakota. Her career as a teacher ended on her 18th birthday when she married Almanzo Wilder.

Pay for teachers varied. Records in the Chase County courthouse reveal that Chase County teachers in the 1870's were paid $30 to $35 a month. Often a teacher would remain at home with her parents, or find accommodations with local residents.Most teachers did not stay long, for the job was hard and the pay was low.

The rules of conduct for teachers also varied greatly by circumstance.

Here is a list of rules from 1872:
  1. Teachers each day will fill lamps, clean chimneys.
  2. Each teacher will bring a bucket of water and a scuttle of coal for the day’s session.
  3. Make your pens carefully. You may whittle nibs to the individual taste of the pupils.
  4. Men teachers may take one evening each week for courting purposes, or two evenings a week if they go to church.
  5. After ten hours in school, the teachers may spend the remaining time reading the Bible or other good books.
  6. Women teachers who marry or engage in unseemly conduct will be dismissed.
  7. Every good teacher should lay aside from each pay a goodly sum of his earnings for his benefit during his declining years so that he will not be a burden on society.
  8. Any teacher who smokes, uses liquor in any form, frequents pool or public halls, or gets shaved in a barber shop will give good reason to suspect his worth, intention, integrity, and honesty.
  9. The teacher who performs his labor faithfully and without fault for five years will be given an increase of twenty-five cents per week in his pay, providing the Board of Education approves.
Raymond Bial, One-Room School (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999), page 29. See the College of Education, Blackwell, NIU for a good discussion of teaching in one room schools.