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Remembering those one-room schoolhouses
MILLERSVILLE, Pa. — Gladys Mohler vividly remembers her first school.
When she set off for class in the fall of 1932, the Excelsior School was just over the fence from her parents’ farm in Manor Township.
Her dog would follow her to the little brick schoolhouse.
“The teacher would let her come in and lie down by my desk,” Mohler reminisces.
The one-room school let her hear the older students’ lessons, which helped Mohler learn enough to skip the second grade.
Until about 50 years ago, most Lancaster County residents learned in one-room schoolhouses like Mohler’s.
Then, several rounds of school consolidations brought students together into larger centralized buildings. Today, Amish school systems continue to teach in these small buildings. Yet for most public school students, the history of local one-room schoolhouses lives on only through stories like Mohler’s.
Millersville Area Historical Society will host a panel discussion Feb. 13 to share memories of local one-room schoolhouses. A panel will talk about attending and teaching in these schools.
As a researcher at Lancasterhistory.org, Mary Virginia “Ginger” Shelley quickly learned the difficulties involved in studying these schools. For example, there were 11 different schoolhouses called Fairview School. So she created a school database.
After she retired, Shelley still thought about those schools. With her husband at the wheel and Shelley navigating with atlases from the late 1800s, they found more than 300 throughout Lancaster County.
Her research led Shelley to publish last month “Lancaster County’s One-Room Schools and the History of the Common School Movement.” The book explains the history of public education in Lancaster County and lists the one-room schoolhouses known in each of the county’s municipalities.
With the help of the Camera Club at Willow Valley, Shelley’s book has modern photos of many of the schools still standing. Some are houses, but they also discovered different second acts: a bed and breakfast, an architecture firm and a fire company meeting hall. And some have been destroyed.
Some owners have tried to preserve the look of the schoolhouse more than others.
One had enough additions and modern layers to surprise even the researcher. Shelley didn’t realize a house she passed daily was actually a schoolhouse on her list.
But the schools aren’t just a relic of the past in Lancaster County.
“Thirty-six of them have been purchased by the Amish, and they operate just the same as they did in the 19th century,” Shelley said. “It’s amazing.”
Phil Gerber, president of the historical society, was inspired to organize the panel discussion after hearing and reading stories about one-room schoolhouses that were generations and cultures apart.
Gerber heard a radio interview with Arthur Goldberg, an attorney who was appointed by John F. Kennedy to the Supreme Court. In the interview, Goldberg talked about how important it was to hear the lessons of the older students in his school.
Gerber also read the diaries of Peter C. Hiller, a teacher in the Conestoga area in the late 1800s.
Why not start a discussion at the society, he thought.
“It’s local history,” Gerber said. “There’s still people who attended and even taught in one-room schoolhouses.”
He contacted five people, including Mohler, and asked them to share their memories of their one-room schools. It’s a topic he believes will resonate.
“What I’m expecting is an older crowd who also had an experience with one-room schoolhouses,” he said. “The question and answer period I’m sure is going to be really lively.”
While Mohler’s school days ended decades ago, she remembers each student bringing a potato to school, carving initials into the skin and then popping them inside the big stove.
“You could sure smell them closer to noon,” she said.
The school was across the road from Habecker Mennonite Church. Through the windows, students could see the church cemetery.
The schools consolidated a few years later and, in fifth grade, Mohler went to Central Manor Consolidated School. Later, her one-room schoolhouse was demolished.
Mohler graduated early and eventually went to business college. After her son went to college, she became a regional Avon manager, overseeing a sales team of 130.
Before she became a boss, however, Mohler remembers being punished for whispering in that one-room school.
Her punishment was sitting in a big chair in front of the library. It wasn’t much of a punishment, she said with a laugh, because young Gladys would read the titles and pick out which books she would borrow next.
Lancaster County had more than 500 one-room schoolhouses in the late 19th century. About 320 of them are still standing; many of them have been turned into private residences.