A Note from Cottonwood Corners

When it was time to start classes in the rural school, which was usually at 9:00 AM, the teacher would step out on the front steps of the school and enthusiastically ring that polished vintage teacher’s brass bell.  With the wooden handle firmly in hand, that bell was able to produce a sound which could be heard half-a-mile away.  We were always told that the argument that “we didn’t hear the bell” was not a valid excuse!

This bell was also used when the morning and afternoon recess and noon hour had ended.  That dreaded sound always meant the end of play and a return to the desk and studies.  When not in use, it was always in a prominent place on the right-hand corner of the teacher’s desk.  Only students selected to ring the bell were allowed to touch it.

If you happened to somehow secure that bell from your school when it closed, you are lucky.  You now have a priceless reminder of an earlier time and many memorable experiences in that rural school which shaped your future.

A recent search of eBay indicated that there are now 465 of these bells for sale.  The most expensive bell being listed at $249.00 and $13.50 for expedited shipping.  Condition of the bell is reported as “good.”

Some of the rural schools had a larger bell that hung outside in the bell tower on the roof at the front of the school.  It was rung by pulling a rope which usually hung through a small hole in the ceiling near the school entrance.  This large bell was used only to signal the beginning of classes in the morning and only selected students were assigned the privilege of pulling the rope.  For those who rang the bell without permission, the punishment was almost always unpleasant.

Students who heard this bell ringing before they reached the schoolhouse could expect to be marked “tardy” on their next report card.  The amount of days that you were tardy during that six-week period was usually circled in red on the report card.  That card had to be signed by a parent before you returned it to the teacher.

Other items which were common in all the rural schools on the prairie included the portraits of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.  They were required by the Course of Study for all South Dakota schools.  These framed pictures, at least 16 x 20 or larger, were always displayed in a prominent place in the classroom.  Never in a dark corner or behind some object.  Their birthdays were always marked by memorizing and reciting poems about them or doing special art projects focused on these two great men.

Small individual slates for each student were first used in America.  As early 1730, ads for them were published in the newspapers.  They were purchased by the family and used by each child throughout their years in school.  They provided their own chalk which was stored in a cigar box that served as their pencil box to hold pencils, erasers, and other school supplies.

Over time, a large blackboard in front of the room replaced the personal slate which was used constantly by the teacher and students.  With that large blackboard, the teacher was able to teach everyone in school at once.  All eyes were focused on the teacher.

In many of the schools, the blackboards were used so much that the tray which caught the chalk dust had to be cleaned with a damp rag at the end of each day.  The teacher assigned this responsibility to different students for a week at a time.  Contrary to what many might think, this was one of most prized responsibilities.

Without question, the most prized responsibility was always the raising and lowering of the flag in front of the school when weather permitted.  Two students were selected for this task for a week at a time and the flag was always folded as prescribed by the United States Congress.  When properly folded, only four white stars showed on a blue triangle.

At least a 12-inch (preferably larger) mounted globe was always displayed on a table where students could study geography.  This model of the earth showed the various countries, states, seas, oceans, and mountains.  An understanding and knowledge of the globe made it possible for students in the rural school to comprehend world affairs.

Large mounted maps on a tri-pod were always in use by the students as they learned about the wider world around them.  Physical maps showed the landforms and oceans on the earth.  Political maps showed the boundaries of countries and states.

The six maps which were most often found in all rural schools were: Map of the World, United States Physical Map, World Elevation Map, The World Map, South Dakota Map, and United States Map.

Teachers in the one-room schoolhouse used common items around them to help their students learn.  Hands-on-tools did not have to be expensive.  A simple button jar made it possible for students to practice counting or sorting by colors.  This visual aid made adding and subtracting easier to learn and fun at the same time.

Those attending the rural school all brought their own lunch.  During the early years on the prairie, their lunch was usually carried to school in a Karo Syrup pail.  It was durable and easy to wash.  Over time, the square metal lunch box replaced the syrup pail.

During the recess or noon hour, students would often trade lunch items with their classmates.



Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on April 7, 2021