The earliest schools in Dakota Territory were small and whatever the earliest settlers could afford. The first students were taught by their parents in the home. The first public school in Dakota Territory was in Bon Homme County, built in 1860. This 14 x 16 crude structure made of logs had nine students. Emma Bradford was their teacher.
By 1883, there were three hundred and eighty-five public schools in Dakota Territory. The number of schools expanded to three thousand by 1889. Almost all were rural one-room schoolhouses.
Most of the first school districts were about two by three miles in size. It was the local citizens who established the district boundaries and they generally put the one-room schools within two or three miles of the elementary-aged students.
In the beginning, school funding was a problem — just as it is today! General William H. Beadle demanded that the 16th and 36th section of each township be set aside for public school use. At that time no school land could be purchased for less than $10 per acre. This was an extremely high price for land at that time. Proceeds from the sale or lease were deposited in a permanent trust fund. Only the interest from the fund could be used for supporting the schools.
The school buildings varied depending what the local citizens and the district could afford. White painted wooded clap-board construction was the most common. Some were made of brick.
Those living near that rural school used it for all sorts of functions. It was the largest building available and was a symbol of culture out on the prairie. There was a feeling that the schoolhouse belonged to all the people and they all felt welcome.
The two biggest activities at the schools was the Christmas program in December and the picnic on the last day of school in May. Everyone in the surrounding area came to both of these events.
The opportunity to just visit and have a good time was precious — especially for the women. They seldom got to town so the church and school functions were of utmost importance to them. During the early years, many of these ladies were lucky to hear the voice of another woman once a month.
One of the joys of the Christmas season on the prairie was the night of that Christmas program. No matter how rural and remote, this was the highlight which all living nearby eagerly anticipated. Everyone, whether they had children in school or not, hurried to get their chores done early that evening so as not to miss the opening song.
Preparations for the program began after Halloween, as the teacher searched her files and educational magazines for new ideas for the annual Christmas program. Depending on the number and age of the students, it was the custom to have several plays, a few recitations, and some songs. A choir of the younger children singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” was a favorite. It was the teacher’s responsibility to include every student in the program since parents, grandparents, friends, and neighbors would be at the program to hear their special youngsters.
The decorating of the schoolroom was incorporated into the art lessons. Red and green crepe paper streamers were cut, twisted, and stretched from corner to corner. A large bell constructed by the students was often hung from the ceiling in the center of the room.
New border figures to put above the blackboards were made by the students in November and December. Decorations and pictures, all made by the students, covered the walls and windows. Those in the windows were colored on both sides.
At noon, the children played outside after eating their lunch which had been brought to school in a “Karo Syrup” can. In the wintertime, children would often bring their sleds to school. They built snow forts, participated in snowball fights, and played fox-and-geese.
After the lunch hour, the teacher would begin the afternoon lessons by reading to the students for thirty minutes. In December, “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens was everyone’s favorite. This was when the students were introduced to Tiny Tim, the little boy who became real to them throughout their lifetime. They also met Ebenezer Scrooge, Jacob Marley, Bob Cratchit, and the Ghost of Christmas.
This was the one time during the year when teachers could bring into the public school the religious meaning of Christmas. They had no hesitation in those days to portray the manger scene with Baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph, shepherds, angels, and the wise men. There were never any repercussions in the community — the nativity scene was expected to be a part of the Christmas program. The program ended with everyone standing and singing “Silent Night” after the lights had been dimmed.
After the program, the food was plentiful, the coffee pot was never empty, and everyone visited for hours — some till midnight!
The memories of those rural school Christmas programs remained with the children throughout their lifetime. Then, everyone lived a much more uncomplicated life than today.
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on December 22, 2021