As the summer sun wanes, the sounds of “back to school” reverberate throughout Douglas County. Beyond taking advantage of the great deals on supplies — used these days to restock my office — I often catch myself reflecting back in time to my days as a kid in school.
One of my fondest memories is sitting in a circle with classmates while my fourth-grade teacher read “Little House on The Prairie.” The words of Laura Ingalls Wilder magnificently resonated from the pages, leaving a lasting impression.
Recently Ed Eaton, a friend, gave me a tour of Rose School in Roseburg after classes officially ended there. Armed with class photos spanning his 30-year teaching career at Rose, Eaton still remembers each student by name and delights in their unique personalities. The school welcomed students for more than 100 years.
Rose School began during an interesting era in which many one-room schoolhouses dominated the countryside. These schoolhouses date back to the 1850s, when the earliest settlers came to this area. With a lack of adequate roads and transportation, the one-room schools were once the most practical and affordable means to educate children, especially in rural areas.
Eventually these random schools were placed into districts with the goal of having a school within a two-mile radius of the students. Times were indeed tougher in those days as many kids walked several miles each way to school. However, I have not found sufficient evidence to support the theory they walked uphill both ways.
Small budgets led to the rudimentary design of the schoolhouses. Large windows offered natural light into the dim classrooms. Most schoolhouses lacked plumbing — restrooms were located out back. Some, like Pleasant Valley, had a hand pump for water, while others relied on water buckets or pails for drinking. There was a cloakroom for coats, overshoes and lunch pails.
The poorly insulated buildings relied on wood-burning stoves for heat. A student would be charged with keeping an adequate fire burning throughout the day.
The school calendar revolved around the needs of farmers and ranchers. Some years the start of school was delayed for harvesting crops.
Teachers often arrived early to perform janitorial duties and light the wood stove in the cold months. I can’t imagine the daunting task of teaching a variety of subjects to eight different grades in a one-room schoolhouse while maintaining discipline and order among students. Writing, reading and arithmetic were taught, but physical education was rare. Not all schools had a budget to field athletic teams, but during this era, the girls’ basketball team from Lookinglass made an impressive run to the state playoffs.
Elin D. Miller writes a column in loving memory of her uncle, LaVerne Murphy, entitled “From the Murphy Farm.” In it she shares interesting insights of LaVerne’s school days in a one-room schoolhouse at Coles Valley. She tells that students enjoyed decorating for the holidays. At Christmas they had a program with singing and carols. In 1927, an Easter egg hunt was brought indoors due to rain. A month later when the teacher rolled down a wall map, an overripe Easter egg “splashed on the floor,” emitting a putrid smell that filled the room. This gave the kids a good laugh!
Carol and Bob Hall of Dixonville each attended one-room schoolhouses. Carol went to Lookingglass and Bob attended South Deer Creek. Bob recalls that the desks were fastened to the wood floors. Each desk had a hole on top to hold round ink wells with a cork lid. Quill pens would be dipped into the ink when writing papers. Students were held to high standards for penmanship.
Bob certainly had fun at school. A favorite story he recalled was that after school, a teacher allowed a few kids to sit on the back of her car with ropes. They braced their feet on the large bumper and the car slowly pulled some daring students home on their bicycles as they held the opposite end of the ropes.
If you wish to visit the historical sites of schools in the county, Larry Moulton’s book, “Douglas County Schools: A History Outline” gives a detailed account of the county’s early schools. Moulton, with some help from Murphy, took on the arduous task of placing yellow historical signs, marking the locations of former schools throughout the entire county.
Here are a few interesting names and places of schools he mentions:
• An early school in Camas Swale (Sutherlin) was referenced to as the Pumpkin Center.
• Pleasant Valley School near Yoncalla was (sometimes not so fondly) referred to as Duck Egg Alley School.
• Near Reedsport, a school was held on the Umpqua Lighthouse grounds.
• Although it was not a one-room building, the Smith River School students were brought to classes by boat during this era.
I have to wonder if the proximity of the French Settlement School (Melrose) and the English Settlement School (near Oakland and Mildred Kanipe Park) created any sort of built–in rivalry.
Most of the antiquated schoolhouses are gone. However, there are a handful of buildings that remain intact. Some have been converted into homes, as is the case of the former Cleveland School, built in 1907. Classes were held there until the 1949 school year, when the district was consolidated with Melrose. James Pierson renovated it into a quaint showcase home — complete with a stone fireplace with the addition of bedrooms and kitchen. The home was the subject of a front page feature article in The News Review on May 16, 1985. Today, the home is a perfect fit for Diane Clerihue.
While adapting to the ever-changing needs in education, school buildings will continue to come and go. What remains are the special relationships between teacher and student. It’s intriguing how the back-to-school season can reignite so many fond childhood memories.
R.J. Guyer is a freelance writer who lives and works in Roseburg. To share your family’s history and stories, join Guyer’s interactive site on Facebook/Douglas County Chronicles. Autographed copies of his book, “Douglas County Chronicles” are available at the Douglas County Museum.