The lessons, taught in humble school buildings surrounded by woods and farms, went beyond the three Rs. There were studies, yes, but children also were instilled with the values of community, self-reliance, discipline.
"If you really want to get a good education, go to a one-room school," said Bill Kruschel, one of several one-room school alumni who gathered last week in Denmark Township to reflect on an education system that shaped generations but has largely vanished.
"The thing is, we were like a family. That was the most important thing," added Kruschel, who in the 1930s attended the North Star District 59 School in the township that was built in 1874.
The first school in Minnesota was established in Denmark Township in 1844, a full 14 years before statehood. The Denmark Township Historical Society is working to get the one-room Valley School — built in 1852 and believed to be the oldest school in the state still on its original site — listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The group recently bought the building and is restoring it.
Richard Hullander was 5 when he started going to the school in 1939. Like his fellow students in grades one to eight, they walked to the school nestled on the wooded hillside. In winter, if the going got too tough, a horse-drawn corn wagon was filled with straw and became a school bus.
In snowstorms, students would make their way to the closest farm to spend the night. "The place would be full of kids, and that's just the way it was," he said.
While walking the 3 miles to school, he added, he and his friends snared rabbits or shot squirrels. "We'd bring our .22s to school, and when we got there, we'd unload them and just set them in the corner," he said. "… Can you imagine that today?"
Both Hullander and Kruschel earned $1 a month working essentially as janitors at their schools, arriving early — with their own keys — to start the fire in the wood stove, clean the blackboards, change the storm windows and haul water.
"The last teacher we had was only 18 years old," recalled Valda Van Alstine, a township resident who attended Carpenter School near Ellsworth, Wis., with her seven siblings. "One of my brothers really got infatuated with that beautiful 18-year-old teacher."
The young teacher was would take her charges for hikes in the woods, and join them in softball games. Once, during a blizzard, she left her car at the end of her long driveway so she was sure to make it to class, Van Alstine recalled. "She was wearing slacks, and had forgotten to bring a skirt," she said. "She was so embarrassed to be teaching in slacks, and so afraid that the superintendent of schools might show up unexpectedly."
Teachers prepared lessons for each grade, and students not being actively taught were expected to focus on their studies. Older children helped the younger ones. Hullander, like the others, didn't recall behavior being a problem. That, he said, is because parents were supportive of teachers, and word of a problem would bring swift consequences at home.
That doesn't mean there wasn't occasional mischief.
His teacher drove a 1928 Dodge to the Valley School, and usually parked it under a tree, he said. "She got mad at me for some reason, and I'm still carrying the scar," he said.
To get even, using his Dick Tracy pocketknife, Hullander started carving into the thick rubber of the car's tires. "The knife flashed back and almost cut my finger off," he said. "She took me to the doctor to get stitches. She never told my folks — she figured I had learned my lesson. And I did."
The school, and the churches, were the focal points of closely knit communities at a time when transportation and communication were less convenient.
"In a rural community, you grew up faster," Hullander said. On a farm, children had responsibilities, and that self-reliance and difference in maturity became apparent when he moved on to high school in Hastings, "which was pretty traumatic for us."
He credits those lessons of the one-room school for helping him in combat during the Korean War, as well. He had signed up for the National Guard at 16, just before the conflict broke out in 1950, and by 17, he was on a mortar crew in the thick of the fighting. He came home at 18 as a sergeant first class.
His teacher was among those who greeted him. "They never forgot their students."