There were very few happy faces among the 30 boys and girls leaving the Horners School that rainy morning 60 years ago Saturday.
The dreary weather marked the solemn passing of an era as the children carried their belongings in paper bags and book carriers onto the waiting bus.
Before their departure, Mrs. Clark Stitt led her students through a final morning program. Together as one, the six elementary school grades heard Scripture, sang songs and recited the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord’s Prayer. They were not alone in having to cope with moving into the recently completed consolidated school in Middlesex Township.
“More than 275 pupils who attended the seven one-room schools in [the] township filed out of the old buildings this morning for the last time,” The Evening Sentinel reported on Dec. 9, 1957. “Even though they were entering a new and modern building, they were leaving one which even the smallest of the pupils loved.”
Aside from Horners, the seven schools included Middlesex, Carlisle Springs, Elliott, Harmony Hall, Hepburn and Lamberton. Those buildings were all that remained of the 170 one-room schools that once held classes throughout Cumberland County.
Gone were the pot-bellied stoves, the bench-style desks, the red brick exteriors and the hand-pulled bells of what had been a mainstay of public education for well over a century.
Doris Mentzer Massey recalled a time long ago when school was not canceled due to winter weather. Students were expected to report for classes every school day even if it meant walking through snow.
The upside was they were allowed to bring their sleds to the Harmony Hall School to go behind the building and brave the three dips of the slope they called the “roller coaster.”
Massey was the main organizer of a school reunion held in May 2011. She remembered how the building had no cafeteria so the students had to pack their lunches. Since there was no indoor plumbing, boys and girls had to excuse themselves to go to separate outhouses for each gender.
Those attending the reunion remembered Margaret Jacoby, a dark-haired middle-aged woman with a knack for using the sound of a ruler tapping a hard surface as a signal to sit up and take notice.
Though strict and business-like, Jacoby was also patient and easy-going, said Adam Keller of Allentown. She had to be to balance out the needs of 30 students in first through eighth grade, all under the same roof.
“She was a wonderful teacher,” Keller said of the Carlisle woman, adding that she was equally adept in the roles of guidance counselor, building custodian and baseball player during pick-up games at recess.
The way the school day worked was the grade levels took turns going to the front of the class where the teacher briefed them on the lesson of the day. Once the briefing was over, the students went back to their seats to do their homework assignments quickly while the next grade took its turn.
The overlapping lesson plan of being in the same classroom for multiple years actually helped with retention, said Ed Ludt of Lansdale, Montgomery County, who attended the 2011 reunion.
The late Gilmore Seavers was a first-grader when he started at a one-room school in Penn Township. Later in life, he became a teaching principal of the Centerville School, the superintendent of Cumberland Valley School District and the president of Shippensburg University. The Sentinel interviewed him for history features in 1989 and 1997.
“During those years, [curriculum] was fundamentally reading, writing and arithmetic,” Seavers recalled. “That’s where the three R’s really came from – the one-room schools.”
While history and geography were also taught, music and art depended on the individual talent and interests of the teacher. Class sizes ranged from 20 to 40 students with two or three of the upper class pupils serving as instructional aides.
Before taking a job as a high school teacher in Steelton, Frank Yeingst of Dickinson Township taught in several one-room schools in Cumberland County, according to an Oct. 10, 1974 article published in The Sentinel.
Because all grades and ages were under one roof, the teacher had to focus on students as individuals and teach them based on their needs and ability levels in each subject area, Yeingst said. He added the routine during the school day was flexible with reading being the single most important subject.
The same article quoted J. Lloyd Zeigler who taught in one-room schools before becoming principal of the South Dickinson Elementary School. He said one advantage to this approach was the closeness that developed between teacher and students.
“After all one may have had those children in class for several years or even the entire six to eight years they may have spent in that particular school,” Zeigler said.
The end of an era
The day after the last schools closed, The Sentinel published a story recognizing the end of “an era of rural education that has made great contributions to all segments of society.
“The first schools in Cumberland County were started by Quaker schoolmasters, many of whom were ministers,” the Dec. 10 article reads. “Support of the schools was largely by subscription, with each person paying a fixed sum for each pupil enrolled.” Most often these early schools were located in barns or near houses of worship.
The Sentinel on April 20, 1997, published a story on how one-room schools were the norm in Cumberland County into the early- to mid-1950s. That story detailed the transition from loosely structured clusters of one-room schools to the consolidation of the buildings into jointures or the early equivalent of modern school districts.
South Middleton Township led the way in Cumberland County, closing its one-room schools in 1922. Penn Township followed suit in 1925 and later other townships such as Hampden, Lower Allen and East Pennsboro.
No consolidation took place during the Great Depression and World War II, The Sentinel reported. In January 1946, J. Paul Burkhart was the assistant county superintendent of 30 school jointures – the predecessors of modern school districts. He gave some statistics during a Jan. 31 talk to the local Rotary Club.
At the time, the 30 jointures had 126 buildings valued at over $2 million with equipment appraised at $300,000. The jointures employed 377 teachers whose annual salaries ranged from $1,400 to $5,000 for a combined total personnel budget of about $1.25 million.
The 30 jointures operated 38 buses transporting 1,886 students daily for a total annual cost of $45,000. They ranged in size from 900 students in East Pennsboro Township to a single independent schoolhouse with just 16 students at a location undisclosed in the article.
Three school jointures – Carlisle, Mechanicsburg and Shippensburg – operated outside the jurisdiction of the county superintendent of schools.
Eleven years later, in 1957, Seavers was in a position as the first superintendent of the Cumberland Valley School District to close the last seven one-room schools. By then, the number of jointures had been reduced to 11.
Today, Cumberland County is home to nine school districts – Big Spring, Camp Hill, Carlisle, Cumberland Valley, East Pennsboro, Mechanicsburg, South Middleton, Shippensburg and West Shore.