One Room School Houses

By Carole Gorney
Photo by Keith Brinker

For most of three centuries, when children in the Lehigh Valley went back to school, they went   to one-room schoolhouses established by the local rural communities where they lived.  One room meant one teacher for all ages in what today would be grades one through eight.

Beginning as early as the 1700s, settlers built small structures that served not only as schools, but also as community meeting places, and even churches.  It was the belief of the early settlers of this region that at least basic education of children was their responsibility, so it was not unusual for schoolhouse land to be donated by wealthy property owners.  Funds also would be raised from residents to construct the schoolhouse and to pay teachers.

Early teachers were poorly paid, frequently receiving food as part of their compensation.  They were more often than not inexperienced, with little or no formal training.  They were also under the control of the community, which decided what subjects were to be taught and how long the school year should be.  The latter most often was dictated by the farm calendar.  As late as 1848, students attended classes an average of only five months a year.

Because of the origins of the one-room schoolhouse, students in this area were required to study both English and German, and textbooks were written in both languages.  It was also not uncommon for education and religion to be closely mingled.  Well into the 20th Century, Bible readings in school were common, as was the singing of hymns.  According to Fran Robb, vice president of the Lower Saucon Township Historical Society (LSTHS), “Saying the Lord’s Prayer every day and reading from the Bible were mandatory.  A teacher could lose his job if he didn’t do this.”

Despite the national educational reform movement that led the way for Pennsylvania’s state system of public education in 1834, one-room schoolhouses dominated the scene well into the 20th Century, especially in Lower Saucon Township.  Predominantly rural in nature, and settled in the 1700s by German immigrants, the township claimed nearly 30 of the structures.

“The schools had to be located every four miles, so no student had to walk more than two miles,” historian Lenny Szy, a LSTHS board member, said.  Three of the 30 schools subsequently went to South Bethlehem and another three to Hellertown when the boundaries were changed in the late 1800s.

During the so-called “common school era” from 1818-1867, all ages of students attended classes in the same room without any designation of grade, and they studied from the same textbooks.

A precursor to the “progressive period” (1867-1930) was the Pennsylvania Common Law of 1854, which developed a system that assigned students to different grades with grade-specific textbooks.  The next year a guidebook was published that specified how schoolhouses should be constructed.

The “Pennsylvania School Architecture” book recommended rectangular rooms, symmetrical exteriors with masonry walls, large windows and a full cellar.  Entrances were to be at the south end of the building, and the fronts of the classrooms, with blackboards, at the north end.

Many schoolhouses in Lower Saucon were built according to the 1855 recommendations, including the Southeastern School on Hellertown-Ironville Road.  Like so many of its counterparts, this one-room school has been converted into a private residence.   Another is the Wassergass Schoolhouse now owned and occupied by retired Lehigh University Professor Jim Sturm on Wassergass Road near Hellertown.

Sturm said he moved into the schoolhouse in 1963, after three years of renovations to turn the 1,900 square foot structure into a home.  He and his wife raised seven children in the house with four bedrooms, 2.5 baths and living room on the main floors, and a kitchen and dining room in what was the basement.  Despite the interior changes, he said he tried as much as possible to maintain the exterior appearance.

“We love the history of the place,” Sturm said.  “My mother taught in one-room schoolhouses in Minnesota, and this reinforces the whole experience.”

The only intact schoolhouse remaining from the first 25 years of the “progressive era” in Lower Saucon Township is Lutz-Franklin, which was restored in 2006 as a museum and educational center, and was recently named to the National Registry of Historic Places.  Built in 1880 on the site of two previous schools on what is now Countryside Lane, Lutz-Franklin served as an elementary school continuously until 1942, when it was closed because of declining enrollments.  Reopened as a fourth-grade classroom in 1952, it was closed permanently in 1958.

Alumni, such as Peggy Fluck, return to their Lutz-Franklin classroom to talk to today’s fourth graders about what it was like to study in a one-room schoolhouse.  She explains that students would sit in their desks until their grade was called to the recitation bench at the front of the room.  Younger students studied lessons in reading, writing, arithmetic, spelling, health and grammar.  Older students added geography, history and English to their lesson.  All students got a grade for deportment (behavior).

Other alums reminisce about having to carry water from the nearby stream, using outhouses instead of indoor toilets, and bringing coal up from the basement to stoke the fire in the large Buffalo Stove that still stands in the front of the room.  Art Lechner, who was born in the house right across the street from the school, remembered putting sandwiches in the stove to toast.  Of course there was no electricity in the schoolhouse until 1952.

In more recent years, it was not unusual for students to attend several different one-room schools in the course of elementary school, and Lechner attended first grade in Bethlehem and second in Readington.  Third through fifth grades were spent at Lutz from 1939-42.  Lechner speaks fondly of those years and of his teacher.  “Mrs. Rau was our teacher all four years.  She was the best teacher I ever had.  To put my finger on it, she was very thorough.  She made sure everyone was busy.  I never felt neglected.”

Follow @LehighValleyMarketplace on Instagram