Back to School: From One-Room Schools to Great Halls with the National Register of Historic Places

Today’s post is by John LeGloahec, Archivist in the Electronic Records Division at the National Archives in College Park, MD.

This post is part of an ongoing series featuring records from the National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmarks Program Records, 2013 – 2017 (NAID 20812721), a series within Record Group 79: Records of the National Park Service. 

One room schoolhouse in Haskell County, Kansas (NAID 522142, Local ID: 83-G-41953)

Growing up in New York, I didn’t look forward to Labor Day, celebrated on the first Monday in September, as it always meant that school would start in two days (New York traditionally went back to school on the Wednesday after Labor Day). During this current crisis, children returning to school became a hot topic of discussion – as the first day of school loomed for America’s kids. My two sons have both returned to school, albeit in an online environment – the entire household is working (or schooling) from home.

There are a lot of files in the Records of the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) that concern schools, colleges and universities, and other educational institutions. So, grab your Trapper Keeper, sharpen your pencils, and pack your lunchbox, as we tour America’s educational institutions through the records.

Amish Country Byway – A quaint log cabin and one-room, white-washed schoolhouse stand side-by-side at the Winesburg Heritage Park, Ohio (NAID 7717001).

Maybe you would like to search for one-room schoolhouses found around the country, like the ones pictured above in Haskell County, Kansas and Winesburg Heritage Park in Ohio. We can start with the One Room Schoolhouses of Gallatin County, Montana (NAID 71975027), where “the very first school buildings in the county were adapted log homestead cabins. These were generally simple rectangular buildings with a gable roof. As sawn lumber became available and student enrollment increased, permanent frame schools were constructed utilizing the same simple form with a central door.” Below are a few diagrams and a listing of one-room schools in Gallatin County (from NAID 71975027).

From Montana, we can travel south to the Show-Me state of Missouri and visit the One-Teacher Public Schools of Missouri (NAID 63818132). If you are in school in a one-room schoolhouse, you only need one teacher, right?

 “Missouri’s first schools and other educational opportunities were privately funded and fell into three general categories: academies, parochial schools, and subscription schools. Academies, according to historian Claude Phillips, were the earliest school type to be established in Missouri. Academies might be the business enterprise of a single educator, or chartered schools under the administration of a board of trustees. Generally thought of as providing more advanced (secondary) coursework, many academies also had a “junior branch” providing instruction in the basics such as reading, writing and arithmetic. Jean Baptiste is credited with opening the first school in the Missouri Territory. The school opened in 1774 in St. Louis and operated for nearly 40 years, providing elementary education and possibly some introduction to Latin and Greek, to the sons of the leading families of St. Louis.”

Drawing of one-teacher school house (from NAID 63818132).

There are also a number of academies described in the National Register records, including the Old Germantown Academy and Headmasters’ Houses (NAID 71997258), in Pennsylvania. 

In “1759, at a meeting . . . several prominent Germantown citizens reached a unanimous decision to found a nonsectarian school . . . it became known as Germantown Academy.” The school’s “pupils would be ‘secure from the temptations of vice so common in the city’.” 

The school was used as a hospital during the American Revolution and was as a meeting place for the Congress and the Pennsylvania Assembly during the Yellow Fever epidemic in Philadelphia. The Germantown Academy also had several prominent headmasters, including A. Bronson Alcott, noted educator and father of Louisa May Alcott.

Secretary Ken Salazar on visit to Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site in Arkansas, where he toured with Minnijean Brown Trickey, one of the original “Little Rock Nine” who integrated the high school in 1957, and Trickey’s daughter, Spirit Trickey, a National Historic Site staff member, (NAID 55059179, Local ID 48-DPA-273).

For secondary schools, no tour would be complete without a visit to Little Rock Central High School (NAID 26143559), where in 1957, the “Little Rock Nine,” became the first African Americans to integrate the high school. 

A search for “Central High Schools” returns results for most of the states of the country. 

You can also search using the term “Indian Schools” and discover schools established around the nation, maybe get into a pickup game of baseball.

Albuquerque Indian School baseball team (NAID 292884).

Searching for institutions of higher learning will return thousands of colleges and universities within the National Register records. Maybe you would like to go to Mary Baldwin College in Virginia, which was “founded as the Augusta Female Seminary, and is the nation’s oldest woman’s institution of higher learning associated with the Presbyterian Church. The handsome Greek Revival Main Building is the college’s original structure, and has become the architectural symbol of this distinguished institution.” Mary Baldwin College, Main Building (NAID 41683779)

Skyline Drive – A Beautiful Day at Mary Baldwin College, (NAID 7722210).

If you prefer, there’s always the Ivy League and Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut, “founded in October 1701, as the ‘Collegiate School within his Majesty’s Colony of Connecticut.’ Classes were first taught at Killingworth (now Clinton) in the home of the Reverend Abraham Pierson. Upon Pierson’s death in 1707 the College moved to Saybrook, and in 1716 to New Haven, whose citizens had surpassed other communities in subscribing sums toward the construction of a college building. Two years later Elihu Yale, a retired East Indian merchant, who was born in New England but was then living in London, presented the school with goods valued at £562. In gratitude the institution took his name.” Connecticut Hall (NAID 132353666), on Yale campus, “built in 1750-52, is an altered example of a conservatively designed Georgian structure. It is also Yale’s oldest extant building and only surviving example of an eighteenth century structure” and “was the first of Yale’s brick buildings, and was built under the direction of Francis Letort of Philadelphia and Thomas Bills of New York.”

If you would like to see more, you could end your visit at the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site (NAID 123864808), in Topeka, Kansas, as former First Lady Michelle Obama did in 2014. 

First Lady Michelle Obama Tours the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site with Stephanie Kyriazis (NAID 176548180).

Whatever your situation is this school year, be you a student, a parent, a teacher, or one of the many other unsung heroes that make our schools run and our kids learn, stay safe and be well!

By clicking on any of the hyperlinked National Archives ID numbers (NAID) above you will be taken to the fully digitized records in the National Archives Catalog. The digitized files of the NRHP are detailed and include additional photographs, architectural drawings, and maps.