Abandoned schoolhouse near Ada (Norman County), built circa 1900Abandoned schoolhouse near Ada (Norman County), built circa 1900

A heritage of education

An education historian and a photographer reflect on the legacy of the one-room schoolhouse

As the American frontier spread west near the turn of the 19th century and the natural landscape became a grid of counties, townships, and states, a familiar sight dotted the wild prairies and rolling hills of the new midwestern territory. Schoolhouses.

In the great land sales that sparked westward expansion, no contract was complete without provisions for “the maintenance of public schools” and a small schoolhouse seated on a one-square-mile plot inside each budding township.

Ten years ago, the Minnesota Historical Society Press published Schoolhouses of Minnesota, a glimpse into the state’s historic and vanishing schools with photos by Doug Ohman and text by Minnesota author Jim Heynen. The book included a visit to Minnesota’s last operating one-room schoolhouse, Angle Inlet Elementary School in the northernmost part of the state, where the lone teacher travels to work by boat and the single classroom is host to math, music, reading, art, science, social studies, and physical education for kindergarteners through sixth-graders.

Ohman continues to lead tours of historic school sites around the Twin Cities and greater Minnesota. He says attendees are often looking to connect with personal history and find ways to preserve the stories of their parents and grandparents—stories of immigration and early Minnesotan life that are only a generation or two in the past.

“More and more people want to reconnect with their family’s past,” Ohman says. “We’re closer to our history in Minnesota compared to Boston or New England. Our history is visible and not that far away.”


Examining education’s past is essential for educators seeking to understand the complex dynamics and evolution of American schools, says education historian Christen Opsal, ’14, now at the Center for Educational Transformation at the University of Northern Iowa. Opsal taught foundations of education courses, which included educational history, to CEHD students while working in the Institute on Community Integration and finishing her doctorate.

“The history of education allows me to walk back and forth across time and give some context to today’s teachers,” Opsal says.

We asked Opsal to shed light on what gave the one-room schoolhouse its lasting legacy, in Minnesota and beyond.

What does the one-room schoolhouse stand for?

Chris Opsal: It’s definitely an icon. Those buildings were used for community functions. People would go there to vote. Your community meetings would probably be held there, and adults would wedge themselves into desks. It does represent a heritage of education in this country—how the minute people landed on these shores, they tried to figure out a way to build in a norm of schooling. Communities took it as a given that there was this template called the one-room school, and each individual community that built a school chose to build that.

What was the relationship like between the land—so much of which had just been claimed or purchased or settled—and early American schools?

Schoolhouses were spaced in such a way that a child could actually walk to school. So many children walked to school that there was this inherent connection to the land. There was so much about this country particularly—like the Western frontier and settlement—that had to do with wide swaths of land, but even two miles for a little kid—that’s a long way. The view was, “We need to have schools at such an interval. It’s so important that we have schools that we put them that close together.” Looking at the frontier, two miles is nothing. That’s a real statement of importance.

How have the school–community relationship and the motivations for schooling changed over time?

If you think back to the one-room schoolhouse, it was a very different school–community relationship. People really had to put forth effort to get schooling for their kids. The interest behind the first education laws was that we needed formal education to teach our children to read the Bible. Much of the impetus in this country for formal education was really based on an essentially Protestant view that, “If we’re all empowered to have a relationship with God that doesn’t have any priestly intermediaries, we darn well better be able to study God’s word.” And that requires literacy.

The other theme, of course, was political—that our founders didn’t want us to be taken advantage of by tyrants or despots—so we had to have an educated populace that could self-govern, especially in these really sparse prairie places. So there was a will and desire for education. You still see that today among immigrant populations, especially.

What lessons can we learn from the one-room schoolhouse model? 

Around the turn of the twentieth century, we experienced all of this urbanization. So much of the way our current education took shape happened during that time—people call it the factory model of schooling, with bells and periods. A lot of customization is lost, and flexibility, and the ability of the child to overhear what another grade is doing and say, “Wow, I can’t wait to be in fourth grade and learn about that.”

What are the biggest ways the physical space of school has changed?

The physical space is an artifact of a lot of differences in structure and social relationships. One-room schoolhouses are very cozy—whether they’re warm or cold, they are small. It was A. E. Holch who said that, in a democracy, part of the reason we have education is so students can learn to “rub elbows with their fellow man and neither harm nor be harmed by the contact.” In the one-room schoolhouse, you literally did rub elbows.

Do you think there will be a regrowth of that small community school concept? Is there a way to restore that in an urban setting?

There are attempts. We have these competing instincts of wanting community and socialization and wanting to rub elbows with our fellow man, but we want to save money—and we don’t know what to do with schools as a result. I think we as a society would struggle a little with taking a high school of 500 students and breaking it into ten schools of fifty students or five schools of 100 students. That reluctance would rein in any attempt to carve off a school on every block.

Why do you think people have such a strong interest in the “olden days” of school? Not every American shares this history.

I think part of it is our nostalgia and loss of the rural sense of community—that may be a vestige of urbanization—and also some romanticizing of rural life. It’s important that we understand, for example, that not everyone had access to education in this country, and some groups only got it recently, and so their attitude toward education is very different than people who are in their fifth and sixth and seventh generation of being educated at public expense. Education is very precious to those groups that haven’t had access—it’s not to be taken for granted, and it feels very personally threatening when their educational institutions are threatened. What choices have we made about how we educate people and to what end we educate them? What does access to education mean? When they have access to school, people feel like they’re full citizens in this country.

A sense of place

There’s a unique connection between historic schoolhouses and the land they sit on, says photographer Doug Ohman. Country schools were often named for a nearby landmark or geographical feature, while the city schools that followed were more often named after public figures.

“It’s all about the geography of the place,” Ohman says. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a country school with a presidential name. It’s always been a regional or kind of storybook name.”

Ohman has photographed churches, barns, and courthouses as well as schoolhouses. Through the College of Continuing Education, he leads daylong tours to local historical school sites that remain popular. He recalls a 94-year-old tour-goer who led a touching walk-through of a school attended by the man as well as his parents.

“The schoolhouse is a symbol of an educational system that was very local, family-oriented, and involved,” he says. “Of all the subjects on the landscape today, the schoolhouse is disappearing the fastest. In a generation or two, it’ll just be a memory.”

Chris Opsal is a program manager for the Center for Educational Transformation at the University of Northern Iowa.

All photos copyright Doug Ohman. Most were included in Schoolhouses of Minnesota, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2006. Text by Jim Heynen, 128 pp., 120 photos, 8×9, ISBN 9780873515481.

Story by Ellen Fee | Photos by Doug Ohman | Fall 2016