On the Seat of a Yellow Bus


One room school, Eau Claire county, 1930s (Wisconsin Historical Society).

We no longer think of yellow school buses on country roads as signs of progress in education but, in the 1950s, they stood for more than transportation. Buses,  not  yet painted yellow,  marked the demise of the thousands of one room schools that had served country kids for a century.

Wisconsin, like other northern states, made an early commitment to creating a public school system accessible to all children–rural and urban, native and foreign born.  Any resident between the ages of four and twenty could attend public school.

Since the state’s population was predominately rural until the 1910s and local transportation moved no faster than a horse could walk, even  mid-sized counties like Sauk, Winnebago and Chippewa had schools by the hundreds.

Each school was supervised by a citizen board that built and maintained the school house,  purchased furniture and equipment, hired the teacher and levied taxes on themselves and their neighbors to pay for it all.  Their work was overseen by a superintendent elected by county voters. Some were county seat politicos with little interest in the job except that it was a job.

The large majority–as an examination of the annual reports they were obliged to submit reveals–were hard-working, conscientious apostles of education who traveled the back roads  to cajole, exhort, persuade local boards to improve their schools and, when necessary,  threaten to withhold county and state funding from those that failed.

They must have succeeded. By the turn of the 19th century, Wisconsin, again like other northern states, had one of the highest literacy rates in a country that itself possessed one of the largest percentages of literate residents in the world. And this was in a nation of immigrants for whom English was a second language mastered largely at school.

Times changed and schools had to respond. The basic readin’, ‘ritin and ‘ritmetic of the rural school curriculum was not adequate for the mid-20th century.  Fewer than one half of rural school students went on to complete high-school.

The long and difficult battle to create the “integrated” school systems  our children attend today was not completed until the early 1960s.  The one room school became a revered icon  of nostalgic musing, but its time had passed, as if carried away on the seat of a yellow bus.

–Michael Goc

5 Responses to On the Seat of a Yellow Bus

  1. I’m wondering what the nostalgia will llok like when we transition our current public school structure to one more in line with the new and changing economies of the future.

  2. Ron says:

    Great post! I went to a one room country school and have many fond memories and stories. Want to visit a restored Wisconsin country school? Go to Livingston in southwest Wisconsin and visit the Hazel Dell School. This restored one room country school is 128 years old. http://tinyurl.com/lcc2v9
    You can also go to your local library and check out Wisconsin author Jerry Apps’ book — “One-Room Country Schools: History and Recollections from Wisconsin.”

  3. Awesome post & picture. America since has moved on to big box schools, however, I do see the see value in one room schools. The respect and discipline I’m sure was at a much higher level than today’s standards. I purchased 4 years ago my current home that was at one time an old school house in Mishicot, WI and was moved to its current location where its been for 65 years.

  4. michael says:

    Those old schools have planted happy memories in many people. Another experience for baby boomers to reminisce about. I was raised in Chicago, so my one-room school memories are all second hand.

    What impresses me about the story of their demise is that when state and local leaders determined that one room schools were failing to meet the needs of students, they made a radical change to the entire system. They had to overcome serious opposition along the way.

    Today many of our school sytems have high school incompletion rates similar to that of the rural schools in the 1950s, but we can’t seem to muster the political and civic will to act as vigorously as our parents.

    Times change. People too.

  5. nancy flanagan says:

    This picture is great. I wonder if anyone knows which school it is, although I understand there were between 70 – 80 one room schools in Eau Claire county. I too went to a one room school and am looking for a picture of it. If anyone can help me out, I would certainly appreciate it. The name of it was Hillview and it was located in the Township of Washington in Eau Claire county. It is too bad that we did not think to preserve this sort of history ,moreso. Anyone who can help me out would be my hero.

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