Nebraska's One-Room Schoolhouses

School days, school days, dear old golden rule days. Readin' and 'ritin' and 'rithmetic...Welcome to our school daze. Here's a history lesson from four of Nebraska's historic one-room schoolhouses.

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Stuhr Museum, Grand Island

The museum has a wide range of old-school programs throughout the year, including taking children back to 188 at a traditional rural schoolhouse originally used in Gibbon. The children often are bewildered when teachers don't know about the Lincoln penny, Mount Rushmore, and especially peanut butter and potato chips. But their biggest jolt is just stepping into the schoolhouse.

"They're usually shocked when they come in and it's either freezing or extremely hot," said Tiffany Hartford, Stuhr's director of education.

Hartford takes great pride in organizing the museum's program so students can take the learning journey of Nebraska's early schoolchildren. She admits it's hard for her to play the role of a mean teacher, but she has a guy who takes care of that.

Larry Roberts is a retired rural mail carrier, and while a couple of the other pioneer teachers at the museum are retired principals, he never was a teacher. Roberts fools any kid who sees him step into this schoolhouse. He's certainly dressed for the role with a ribbon tie, white shirt, frock coat, black hat and boots.

"You have to put a little bit of a game face on," Roberts said. "You have to convince the kids that they're stepping back to 1888."

Some of the boys love stepping into the troublemaker role, and one smart aleck helped him pull off his greatest performance. The boy kept acting up, and Roberts finally reached up for the oak paddle on the wall, grabbed the kid by the collar and marched him into the back room. He whispered to his fellow actor to start screaming when he pounded the paddle on the table. Roberts coached him how to limp back into class, rubbing his eyes and his supposedly sore behind.

"The other kids' eyes got big as saucers," Roberts chuckled. "The kid just played it to the hilt. He was a natural showman."

"He's not nearly as strict as I am," joked Darlene Darbo, a retired principal from Central City, who is loving her role at the museum as a strict schoolmarm. The most precious moment for Darbo is when she rings the bell at the end of the day and the kids let out a huge sigh. Now they can relax back in 2013.

"It's almost like they were holding their breath through that entire 1888 experience because they were trying so hard to be so good and remember all the rules," she said.


Heritage School, Lincoln

After four decades of historic lessons at the former State Fair Park's schoolhouse, the school program for all of Lincoln's fourth-graders has become even more magical since the fair left for Grand Island four years ago. That's because the Heritage School was transferred to picturesque Pioneers Park north of the Nature Center in 2009.

"I can't think of a better setting for the Heritage School than on a prairie," said Nancy Furman, coordinator of the Pioneers Park Nature Center. "The students see live bison and tall grasses, and feel the harsh winds on either a very cold day or a very hot day."

The program is run by Lincoln fourth-grade teacher Mary Lou Henn, who transfers her modern teaching skills back to the pioneer era at the schoolhouse. The school was first built in the late 1800s as the Cunningham School, 7 miles north of Valparaiso, and then rebuilt after a fire in the 1930s.

"No comforts have been added," Furman said. "I often hear from teens who tell me they remember coming out in the fourth grade. When I talk to elders, they enjoy telling me about their experiences actually attending a one-room classroom and how they walked to school or rode a horse."

Children at the schoolhouse get into the act with their metal lunch pails and pioneer clothing, but they rarely brave the outhouse, which behind its grimy exterior is actually a clean port-a-potty.

"Some students have been known to go all day without using the restroom," Furman said.


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