A YOUNG FEMALE teacher in a long black dress yanks hard on the clanging school bell to greet her students. Just hours ago she rolled out of the same bed she shared with two girl students, because half of her stipend is the free lodging provided by that local family's farmhouse.

Soon the students from ages 4 to 18 answer the bell, and the young ladies line up first in their prairie dresses in front of the one-room schoolhouse. They're followed by the young gentlemen, with overalls that have been muddied by all the farming chores at the crack of dawn. They put their coats and tin lunch pails in the hallway vestibule and get ready for a long day of lessons.

They recite the Pledge of Allegiance, but "under God" won't be part of our patriotic oath for decades. After she plays the piano for their morning songs, that strict schoolmarm will check boys' fingernails, and if any dirt remains from the farm, they'll have to pump the water from the well and scrub their hands with lye soap .

Portraits of Presidents Washington and Lincoln hang on the wall by the 37-star American flag in the small classroom, where the young gentlemen sit across from the young ladies. Any misbehaving fellow will be exiled over with the young ladies, or if he's really out of line, he'll head over to the dunce stool, or perhaps even feel the sting of a wooden paddle. There's no electricity, and an early burst of winter whips into the room. Thankfully, their teacher has already loaded up the wood in the pot-bellied stove, though that won't help a shivering child in the outhouse.

The schoolchildren sit erect in their chairs, poised with chalk in their hands ready to "compute" their addition and subtraction and multiplication tables on their little slate boards. After the spelling lessons, they'll dip turkey-quill pens into inkwells for their cursive penmanship practices.

Then minds start to daydream about those lunches packed by their mothers in tobacco tins and peanut butter cans. They might get fried chicken, hard boiled egs, or rolled-up pancakes with jam left over from breakfast, and for a lucky few there's a special treat: the lard sandwich.

In the years after Nebraska Territory was formed, rural educations and one-room schoolhouses taught children about the difficult-but-good life. By 1918 our state had nearly 7,000 of these little houses on the prairie. After America finally graduated from the Great Depression, one-room schoolhouses started vanishing almost as fast as bison did the previous century.

But Nebraska held tight to its past, and in 1986, it still had 385 one-room schoolhouses. That was more than any other state and 45 percent of the entire U.S. total. Two decades later, they were all gone. The reclassification policy placed the schools in larger districts instead of the tiny villages that sometimes had just one student in the entire school.

But the lard sandwich lives on, and so does this treasured bounty of Nebraska heritage. We have found one-room school programs that celebrate those old school days throughout the state, from the northeastern edge in Dakota County to the southwestern rim of the Panhandle near Wyoming.

So let's all hop on the magic school bus (or buggy) and travel back in time more than 100 years, when students endured the toughest of times and learned the most valuable of lessons.


Combs School, Homer

If we're going to go "old school," we might as well begin in Dakota County at what is believed to be the oldest standing schoolhouse in Nebraska. Just 36 feet long and 20 feet wide, much of this old white-framed building remains from when it was erected in 1857 a few miles south of Dakota City, Neb., near the Missouri River in the former town of Omadi.  The building moved several times until it found a home in Homer by the Combs mill. The cherished school closed for good in 1964 because of redistricting, and then in 1976, the Combs landmark was moved onto the grounds of another Homer landmark.

Overlooking Combs on this beautiful countryside is the famed O'Connor House, a 14-room brick mansion toured by the students and many Nebraskans. Irish immigrant Capt. Cornelius O'Connor built it in 1875 upon shaved stone slabs. Making sure the old school keeps up its historic image is the O'Connor estate's neighbor, Jean Hummel, a dedicated volunteer and great-great-granddaughter of O'Connor. Her family for generations has helped care for the O'Connor property.

About 450 third-grade students visit the school each spring, and after long days at her banking job, Hummel dashes over to make sure everything is ready for the kids to travel back to the 19th century. She makes sure it all rings true with a large old Iowa school bell at Combs that's on loan from her late husband Randy Hummel's family.

"I'm trying to give them an idea of what it was like 100 years ago or even 150 years ago," said Dee Ashley, a retired teacher from Sioux City's Harney School.

The kids belt out a patriotic rendition of "My Country 'Tis of Thee" and are dedicated students in their spelling, penmanship and arithmetic. They all bravely recite reading passages. While some of the girls have dresses that make them appear to have beamed right out of the 1880s, most of these city kids are on unknown ground.

"It's a unique experience for them," said Marsha Henderson, a first-year teacher at Harney who helped supervise the field trip. "They don't know anything about country life or farm life."

It was not that long ago that the young teacher and 2012 Wayne State College graduate enjoyed a school trip here as a student from Wakefield. Henderson's favorite memory was riding a giant, old-fashioned merry-go-round. Many of her students on this day experience that same thrill. The blur of the past and present is fascinating as kids race about near the old school and stop to snap photos on their digital cameras and cell phones.

Another volunteer teacher here is Larry Armbright, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who now acts as the stern school master. But it was hard for him to keep a straight face when a boy asked him if they had popcorn back in the 19th century. Sure they did, but first you had to grow it, Armbright said. The young student's head shook in disagreement.

"They couldn't have had popcorn," the boy responded confidently. "They didn't have microwaves."

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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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Flowerfield School, Harrisburg

Our journey ends at the southwestern edge of the state in a remote Banner County with its charming little community of Harrisburg, where nearly 30,000 schoolchildren from the Panhandle have attended Flowerfield School since it was started in 1987.

The students take pride in wearing their pioneer clothes, and many of the adult supervisors on the class trips are parents who also took part in the classes. The Flowerfield School is a 19th-century loghouse that is now a part of this array of a dozen old buildings sitting on the grounds of Banner County Museum complex.

The school used to be a chicken coop and is so cramped that students only use it in shifts to practice penmanship by dipping their turkey-quill pens into the ink. Most of the classes are held in the white church that was built in the 1880s out of trees from the Wildcat Hills. The students also visit the sod house and general store. A wonderful feeling of prairie isolation takes them back more than a century into the past.

"Our museum has trees all around it, and you're isolated," said Judy Leafdale, the museum's office manager and all-around fixer. "You don't have any highway noises. It's easy for the kids to fall into the role of the pioneer era."

One of the longtime teachers, Janet Gardner, recently retired from the program but still treasures the many thank-you notes sent by happy youngsters after their visits. It is one of the most exciting events of their school year, yet everybody remembers to hush up that enthusiasm in the classroom

"We follow the Golden Rule of silence is golden," said Lois Herbel, who helped create the program and now delights in teaching here after retiring from full-time teaching in Gering. "The hardest part for me in teaching Flowerfield is to remember not to use 21st-century slang and to keep in the role of 1888 teacher."

But no matter what century we're speaking from, this Nebraska history lesson is worth singing about.


Contact to visit or volunteer!

Combs School: (402) 404-2024


Stuhr Museum: (308) 385-5316 ext. 205


Heritage School: (402) 441-8709


Flowerfield School: (308) 436-7228



UNK honors teaching pioneersUNK honors teaching pioneers

A STATEWIDE PERMANENT tribute honoring Nebraska's heroic educators of the one-room schoolhouse has a fitting home in the University of Nebraska at Kearney, where more than 20,000 teachers have been trained since the university first began in 1905 as the Nebraska State Normal School. On Friday, Sept. 20, UNK will unveil its Wall of Honor, where plaques for 35 of those schoolhouse teachers will shine out with their stories.

Each of the teachers on that wall have been honored through donations by family members and former students, and the $85,000 raised so far will be used for scholarships to educate UNK students who plan to carry on the teaching tradition with the university's One Room, One Teacher initiative.

At the ceremony, treasured stories of each of these honored heroes will be shared, including one special teacher who inspired UNK Chancellor Doug Kristensen to get involved in education. It's the story about his mom, Mary Lou (Martin) Kristensen.

Now 82, she began her career as a teacher when she was 17 in a one-room schoolhouse near Minden in 1947, when she made $1,250 for that first year. After saving her money for two years, she got her degree at UNK's former Nebraska Teachers College and helped some other young Nebraskans blossom.

"We'll be able to remember the heritage of where education began and what really made it strong - the country school," said Chancellor Kristensen.

His mother's story and many others on that wall are celebrated by a program launched by Ed Scantling, dean of UNK's College of Education.

"Our No. 1 goal is to honor Nebraska' pioneering educators," Scantling said. "We thought it was really important to memorialize the efforts and paytribute to those teachers from those one-room schools. ... They faced many hardships when they went out there. They had to be self-reliant and innovative and make do with what they had."

For more information on the Wall fo Honor ceremony or to donate a plaque to the program, contact the University of Nebraska Foundation's Tracy Lungrin, who has helped spearhead this initiative. She can be reached at (308) 698-5278, or email tlungrin@nufoundation.org.

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