Minnesota's Greatest Generation

Gloria Huffman Sinell: Country School Days

For children growing up in rural Minnesota during the 1920s and 1930s, attending a one-room country school was common. Children were expected to walk the distance of up to three miles to school, or have their parents provide transportation. Students from first through eighth grade shared the single room and the teacher. Gloria Huffman Sinell recalled her experiences in country school in southern Minnesota.

Story Excerpt

I was five years old in 1927 when I started school at a little white country school that was about 1½ miles South of our farm in Sibley Township in Sibley County, MN. My teacher was my Aunt Margaret. She was a member of our extended family who lived together in an old pink farmhouse. The family consisted of my parents, my paternal grandmother, two aunts and eventually five siblings. At various time in those depression years other relatives came to stay with us when they were down on their luck and out of jobs.

Aunt "Margie" and I walked to school together when the weather permitted. In the winter my Dad took us to school either in his Model T Ford or in a sled hitched to a team of horses when the snow was too deep for the car to get through the drifts. Aunt Margie did not like to waste time just walking, so on the way to school she would drill me on the arithmetic she thought I ought to know, and my spelling words. She also taught me poetry. One poem that I can remember is "Little Orphan Annie" by James Whitcomb Riley. I had to learn this one because I was chosen to recite it at the Sibley County Spelling Contest, which was held every year at the County Court House. I can remember the stage fright washing over me as I stood up to recite. I somehow managed to remember all the lines and do the motions that Margie insisted that I use as part of the performance. What a relief when that day was over!

When we arrived at school on cold mornings Margaret would feed the fire in the old coal stove and hoped that she had banked it right and that it hadn't gone out over night. Water had to be carried in from the well in the schoolyard. While she was busy with these chores I was kept busy dusting desks and erasing black boards that I was able to reach.

Our beginning readers were The Sunbonnet Babies. After we had read out loud from our readers we practiced our spelling words and numbers and - Happy Day! - got to color.

The students ranged in age from children my age to seventh and eighth graders. Some of the older boys towered over their teacher but I don't remember many discipline problems. If students misbehaved parents would be called, so they were usually pretty respectful. I was expected to be a model of deportment so that I wouldn't be called "Teacher's Pet."

School lunches were brought from home and were usually sandwiches made with sausage or sorghum. Sometimes they would be made with peanut butter and that was considered a real treat. Sometimes my Mother would put homemade soup in a Thermos for our lunch and there would also be a cookie or a doughnut.

At Christmas time rural schoolteachers were expected to plan and produce a program for the parents and their families. Every child would have a "piece" to recite and carols would be learned and sung. The room and a tree were decorated with decorations made by the students. Usually some student's uncle or older brother volunteered to be Santa Claus. He doled out bags filled with Christmas candy, nuts, maybe an orange or an apple and a small gift from the teacher.

It was amazing what these dedicated rural school "marms" accomplished for a puny salary. They were closely monitored by a County Superintendent of Schools and not always appreciated by the parents. For the most part, though, I think they derived satisfaction from teaching and mentoring these young people and they in turn like and admired their teacher. I'm sure they have fond memories of learning the "3 R's" in those little one-room schoolhouses of long ago.


Sinell, Gloria Huffman Country School Days. Minnesota Historical Society: Share Your Story, 2006.