Reading, writing and arithmetic

AMHERST – Our rosy image of the one-room rural schoolhouse likely features a cozy building warmed by a wood stove where earnest children learn their reading, writing and arithmetic and older children help younger ones.

Maybe those schools were sometimes like that, but their reality is much more complicated, says Steve Taylor.

Taylor is best known as New Hampshire’s longtime agricultural commissioner, a position he held for 25 years until he retired in 2007.

But he is also with the state Humanities Council and he recently spoke at the Amherst Town Library on “One-Room Rural Schoolhouses: The Romance and the Reality.”

Teachers were mainly women and sometimes as young as 15, he said. They were paid two-third of what male teachers were paid and poor pay resulted in a constant teacher turnover.

The school buildings were often located in a corner of a farmer’s property, under a casual arrangement with no deed.

They had no running water, and children made their own water cups by folding pieces of waxed paper that would be dipped into a common crock.

Sometimes parents took turns bringing lunch, which could be as substantial as stew or as simple as hard-boiled eggs, and the children brought their own bowls and spoons. Illness – measles, whooping cough, tuberculosis, undulant fever (caused by raw milk) – often shut down a school for weeks.

Taylor is a product of the Tracy School in Cornish where one teacher taught 23 students, including three who were in first grade.

“Seventh grade girls helped second graders with their numbers,” he said. Eighth grade boys keep the fire going. Seventh grade boys were in charge of fetching water.”

The teacher had a “Good English Club” and would take notes on bad usage while the children played during recess.

“Stevey Taylor,” she would say. “I heard you say ‘I ain’t got my coat’.”

You never forget a lesson like that, Taylor said.

Students had to walk to school, and a limit of 1.5 miles was set by towns as the distance they could reasonably expect a six-year-old girl to walk.

The buildings were community centers, places for weddings and Christmas parties, especially after the Civil War they were vital to maintaining a semblance of community. In the late 1800s New Hampshire towns “were hemorrhaging people” who were going West or leaving to work in big-city mills, Taylor said.

The growing popularity of the automobile in the early 20th century made centralized education far more practical and caused the swift decline of the small district schoolhouses.

“They dropped off the cliff. They were abandoned left and right,” he said.

But one-room schoolhouses expressed a noble goal, said Taylor, “to give everyone a chance at a basic education” and taxes were raised to do that, which expressed Americans’ ideals of


“It was a radical idea” at the time, because in Europe education was only for aristocrats, he said.

The first education tax law was passed in colonial New Hampshire, in 1694, requiring schools be established in each town, with selectmen in charge. In 1837, “a watershed year, the state legislature decided selectmen had too much on their minds already” and required towns to establish a “prudential committee” and later a school board to hire teachers.

Fifty years before women were given the right to vote women in New Hampshire were allowed to vote on school affairs, mostly because of the influence of the Grange. The farmers’ organization allowed women to hold any office and they had a major focus on education, Taylor said.

In Washington, N.H. a woman ran for school board in 1886, sparking a huge male turnout that caused her to lose. “But two years later she was elected and served for 10 years,” Taylor said.

One thing that hasn’t change, he said, is the great disparity in education between rich and poor districts, noting the difference between the Claremont and Hanover schools.

Librarian Ruslyn Vear introduced Taylor as an independent scholar, farmer, journalist, and longtime public official. With his sons, he operates a dairy, maple syrup, and cheese-making enterprise in Meriden Village, an unincorporated community in Plainfield, near the Vermont border. He was also the founding executive director of the New Hampshire Humanities Council.

His presentation was the library’s third Quintessential New England series. On Nov. 2 WCVB-TV Channel 5’s Chronicle reporter Ted Reinstein will talk about New England general stores.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or