Editor's note: This is part one of a multi-part series.
There was a time when daily school lessons were taught in a profoundly basic environment.
Four humble walls cradled a world of knowledge while a potbelly stove warmed body, mind and soul.
The rural, one-room schoolhouse was the foundation for America's educational system, as strong a symbol of Americana as mom's apple pie.
Everything about a one-room school was plain and unadorned, reflecting simplicity in a land of pioneers. No electricity. No running water. Two primitive outhouses, one for boys and the other, girls.
In the most basic of shelters, a single teacher taught academics to pupils in elementary grades one to eight.
The schools were a common sight. With their distinctively large windows and bell tower, one-room schoolhouses seemed to sprout along the landscape of eastern Pennsylvania. They dotted the countryside like apple trees.
Part of the reason for their proliferation was a lack of motorized transportation. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, students walked to school. For that reason, schools needed to be nearby and plentiful.
"I taught in three of them," says Constance Andrews, 92, of Kunkletown. Andrews spent 60 years teaching, including 47 years as a full-time instructor, then as a tutor and substitute teacher.
"There was the Correll School, Fiddletown School and Smith Gap School. At one time we had seven one-room schoolhouses, all in Eldred Township," says Andrews. "The teachers would shift every three years."
She remembers teaching during the winter months when one had to light the potbelly stove 24 hours in advance so the building would be warm for class early Monday.
"On a Sunday, my husband and I would go to start the coal fire. The stove was in the middle of the room," she explains, adding that the potbelly was wrapped in a tin barrier to protect students who sat nearest the heat source.
On many occasions, teachers would prepare a hot, noon meal atop the stove, or use the stove to prepare food brought in by students.
"At recess time, I'd put their food containers in a large pot filled with water. We'd heat it up that way. We'd carry the water from the nearest farmhouse."
Sometimes Andrews used a primitive, hand-held toaster to insert into the heating chamber to toast bread. Another typical chore was applying oil to the wooden floors to preserve the wood and help to keep the dust down.
"We didn't have electric lights until the 50s," recalls Andrews. Such was the case at most one-room schools.
Former student Elsa Kerschner of Towamensing Township attended the Eberhard School in Lower Milford Township.
"We got electric lights when I was perhaps in fifth grade. Before that it occasionally got dark enough that we would have to stop doing school work when a storm came," remembers Kerschner.
Andrews says the school curriculum included the basics.
"I had the students learn the states, capitals and things they don't seem to teach anymore. We called it geography class. We had special history classes, too, and I taught grammar. That's something that really should be stressed today," says Andrews, the former Constance Everett.
A one-room schoolhouse held perhaps 25 or 30 students among the 8 grade levels. For that reason, class sizes were very small. (Andrews, however, taught as many as 40 at a time.) The small class size afforded the teacher an opportunity to provide individualized attention. If a student seemed to progress well, the teacher had the option to move a student ahead to the next grade level earlier than expected.
"I did it one year," says Andrews. "I did it in the middle of the seventh grade."
Four students, all boys, were advanced to eighth grade. At the end of the school year, all four successfully completed an exam to enter Polk Township and Palmerton high schools.
That unique advantage of the one-room schoolhouse provided a boost to many youngsters who demonstrated eagerness and ability to learn.
Donald Whitley, Tamaqua, is familiar with the concept.
As a pupil at the Clamtown School, Whitley was taken under the wing of instructor Marguerite Reidel when he was just three. He completed elementary school courses much earlier than other students and went on to high school before he reached his teens.
"I was 11 years old when I took the test for ninth grade," recalls Whitley, 77. "We took the test in the old junior high. I had to score 90 or above in each subject. I turned 16 three weeks after graduation," says Whitley, a member of the Tamaqua High School Class of 1948.
The Tamaqua Area School District does not maintain a searchable database containing the age of thousands of graduates since the first commencement in 1890. However, based on information passed down through the years, it is known that several former one-room school students were graduated at age 16 at Tamaqua. Whitley was the youngest of those 16-year-olds and likely the youngest male to have been graduated from the Schuylkill County school.
The person generally believed to be Tamaqua High's youngest grad was a native of nearby Carbon County. The late Marie Mae (Hill) Serfass was born in Bowmanstown on July 28, 1923, and moved to the village of Reynolds where she enrolled in the Reynoldses School. She quickly advanced through elementary grades and entered high school at age 12. She graduated from Tamaqua High in 1939 at age 15, having successfully completed the required coursework. Her graduation at such an early age required special dispensation granted by Superintendent of Schools Carl Koch, who visited her home to interview Marie before commencement exercises. Marie Mae Serfass is the only Tamaqua High School grad known to have earned and been granted a senior high diploma at age 15.
The one-room schoolhouse fostered excellence, possibly through small class size and the opportunity for individualized attention. Whitley and others have fond memories of the daily activities and the rewarding experience of attending school during a less complicated time in public education. He remembers the Clamtown School as one with a few distinct advantages.
"We had electricity and a piano because the building was used as a Sunday school."
Those who taught and attended one-room schools say the smaller, more intimate environment aided teachers and students, both of whom benefited by the closeness and interaction.
All across Pennsylvania and the country, one-room schools produced vital members of the Greatest Generation. Many went on to add their colorful achievements to the fabric of America.
In fact, Alan B. Shepard, Jr., the first American in space and one of only a few human beings to have walked on the moon, attended a one-room schoolhouse in East Derry, NH.
The buildings with so little gave us so much.
They didn't have lights, water, indoor toilets, swimming pools, planetariums, auditoriums or the advantage of computers.
But they were staffed with skilled, devoted teachers and energized by young minds willing to learn. The most basic foundation of education was theirs to grasp a no-frills approach to learning.
"A lot of good teaching and good work was done in the one-room schoolhouse," says Andrews.
And that legacy is too important to be forgotten.
Next: Trying to save the last of the one-room schools