Poston’s 1901 one-room schoolhouse restored to original—including old-fashioned desks, flag, pot-bellied stove, coal bucket, even outhouses—and now serves as a museum in Fleming County
Charles Berry would see them, sitting abandoned, as he drove through rural Kentucky, and his renovator’s spirit was intrigued at the idea of taking on a one-room schoolhouse—especially since he’d spent the first three years of his own education at a one-room school in Carter County.
“I had such a good experience,” he says. “I think they did such a fantastic job in these little schools.”
So when the retired teacher found himself called back to be a substitute agriculture teacher at Fleming County High School for the 2008-2009 school year, he turned his agriculture construction students loose on a yearlong project to renovate the Poston School on Kentucky Hwy. 559, located at the top of Park Lake Mountain, the highest mountain in Fleming County.
It’s now open as a museum, re-creating what was once the state’s most common educational institution.
It’s hard to know how many one-room schoolhouse buildings remain standing. Bill Macintire, survey coordinator for the Kentucky Heritage Council, says that his office is still discovering previously undocumented ones. “With 120 counties, there could easily be hundreds of single-room schools we don’t know about,” he writes in an e-mail.
In a follow-up interview, he says they’re “rapidly disappearing”—he and his surveyors often go to spots marked as schools on USGS maps, and find nothing there.
“People do have a sentimental attachment to them, but we lose a lot of them because nobody has some idea of what to do with” the structures, Macintire says.
Berry and company did have an idea. They’ve fitted Poston out to look, in Berry’s words, “just like it was the day they closed”—a chalkboard, flag, pot-bellied stove, water bucket, coal bucket, and rows of old-fashioned desks. (Outside, there’s a pair of outhouses, a well box, and a shelter used by groups who hold gatherings at the site.)
“It’s a nice early 20th-century schoolhouse…your simplest, stripped-down rural country school,” says Macintire. “It looks pretty authentic to me.”
Artifacts uncovered in the renovation brought back moments from the school’s history. An odd stain on the wall and ceiling turned out to be the remains of a can of spoiled tomato juice that exploded when it was opened—60 years ago. There was a poem stuffed inside one of the walls that memorialized a teacher’s decision to make the school her wintertime quarters: “Mrs. Sledd put her bed in the corner of the school/She taught us if we worked hard and studied our books we wouldn’t grow up to be a fool.”
Eighty-five-year-old Emma Jean Lightner Emmons, who now lives near Maysville, taught at the school a few years after Mrs. Sledd, in the late ’40s. When she started, she was a recent high school graduate barely older than some of her students. At recess, she played along with them. “I learned really more than the children did,” she says.
She recalls one year when the My Weekly Reader delivered to the school featured an article about praying mantises, which had just recently become prevalent in the area. The students collected mantis cocoons during the winter and put them on the classroom windowsills. Then came a spring weekend. When Emmons and her students arrived on Monday, “Those little things were in the desks, they were on the books, they were in the windows—they were everywhere!” she recalls. “We worked half of the morning trying to get those things all out.
“They knew then what praying mantises were.”
In the larger schools she worked in later, Emmons says, “They had more to work with—more pieces of equipment, more books and encyclopedias, and things of that nature.”
Emmons says some stories claim that the Poston School was the first school in Fleming County to get electricity, but she thinks it was probably just the first one-room school in the county to get electricity. “We had a pie supper” (people brought pies, which were auctioned off) “and made about $76. We gave all the money to the school board to help with the cost of wiring the building.”
Continues Emmons, “But in the one-room school everybody knew everybody else and helped each other, and when they learned something they were all excited about it. It seems like they enjoyed each other more than they did in the larger school…It was just like a big family.”
For Eugene Hester, 80, it was literally family—when he attended Poston School in the late ’30s and early ’40s, as many as eight of the students at any one time would be siblings or cousins. He recalls enjoying listening to the older students’ lessons for a preview of what he’d be doing in a few years: “I think it made me aware of a little higher goals.” He went on to Fleming County High School (at a time when not everyone received secondary education), Morehead State University, and a career that saw him heading the inventory control department for Seagram’s in New York.
He now lives in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, and came down for family reunions held at the school in June of 2010 and 2011.
“It just almost made me cry, to see how those guys, the FFA boys and Charlie Berry, had taken the interest in renovating and making it look just as (it did) back in the day of ’38 and ’40 as you can get,” he says.
TALES FROM TEACHERS
For the last few years, Dr. William Lynwood Montell, professor emeritus of folk studies at Western Kentucky University, has been compiling a series of oral histories of the professions and states of being in Kentucky and Tennessee under the “Tales from” title—lawyers, doctors, ghosts, funeral homes. Just out is Tales from Kentucky Sheriffs, with preachers and nurses to follow.
But his own background gave this January’s publication of Tales from Kentucky One-Room School Teachers (University Press of Kentucky) special significance for him.
“I knew so many of these former one-room school teachers were gone or were close to going away,” he says. “And by golly, I thought the history, the descriptive comments they could make about teaching at a one-room school, would be so important for their descendants and for the general readers and public, who need to know more about what the one-room school system was like.”
He even got to interview Mamie Wright, one of his teachers at Rock Bridge, shortly before her death.
The volume contains everything from the details of teachers’ pay and transportation, to Halloween pranks, to harrowing stories of teachers dealing with threats of violence. One teacher talks about an explosion in a Pike County school caused when a student accidentally poured gasoline on the fire in the stove; another, who taught in Wayne County, tells about running off an amorous couple who parked their car on the playground just before recess time. Montell’s favorite is about a softball star who, following a big win, was kissed by all the cheerleaders. His little sister got angry, spit in her hands, and rubbed the kisses off his cheeks.
The book catches the end of an era that stretches back more than 100 years. In his introduction, Montell prints the “Rules for Teachers” adopted by the state legislature in 1872:
1. Teachers each day will fill lamps, trim the wicks, and clean chimneys.
2. Each morning teacher will bring a bucket of water and a scuttle of coal for the day’s lesson.
3. Make your pens carefully. You may whittle nibs to the individual taste of the pupils.
4. Men teachers may take one evening each week for courting purposes, or two evenings a week if they attend church regularly.
5. After ten hours in school, the teachers may spend the remaining time reading the Bible or any other good books.
6. Women teachers who marry or engage in unseemly conduct will be dismissed.
7. Every teacher should lay aside from each pay a goodly sum of his earnings for his benefit during his declining years so he will not become a burden on society.
8. Any teacher who smokes, uses liquor in any form, frequents pool or public halls, or gets shaved in a barber shop will give good cause to suspect his worth, intention, integrity, and honesty.
9. The teacher who performs his labor faithfully and without fault for five years will be given an increase of twenty-five cents per week for his pay, providing the Board of Education approves.