Kane County History: The Magic And Mystery of Aurora's One-Room Schoolhouse

Kane County History: The Magic And Mystery of Aurora’s One-Room Schoolhouse

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was written by Tim Wagner, public relations and content strategist for the Fox Valley Park District. All photos are courtesy of the Fox Valley Park District.

Most of the littles walked every morning to get to it, some a mile or two. Definitely through “two feet of snow” at times, though maybe not “uphill both ways,” like our grandparents used to regale. But the majority of young kids walked.

The older boys sometimes arrived there on horseback, a younger sibling often attached by squeezed arms around the waist.

And the fewest of the lot – those from families with greater means or thanks to “advancements” when the century changed from 19th to 20th – enjoyed the comforts of a horse-drawn buggy, riding shotgun alongside Dad.

Different modes of transportation to be sure, but they all got there.

Destination: school. 

Or, more specifically, the one-room schoolhouse located up or down the dirt road, on the outskirts of town, or simply on the patch of land handpicked by local farmers who pooled their resources to build a place of learning for their own children and others who lived on farms nearby.

According to Debra Corwin, director at Preservation Partners of the Fox Valley, 135 one-room schoolhouses dotted the Kane County landscape into the 1940s until 1947 when the county consolidated its schools because “buses were available, transportation was much better,” Corwin said. “In other words, you didn’t have to walk.” 

The Mystery of the Little Red Schoolhouse

One of those early schoolhouses stood on Aurora’s west side at what is now the southeast corner of Galena Boulevard and Edgelawn Drive, a block east of West Aurora Plaza. The plat of land has been home to Edgelawn West Condominiums for years.

The schoolhouse was built in 1882 and known by several names – Red Brick Schoolhouse, The Country School, Little Red Schoolhouse. Depends whose memories you read, for a definitive record of the property remains elusive.

Like most others in Kane County, however, it closed as a school in the 1940s, when many of its students “transferred” to West Aurora School District’s Freeman Elementary, about a quarter mile southeast.

It’s unclear what the red, brick building surrounded by mature oaks and maples was used for prior to its demolition around 1968. 

“My recollection is it had been abandoned as a schoolhouse, and I just remember an old car being parked outside,” said Neal Ormond, a lifelong Aurora resident and West Aurora schools historian whose childhood memories stretch to the mid-40s. “I thought someone might have lived there as a resident.”

The Replica at Blackberry Farm

Despite a few gaps in the historical timeline, the schoolhouse and its no-frills display of simpler times remains in session – in replica form at the Fox Valley Park District’s Blackberry Farm in Aurora.

When Blackberry (known as Pioneer Park until the ’80s) was built in 1969, not long after the original schoolhouse’s demise, park district officials acted in the name of preservation and installed the replica, complete with the original’s ceiling panels and light fixtures.

Absent of touchscreens and tech labs, Blackberry’s one-room schoolhouse continues to stand the test of time, delivering the simplicities of early 20th century childhood through the lens of an ordinary school day.

“It’s one of the most popular attractions here,” says Laureen Baumgartner, recreation supervisor at Blackberry Farm. “The only way it’s not the first stop is if guests have little ones and they have to go ride the train first. Then they double back to the schoolhouse afterward.”

The one-room schoolhouse is open to park visitors during normal hours, but staff shines a spotlight on it during themed events, such as “Laura Ingalls Wilder Day” and “Tea with the Lincolns” – re-enactments of life on the frontier.

One-Room Experiences — At Blackberry Farm And LeRoy Oakes

Baumgartner often dresses the part of the teacher and plays one in an interpretive role. 

“There were very few behavioral issues, because children were held accountable,” Baumgartner says of the one-room schoolhouse era. “Oftentimes, brothers and sisters were classmates, meaning one misstep and, chances were, word of their naughtiness reached the parents before the kids got home at the end of the day.

“Their behavior represented the family. The parents were strict, because they didn’t want to be identified as the family with the wild kids.”

At Preservation Partners, one of Debra Corwin’s main roles is directing activities at the group’s own one-room schoolhouse – Pioneer Sholes School, which sat idle on farmland from 1947 to 1979.

That’s when a restoration society formed in the school’s name to repair, move and preserve the building. The refurbished original schoolhouse is located in LeRoy Oakes Forest Preserve in St. Charles and open for tours on dedicated days throughout the summer. 

Corwin is a resident expert on one-room schoolhouses in general, but she’s lasered in on late-19th/early-20th century life here in Kane County. Though the schoolhouses may have contained some unique subtleties, they were overwhelmingly similar, for all families drew from the same pool of available materials.

(When the Aurora schoolhouse at Galena and Edgelawn was built in 1882, it would be another 112 years before Amazon could help.)

Schoolhouse Lessons

A few fascinating takeaways from a two-hour history lesson from Corwin:

  • Farmers with children in the school paid teacher salaries and provided them room and board.
  • The school year began at the end of harvesting season and ended at the beginning of planting season. “So, the school year was basically the winter,” Corwin says. (Which validates Grandpa’s claim of walking through two feet of snow).
  • Students used slate tablets to solve arithmetic problems or “sums” (the word “math” hadn’t entered the vocabulary). Side note: Tablets (slate not iPads) were the reason so many people were righthanded – so as not to erase what they’d written with a frilly sleeve or gliding hand, as would’ve been the case for lefties. 
  • Penmanship was extremely important. 
  • Science was not part of the curriculum. “From having to start fires with flint and steel to learning about the plant germination process,” Corwin says, “the students lived science.”
  • Schoolhouses were heated by a wood-burning stove, and students were responsible for bringing the “fuel” from home. Corwin has read that students who brought firewood were rewarded with a seat closer to the heat.
  • Stovepipes would often arch overhead, inside the ceiling, for added interior warmth. Those pipes would also be used for draping wet clothes during crummy weather, so they’d be dry for the walk home.
  • Children would often bring a vegetable to add to teacher’s “Wintertime Stew.” The cast-iron pot of onions, carrots, potatoes, etc. simmered atop the stove and was ready in time for noon dinner.

“The children were very appreciative of having a teacher, of learning,” Corwin said. “Getting an education – which also meant teaching right from wrong and discussing morals and values – was very important to the families and very important to the individuals. Nobody took the school day lightly.” 

What Happened To The Little Red Schoolhouse?

Turning back to Aurora’s one-room schoolhouse at Galena and Edgelawn, the Aurora Beacon-News in 1998 printed a picture of the original building as part of its “Portrait of the Past” series, where it asked residents to help identify people and places depicted in various images that could not be officially identified.

Several readers provided similar feedback, but not quite enough to definitively connect every dot from the schoolhouse’s construction to demolition, a span of more than 80 years. 

And that’s just the way it goes sometimes, says John Jaros, executive director of the Aurora Historical Society.

“A lot of times people will contribute to something if they have definitive knowledge,” Jaros said. “There are certain things you never find if they’re too far back. Sometimes it’s, ‘This is what we know, and this is what we don’t.’ In this case, we know the school existed – and that’s it.”

If only its replica walls could talk.

About Blackberry Farm

Blackberry Farm is a living history museum where pioneer life is re-created through educational demonstrations and hands-on fun. Admission to Blackberry Farm includes unlimited rides on the train, hay wagon, pedal tractors, paddle boats, carousel and ponies.

Located at 100 S. Barnes Road in Aurora, Blackberry Farm opens to the public for the 2022 season on May 1. Visit blackberryfarm.info or call 630-892-1550 for more information.

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