As Jim Meyer sits inside the one-room schoolhouse that’s now a museum in the northwest Iowa town of Odebolt, he shares a few of his many memories as an elementary student in the school back in the 1940s.
“We learned the three Rs: reading, writing and recess. I excelled at recess,” jokes Meyer, 81, an Odebolt farmer and Sac County Farm Bureau member.
He tells stories about riding his pony to class and how the little school offered a “hot lunch."
“We would take a sack lunch, and a lot of times it was cheese sandwiches. We would put our cheese sandwiches on the (wood-burning) stove to warm them. And that was our hot lunch. And then we smelled the cheese burning off the stove for the rest of the afternoon," he says with a laugh.
Today, the schoolhouse — where Meyer learned arithmetic, Palmer method cursive and phonetic spelling — sits in Heritage Park in downtown Odebolt.
Local volunteers organized a renovation effort, moving the schoolhouse from the nearby farm of long-time Farm Bureau leaders Carol Raasch and her late husband, Curt, back in 2011.
On the farm, the building was used as a farrowing, or “birthing,” barn for hogs and then lambs. “Blackboards and all,” Carol Raasch recalls. “We recording how many animals and how many babies and everything (on the blackboards). So it had quite a life.”
As word spread about the renovation project, donations of countryschool books, lunch pails, desks and clothing — found in barns and basements — kept coming in.
The Rural Legacy Project, a committee of Odebolt preservation volunteers, decided to turn the schoolhouse into a museum to display all the rare and unique items, as well as to share the legacy of Iowa’s one-room schoolhouses.
“You can learn a lot about the history of the country schools right here,” says Meyer, who serves on the Rural Legacy Project committee along with his wife, Madeline.
Many of the desks are original to the school, as is the pump organ, wind-up record player and many of the slate boards, or tiny chalkboards that students used to complete their assignments instead of writing on paper, which was expensive back then.
A cabinet and blackboard were damaged from years of use and from the move, but replacements were discovered at another local schoolhouse that now is a residential home.
Fellow committee members and former teachers Carol Raasch and Barb Bloom explain that one-room schoolhouses, built when the homesteaders first settled in the state, helped establish Iowa’s national reputation for excellence in education.
“The State Legislature (back in the late 1800s) determined that if we are going to have these immigrants come here, then we need to teach their kids, because we want families to come,” Raasch says.
At its peak, Iowa had 12,623 country schools, located every 2 miles to make it easier for farm families to send their kids to school.
In Iowa’s country schoolhouses, students of every grade level were taught in one room, typically from kindergarten until eighth grade, Bloom explains.
Rural schools may have lacked resources, like indoor plumbing, but students still got a top-caliber education, Bloom says. Teachers gave each student individual attention.
“We learned how to handle social pressure,” Meyer says. “Everything was out in the open. Teachers would put a little pressure on us, and our fellow students. We didn’t want to look silly in front of the rest of the kids, so we wanted to make sure we did a good job."
The Iowa Rural Schools Museum is open Memorial Day through October. Hours are Wednesdays 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., or by appointment. Call 712-668-4285 to schedule a tour. Visit www.iowaruralschoolmuseums.net for more information.