There’s few sights as representative of the old-fashioned American countryside as the one-room schoolhouse, where rural students congregated to learn the three Rs: reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic.
Lebanon County certainly had its share. In fact, according to a 1955 article in the Lebanon Daily News, the county proportionally had more than any other county in the state. The use of many of these small, neighborhood-based schools was phased out in the middle of the 20th century when school districts began constructing and operating larger facilities and implementing transportation routes to bring remote students together. Some have been lost to history in the intervening decades, but a number have also stuck around as private residences.
A one-room schoolhouse, traditionally painted red due to the cheap cost of the paint, served as the classroom for multiple grades at a time. Students typically walked to school from their homes and a bell rung by the teacher, either handheld or hung over the roof, signaled various periods of the school day.
The teachers were often either men or unmarried women, and instruction was varied but typically focused on the aforementioned subjects, as well as other topics of interest. Marion Blouch Snyder, a former student of the Bellegrove School in North Annville Township, recalled music, art, and bird lessons. Classes who could coordinate field trips did so, often to places like Hershey, Harrisburg, or Gettysburg.
Alongside “book learning,” students frequently participated in the upkeep and maintenance of the school itself, including the tending of coal stoves for heat, snow shoveling in wintertime, cleaning after class, and other domestic duties.
The era of the one-room schoolhouse wound down rapidly in the mid-20th century as new, consolidated school buildings opened up. A 1955 report from the Pennsylvania state government found that, on average, 250 mostly one-room schoolhouses were going unused each year. In Lebanon, new facilities finished in the late 1950s and 1960s rendered the decades-old schoolhouses obsolete.
“Many of [Lebanon’s one-room schools] are still heated with pot bellied stoves, have no water or electricity, and must use outside toilet facilities,” said county superintendent Foster G. Ulrich in 1953. At the time, the county had 41 public one-room schools operating, but by 1961, all of them would be obsolete.
Opinions on the obsolescence of the one-room schoolhouses were divided. Many praised the new district buildings for their efficiency and integrated design. Some, however, doubted that the new facilities would “give a better education to the child than some of our forefathers obtained by attending the ‘one room’ schoolhouse,” as James Koller wrote in a 1958 letter to the editor of the Lebanon Daily News.
There have been dozens of schoolhouses constructed over the period of several centuries in the county. Here’s just a few of the ones that were once contained within the borders of today’s school districts.
According to an article published at the time of Lebanon’s bicentennial, a 1762 Lutheran Church message to Germany three stated that, at the time, “there are no schools in Lebanon because of the poverty of the people.”
That changed three years later when the first schoolhouse of the town was built on North 8th Street in 1765. Made of logs, the school was a landmark for burgeoning Steitztown. It was followed by a stone school at 10th and Walnut Streets. Both were church-operated and built on land donated by town founder George Steitz for the purposes of education.
While there were a few one-room schools in the city of Lebanon, larger schools like the Lebanon Academy, built in 1823, became more common as the student body got bigger. Relative to the five other districts, there aren’t many one-room schools listed in common sources, although the borough of Lebanon in 1872, at the election of the first city superintendent, is reported to have contained 36 schools.
Four schools closed down with the completion of the $600,000 addition to the “Cornwall Joint School,” better known today as simply Cornwall Elementary, in 1957. These included the Laurel Grove School along Colebrook Road, operated continuously since 1879; the Reigart’s School, also known as Pleasant Site, which began in 1885; the Isabella or Midway School, 1869; and the Sunnyside School near Cleona, 1909.
At the time of the closing, the county superintendent, Foster Ulrich, stated that 30 remaining one-room schoolhouses of the county would probably close soon. A schoolhouse teacher, Harry W. Walters, was presented with a school handbell in recognition of his service, and stated that he still believed that “the old school methods still bring the best results.”
The Laurel Grove schoolhouse was purchased by the Seventh Day Adventist Church of Lebanon and opened again in 1958, one of several operated by the church in the county. It is currently privately owned. The Sunnyside School has since been transformed into the offices of Henise Tires.
A number of Cornwall’s old schools have been documented by local teachers and historians Ellen Nicholas and Michael Trump, who assembled a poster of 23 historic district schools in 2003. Nicholas commented at the time that their project had uncovered around 100 schools in the area, going back a century.
As the largest of the modern school districts, Northern Lebanon once contained many of the county’s one-room schools. It still boasts at least one in great condition: the Lindley Murray School just outside of Fort Indiantown Gap. The school taught grades one through eight for almost a century beginning in 1850 and closing in 1947. According to a 2013 article on the school, the closing was prompted by the displacement of area students due to the government purchase of surrounding land.
In 1973, Northern Lebanon High School students undertook a restoration effort for the school, complete with approximate fixtures and furnishings. It was finished by 1976 despite setbacks, and the school still stands today on Asher Miner Road.
Many schoolhouses in the townships of Northern Lebanon have been documented by the “Golden Fifties” organization and late local expert Wayne Anspach, who wrote a book on the subject with many testimonies, photographs, and other information. Anspach passed away in 2019.
East Hanover Township contained at least eight other schools with relatively well-documented histories. Union Township counted nine schools and Swatara Township eight. The Union Forge School, built in 1840, served students in the Lickdale area, and the Meily School, in Jonestown, was built in 1882 for $780.
Of Cold Spring Township, superintendent Ulrich said in 1953 that Cold Spring Township’s children were going to school but the township itself did not have a school board (the township stopped electing municipal officials altogether in 1961). The Ditzler School, built in 1876 in the vicinity of Green Point and Gold Mine Road, had served area children for decades.
In 1958, Northern Lebanon closed 10 one-room schools. In that year, the opened up its $1.9 million high school by Route 22 and two elementary schools, one in Jonestown and one near Lickdale.
A stone one-room schoolhouse was constructed roughly northwest of the town center of Palmyra sometime prior to 1860. It was followed by a brick schoolhouse in the South Locust Street area. It’s been reported that students in the area would alternate attendance at either school each year.
By 1955, it was reported that all one-room schoolhouses within the district — Palmyra, North and South Londonderry Townships — had been “abandoned.” Many of the buildings were simply converted into residences, like the Gravel Hill School near the cemetery of the same name. Other schools included the Nafzinger School, Rissers School (near Lawn), Longs School, and Hoffer School, which held an alumni reunion in 2003, 50 years after its closing.
Though not technically one-room, the now-closed Lawn Elementary School has often been regarded as a classic “Little Red Schoolhouse.” Two years before its 1981 closing, the school taught around 155 students from first through sixth grades who frequently biked or walked to school, answered phone calls, rung the class bell, and did other routine work throughout the day. The bell itself was part of an earlier Lawn one-room school, according to a 1979 LDN article by Susan Geib Moyer.
The strong religious background of eastern Lebanon and its Amish and Mennonite communities resulted in its earliest schools were parochial. Information on these is hard to come by, but parochial schools often doubled as churches. Like Lebanon, some were erected on land dedicated for educational purposes.
One of the earliest schools in Myerstown, a log school house, was built in 1767, which was followed by another 1811. Seven school houses constructed out of limestone and brick were subsequently built and several of these were later converted to residences.
In 1952, the Smaltz School in Jackson Township and the Royers School in Royerstown sold to private parties for several thousand dollars apiece.
In 1958, the students of the six remaining ELCO-area one-room schoolhouses began attending the newly constructed $350,000 elementary school, prompting the other schools to close.
According to a 1961 article in the Lebanon Daily News, the last-used public one-room schoolhouses of the county were the five in the Annville-Cleona district. These included a school in Fontana; the Washington School roughly 2 miles south of Annville; the Mt. Pleasant School; the Garfield School near Campbelltown; and Mt. Wilson’s New Salem School.
North Annville Township counted even more than these, including the Shady Grove School two miles north of Annville on Route 934, where the other schools of the township congregated for Field Day and its contests each springtime, and the Laurel Grove School (different from Cornwall’s).
Did we leave out a school you’d like to tell us about? Email the author at [email protected] and let us know.
If you’re interested in finding out more about Lebanon County’s one-room schoolhouses, seek out late local expert Wayne Anspach’s book titled One Room Schools in East Hanover, Union, Swatara, North Annville, North Londonderry, and Surrounding Townships. The website TopoQuest may also be useful in locating former locations.
Do you support local news?
If you believe that Lebanon County needs independent, high-quality journalism, consider joining LebTown as a member. Your support will go directly towards stories like this and you will be helping ensure that our community has a reliable news source for years to come.
Learn more about membership and join now here.