Click Here to Return to Index

Click Here to Return to Milestones

Teaching in Beaver County in the "Good" Old Days Was No Picnic

By Robert and Kathleen Millward

Milestones Vol 34 No. 2

There are few images more immediately recognizable in the nostalgic lure of Americana than that of the little red schoolhouse. It never fails to evoke our wistful yearning for a time when life was much simpler, and schools were small, safe, one-room communities nestled in picturesque rural valleys each with a smiling, dedicated teacher and a roomful of happy, attentive students. But, in truth, as noted photo archivist Otto Betteman observes: "The little schoolhouse was the dispensary of only limited information ­ much of it questionable ­ that was force-fed to pupils. Thinking was discouraged in favor of memorizing prepackaged 'noble' thoughts, and the three R's were imparted with a painful repetition associated more with the training of a dog." Corporal punishment was often a routine part of the day for many students, and the teachers in these one-room school houses often had little to smile about either. Consider, for example, the life of a typical teacher in Beaver County in the "good" old days.

In 1858, the Pennsylvania State Superintendent recorded in his annual report that schools in Beaver County were spending only 48 cents a year to educate each of its students. Of course, an academic "year' at that time was only 4 months, November through March, but 48 cents per pupil was still hardly enough to give Beaver County teachers a decent salary. In 1860, for example, the 3 male teachers in Big Beaver were earning only $15.00 a month and the female teachers were paid even less -- $9.75 per month. The concept of equal pay for equal work was non-existent in 19th century Western Pennsylvania, as it was throughout the country. If you were a male teacher looking for a job in Beaver County in 1858, you might have tried getting hired in the village of Fallston where male teachers earned the highest salaries in the County -- $35.00 a year (6-month year). The lone female teacher at Fallston, however, made less than half her male counterparts -- $12.00 a month.

Average Monthly Salaries for Pennsylvania Teachers


1854 $29.31 $12.81
1864 $25.42 $20.16
1874 $41.88 $33.33
1883 $36.23 $28.30


Beaver County had 141 schools in 1860, and the average monthly salary was $25.44 for male instructors and $15.25 for female instructors ­ IF you got paid at the end of the month. If the crops failed, the farmers couldn't pay their school taxes, so there was no money to pay the teachers. By 1863, when Lincoln was president and Beaver County was sending hundreds of men off to fight in the Civil War, Beaver County had 21 more schools (162), but teacher salaries remained pretty much the same. The average pay for male teachers was $25.00 per month and $18.25 for female teachers. Male teachers in Freedom, however, were making a whopping $40.00 during the Civil War years while the 2 female teachers made only $17.00 per month.

Along with rock-bottom wages, most of these teachers had to endure harsh working conditions. In the "good" old days of American education, there were no janitors, so the teacher was entirely responsible for the maintenance of the school. This meant keeping the school clean and getting up at the crack of dawn every day in order to arrive at the schoolhouse early enough to fire up the coal stove before the children arrived. For those teachers who were not boarding with a local farmer, it was often a long, rigorous walk to work on bitterly cold Pennsylvania winter mornings, and some incurred frostbite by the time they arrived at their destination.

In addition to assuming a janitor's duties, a teacher in Beaver County's one-room schoolhouses also had to act as the principal as well as the school nurse, counselor, social worker, and record keeperall on a virtual poverty-level salary. Teaching was clearly not a dream job in the good old days. It was more often than not a demoralizing occupation with low pay, low prestige, and no job security whatsoever. Consequently, the turnover rate was quite high, some teachers even leaving their jobs before the end of the school year.

The workplace itself also left a lot to be desired. The outside appearance of the old one-room schoolhouses was often deceiving: the quaint wooden structure with a picturesque little steeple and school bell often masked a primitive working environment on the inside ­ smoky old coal stoves in the middle of the room roasting the students who sat near it while the kids who had to sit by the window shivered all day long from the winter winds blowing through the windows and the loose-fitting floorboards. Many of those little one-room schoolhouses were also far too small to accommodate the number of students in the community it was serving, and students were sometimes crammed up against each other all day long on their wooden benches. According to the Beaver County Superintendent, 13 of the schoolhouses in Beaver County in the mid-19th century were "unsuitable for school purposes," and another 47 had "unsuitable furniture." This would have been typical of many one-room schools at that time. In 1860, for example, the superintendent of Adams County described one of the schools as "a crumbling, dilapidated, damp, unwholesome stone building, with a ceiling about 8 feet high, room about 26 X 30 feet, into which 117 pupils are crowded and placed at long, old-fashioned desks, with permanent seats, without backs."

Many of Beaver County's teachers would also have had to "board round." Schoolhouses were usually located in isolated areas, and since most teachers couldn't afford to buy a horse and walking to and from work would take far too much time, teachers often had to move in with a different family each week throughout the school term. Then, at the end of every week, they'd have to pack up their meager belongings and head to a new farm and adjust to a new family.

Western Pennsylvania teachers often wrote about their bleak living conditions in these strangers' farmhouses: being relegated to a cold attic room with no heat where snow and rain blew right into the room through the cracks in the walls, living with little or no privacy, being forced to sleep in the same room with 3 or 4 of their students, having no social life at all during the week, or often on weekends as well. This must have been particularly hard on the younger teachers. We often forget that many of those one-room school teachers were just kids themselves15, 16, 17-year-old teenagers.

There were 500 teachers in Pennsylvania in 1858 under the age of 17 and 4,000 between the ages of 17 and 21. Most of them had finished the 8th grade, but not all. Superintendents were sometimes so desperate for teachers that they would waive the minimum education requirement for teachers if they had to. Living in some of the most remote areas of the state had little appeal to the average girl or boy leaving 8th grade. In those days, being just 10 miles from town or from home could seem more like 100 miles. Roads were bad or non-existent, and even the best roads would have become impassable after a heavy rainstorm or snowstorm.

And for young women, the isolation was compounded by restrictive rules that men didn't have to abide by. If a girl fell in love and wanted to get married, for example, she would often be forced to give up her teaching job. Schools would not hire a married teacher. They saw no point in both a mother and father working. Once a girl was married, it was her husband's responsibility to provide for her. She didn't "need a job." A female teacher could also be fired for engaging in the same activities as a man, like drinking or smokingor even being seen in the bar section of a tavern or "engaging in any unseemly conduct."

Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that the Pennsylvania Superintendent reported that of the nearly 13,000 teachers in PA schools in 1858, only 5,087 were "fully satisfactory" while another 5,387 were "employable only until better teachers could be found." He also concluded that 2,213 teachers were so ineffective that they needed to be "dispensed." Of the 171 teachers employed in Beaver County in 1863, the superintendent reported that 140 "gave reasonable satisfaction" while the remaining 31 should "either considerably improve, or quit the business altogether."

By 1883, Beaver County had 229 schools, but education was not yet compulsory so there were still 179 school age children in the county who did not attend school. According to the state superintendent, some parents felt that they were being deprived of their constitutional rights if their children were compelled to attend schools rather than remain at home on the farm while there was so much work to be done between spring and fall. But by 1883, most Beaver County schools had extended their terms to 5 or 6 months, and Freedom's 3 schools were open for 7 months.

By 1899, all students in Beaver County were attending school for over 7 months (October through April), there were 5 high schools in the county, and the teachers were better qualified: 154 had provisional certificates, 44 had professional certificates, and 13 teachers had graduated from one of the state's normal schools. Beaver County teachers also had to attend a mandatory 5-day Teachers' Institute at their respective county seats beginning the day after Christmas and listen to a series of lectures, so they had practically no time at all to enjoy their Christmas holiday with their families. They had to work up until Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, and for those who lived a distance from the county seat, they had to get up before dawn on the morning after Christmas so that they could arrive at the Teachers' Institute on time. Some would have a horse, but many would have to walk. And unlike today, schools had no "professional development" budget, so the teachers themselves had to pay for all their meals and their hotel bill.

In 1883, the county superintendent reported that 53 of the schoolhouses in Beaver County were "without suitable privies," always a major concern of both teachers and parents.

By 1899, the physical structure of many Beaver County schools also began to improve, but although school heating, lighting, and ventilation were better, sanitation was still a problem in many of the county's schools.

By the late 19th century, Beaver County had 229 schools, but many lacked adequate sanitary conditions. Often these one-room schools were regulated by tight-fisted, uncompromising school board members who were very frugal farmers who believed that saving money was vastly more important than emptying outhouses. At that time, honey-dippers charged $1.00 to clean out a privy. The school board often considered the $1.00 fee to be too expensive and by the end of the school term, most outhouses were overflowing. Students, however, often found creative solutions to the problem, as one former student from an early 1900's explained:

"Due to the fact that there was only one girl in our school, along with our teacher, Mrs. Fishburn, the boy's latrine was always filled up. So our teacher assigned two boys to dig a new boy's hole as punishment for fighting, but instead of digging the holes, the two boys made a truce and solved the problem by switching the signs Even Mrs. Fishburn was impressed."

Outhouses accompanying the one-room schools were the source of many a prank at the teacher's expense. One of the older boys, for example, would lock up the teacher in the privy and then declare a one-day holiday and send all the kids home. Fortunately, for the trapped teacher, a younger student would often rescue her from the foul-smelling box.

So, although the passing of the one-room school is often viewed with sadness today, parents of the past usually welcomed the change. They wanted their children to attend classes with students of the same age and were pleased when schools became large enough to accommodate 8 separate grades. The consolidation of smaller schools also drew from a larger tax base which could then provide better services, better education, and better teacher salaries. And parents also liked the idea of better health care and more academic options such as courses in music, art, home economics, wood shop, physical education, and a library that consisted of more than a few books sitting on a bookshelf in the back of the room. The prospect of a hot lunch program was also introduced with the passing of the one-room schools, and more and more parents began to see the value of having their children attend high schools. If your parents were born in Beaver County after 1900, they were among the first group of students who could attend the newly built Beaver County high schools.

Today, Beaver County has some of the most outstanding teachers in the state working in some of the best schools in Western Pennsylvania. We should take a moment to thank these teachers for their selfless dedication to their profession and to their students and never again undervalue our teachers like we too often did in the "good" old days.