History in your own backyard

I live on the East Coast, which makes visits to historic sites in the West a bit of a challenge.

For my novel, I researched classic one-room schoolhouses to help me get a better sense of the kind of education a young woman might have had in the Midwest in the 1860s to about 1870 and what that experience might have been like.

I found various photos online and in my treasured Time-Life series on the Old West, which certainly helped. And then one day I went for a hike at a local park and wandered around the little historical area afterward. One of the buildings caught my eye right away. It looked old, but it didn’t look like a house. I immediately thought it was a school.

A schoolhouse built in Virginia in 1870.
A schoolhouse built in Virginia in 1870.

I peered through the window into an empty room and saw a solid stairway tucked into the corner. That was a detail that had flummoxed me—I wasn’t sure whether modest buildings back then would have had stairs or ladders. But it was an important detail for imagining and describing characters moving through such a building, which made it an exciting discovery.

McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers were the main teaching tools at one-room schoolhouses across America.
McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers were the main teaching tools at one-room schoolhouses across America in the 19th century.

Over by the main house (which is beautifully restored and open for tours) is a sign explaining the history of the various buildings. It turns out that the one I was eyeing was indeed a one-room schoolhouse where local children learned reading, writing and arithmetic. And it was built in 1870—within the time frame of interest to me.

The teacher lived in two small rooms on the second floor. And according to the sign, children liked going to school because it was a break from farm chores (!).

The school operated for only a few years until the county established a public school system. But that little bit of history survived and is slated to be restored, which will make it an even more valuable resource for history-obsessed writers.

And it’s proof that you don’t always have to travel thousands of miles to soak up some book-worthy atmosphere.

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