Pennsylvania Memories is a special series marking the turn of the millennium featuring readers' memories of events, experiences, incidents, individuals, innovations or inventions that profoundly affected them or gave them a deep appreciation of personal history.

In the midst of the economic depression of the 1930s, my father, Hal Cornell, was a “furloughed” railroad locomo­tive foreman living with his wife and five school-aged children in a ten-dollar-a-month rented house in Burrell Town­ship, adjacent to Blairsville, in Indiana County. During two school years, my three brothers, a sister, and I attended the one­-room “Enterprise” school, which was about a mile from our home.

At that time, each municipality was a separate school district and Burrell Township’s elected school board maintained several one-room schoolhouses. The county superinten­dent of schools visited each school once or twice each year and would evaluate the quality of the teacher’s work. Teachers were employed on a year-to-year basis because there was no tenure law until 1936. Female teachers who married were dismissed.

Our teacher, Miss Vada Watt, was a respected lifelong educa­tor. She, like most elementary school teachers at the time, was a “certificate” graduate of the nearby two-year Indiana Normal School, which became a four-year state teachers college in 1927 and is now known as Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Nor­mal school graduates seeking higher salaries attended teachers colleges during summer to earn a degree in education.

Our one-room schoolhouse was built according to state regulations which included the siting of the building to face north­ward, an acre of land, windows on the east fa¸ade, forty individual desks and seats, fifteen square feet of floor space per pupil, slate blackboards placed at the north and west walls, a coal heat­ing stove at the rear of the building with a galvanized steel surround and, behind the school, separate outhouses for boys and girls. A bell in a cupola was required to summon the children.

Pupils were seated in rows by grades: first to the teacher’s left, the eighth to the right. Classes were taught by grade. When there was only one pupil in a grade, the teacher simply promot­ed him or her to the next grade. Pupils were given reading, writing, or mathematics assignments to perform while other grades were being taught. Classes were taught in reading, writing, arithmetic, history, geography, music, and art. Miss Watt was a marvel at juggling subjects and time. She also served as guidance counselor and nurse.

Miss Watt was an expert in school “management.” Misbe­having students felt the sting of a gas-stove hose, but no par­ents complained about such punishment. The teacher was always right.

To raise money for items not furnished by the school board, an annual community “box social” was held to auc­tion off foods in crepe paper-deco­rated shoeboxes made by the young girls. The highest bidder got to share the food with the girl who prepared the box. Our family was quite proud one year when my sister Catharine’s box fetched the highest price.

Eighth grade students were required to successfully complete “the county exam” to enter high school in Blairsville. Successful pupils had their tuition paid by the township’s school board. Unsuccessful students had a choice of either repeating eighth grade or dropping out of school. Work per­mits could be issued to fourteen­-year-olds who sought them. Pupils who passed the exam had to find their own way to the high school more than a mile away; school buses were available only for those who lived several miles from the school. Some pupils boarded with Blairsville families while attending the four-year-high school The eighth grade boys, including my brother Leslie, volunteered to go to the school early in the morning to fire the stove and have the room warm enough for the lessons to begin at nine o’ clock.

Children brought their own lunches in a paper “poke.” The Cornell kids each had a peanut butter sandwich and an apple. There was no running water at the Enterprise School. Students, including me during the fifth grade, volunteered in pairs to walk to an open spring in a neighbor’s backyard to fill a ten­-quart bucket. The water was for drinking, by using a common dipper. There was no Department of Environmental Protection to check the water or its use, but there were no serious illnesses in the school.

Thirty-four children, in grades one through eight, walked to school from a radius of more than a mile in all directions. The road in front of the school was a state-maintained Pinchot type, but there were no sidewalks anywhere. There was no safety fence to keep the kids from running onto the road before or after classes, or during recess periods. Before classes and during recesses, pupils organized their own games or sledded down the hill behind the school when there was snow.

Those of us who attended one-room schools are proud of our schools and our teachers. My wife Laura E. Weigle Cornell and her sister, Catherine Weigle Stephens (now a resident of Irwin, Westmoreland County), attended the one-room Porter School in York County in the early 1940s. The creation of consolidated school districts in the 1950s brought an end to the Keystone State’s one-room schools. However, there are still many reunions for pupils of Pennsylvania’s one-room schools.


William A. Cornell Sr. is a resident of Wormleysburg, Cumberland County, for which he served as a member of borough council and as its president for twelve years. He received his bachelor’s degree from Indi­ana University of Pennsylvania, his master’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh, and his doctorate in education from the State University of New York, Buffalo. Active in the Commonwealth’s educational community, he was assistant executive director for professional development for the Pennsylvania State Education Association; admissions director, dean of students, and professor of history at Edinboro Univer­sity of Pennsylvania; instructor of history at Harrisburg Area Community College; and associate professor of social studies at Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of a number of books, including Our Pennsylvania Heritage, which was used as a school text book for more than forty years, Understanding Civics, and Penn­sylvania Milestones, in addition to articles in local, state, and national history and education periodicals. He is presently a member of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, a director of the Pennsylvania Heritage Society, and the mayor of Wormleysburg.