When Illinois became a state in 1818, Northern Illinois was still a wilderness.  Only a handful of settlers lived around the area which is now Chicago.  Kaskaskia, which had 7,000 residents, became the state capitol.

In 1818 the new state legislature passed a law stating that “the section numbered 16 of every township, and when such section has been sold, shall be granted to the State for use of the inhabitants of such townships for the use of schools.” As a result, one-room schoolhouses began to appear.  Since the state legislature had not appropriated money to pay to operate schools, many of these first schools were charter schools.  Some schools were subscription based, with neighboring families paying for an itinerant schoolmaster.

A huge change occurred in 1855.  The state legislature passed the free school law which gave townships the ability to establish school districts with elected board, which in turn had the power to levy taxes.  The number of one room schools increased substantially.  The schoolhouses were placed within each county so that no family would be more than two miles from a school.  Children aged five to eighteen walked to school, rode horses, or came to school by horse and buggy.

In 1857 Illinois State Normal University was founded to prepare individuals to teach.  According to the article “Earliest Educators” in the February, 2014 issue of Illinois State, “For the first four decades, the only curriculum offered was a fundamental teacher preparation sequence that required three years to complete.  After 1900, a two-year degree was added, which was sufficient for those planning to teach in rural schools.”  At that time the number of one-room schools in Illinois had grown to 10,000.

Teaching in a one-room schoolhouse was a challenge.  The schoolhouses were placed within each county so that no family would be more than two miles from a school.  The teacher had to arrive at the schoolhouse at 7:00 A.M.  The first task was to start the fire in the stove by using corn cobs and scraps of paper.  Then the teacher added chunks of coal.  The floor had to be swept in the morning and often a second time in the afternoon.  Blackboards had to be washed.  Windows had to be washed.  Pails of water needed to be brought from the well for the students and teacher to use to wash their hands.  In the winter, the sidewalks had to be shoveled.

Classes began at 9:00 A.M. and ended at 4:00 P.M.  The teacher taught grades one through eight.  In addition, the teacher supervised and often participated in recess.  In the evening, the teacher had to grade papers and prepare the lesson plans and worksheets for the next day.

Interestingly enough, discipline was not a problem.  “Good discipline was assumed to be the chief order of the day by children and parents, as well as by the teacher,” recalled former teacher Roy Schilling in an interview for “Earliest Educators.”


  1. Teachers each day will fill lamps, clean chimneys.
  2. Each teacher will bring a bucket of water and a scuttle of coal for the day’s session.
  3. Make your pens carefully. You may whittle nibs to the individual taste of the pupils.
  4. Men teachers may take one evening a week for courting purposes, or two evenings a week if they go to church regularly.
  5. After ten hours in school, teachers may spend the remaining time reading the Bible or other good books.
  6. Women teachers who marry or engage in unseemly conduct will be dismissed.
  7. Every teacher should lay aside from each day’s pay a goodly sum of his earnings for his benefit during his declining years so that he will not become a burden on society.
  8. Any teacher who smokes, uses liquor in any form, frequents pool or public halls, or gets shaved in a barber shop will give good reason to suspect his worth, intention, integrity and honesty.
  9. The teacher who performs his labor faithfully and without fault for five years will be given an increase of twenty-five cents per week in his pay, providing the Board of Education approves.


  1. You will not marry during the term of your contract.
  2. You are not to keep company with men.
  3. You must be home between the hours of 8:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. unless attending a school function.
  4. You may not loiter downtown in ice cream stores.
  5. You may not travel beyond the city limits unless you have the permission of the chairman of the board.
  6. You may not ride in a carriage or automobile with any man unless he is your father or brother.
  7. You may not smoke cigarettes.
  8. You may not dress in bright colors.
  9. You may under no circumstances dye your hair.
  10. You must wear at least two petticoats.
  11. Your dresses must not be any shorter than two inches above the ankle.
  12. To keep the school room neat and clean, you must sweep the floor at least once daily, scrub the floor at least once a week with hot, soapy water, clean the blackboards at least once a day and start the fire at 7 a.m. so the room will be warm by 8 a.m.

—By Karen Centowski

Taken from One-Room Schools of Knox County, by the Knox County Retired Teachers Association.

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