One-Room Schools Bring History Alive

By Chris Buchignani, July 2016

Over the past several months, I have written about efforts to “mine” the rich preserves of knowledge buried in the past to release their power in the present. Previous installments of this series have focused mainly on conceptual conveyances of this potential – books, stories, and documents.

But what about our need for a more visceral, immersive experience, our tendency to learn by doing? “Show, don’t tell.” It’s a lesson we are taught beginning in grade school and yet it still bears repeating by campaign consultants and corporate marketing gurus. For those seeking to better understand the story of our place, two local one-room school houses offer a more hands-on approach for encountering heritage, a chance to directly show residents a piece of their history.

The Boogersburg School is a one-room schoolhouse located in Patton Township that went into service in 1877. Today, it serves as a sort of living museum piece, maintained by the Centre County Historical Society (CCHC). Having been restored and furnished in a manner consistent with its original purpose, the quaint little building now offers a connection to a prior age that, while quite alien to us today, finally vanished more recently that you might imagine. Amazingly, the schoolhouse was in use by the school district up until 1952. It doesn’t seem all that long ago, in relative terms, and although the building’s use evolved over time, it’s still remarkable to consider that a structure dating to the Rutherford B. Hayes administration made it to the early nuclear age.

When the doors were finally closed for good, the schoolhouse stood empty for many years before being used as an artist’s studio for a time. It was then purchased by a couple, Bob Struble and Susan Crary, who undertook the historical restoration work and gifted the property to the CCHC for caretaking. Boogersburg has become a traditional field trip location for area school classes, and the heart of the experience comes through the volunteer “school marms,” who teach about the school to visiting students, even dressing in period clothing. They explain the history of the building, what it was like to attend school there, and even touch on the names and stories of former students.

Dozens of volunteers each year, many of them retired local teachers, give of their time and talent to create a special experience that helps preserve local memory. Many others pitch in to help maintain the physical plant and grounds. Every August, the schoolhouse also hosts a back-to-school day when children and their families can experience a taste of life in a forgotten era, sitting in authentic wooden desks, using “soapstone, slate, and chalkboards,” and receiving lessons in subjects like spelling and “mental math.”

Further down the Mount Nittany Expressway, another former one-room school has been reborn in the present thanks to the efforts of community leaders. The Rock Hill School in Linden Hall opened in 1893, the third and final one-room schoolhouse built to educate the children of Harris Township. Rock Hill didn’t survive as long as its Patton Township counterpart, ceasing to operate as a school in 1937. Although it hosted elections and meetings into the 1980s, the school eventually became used for storage until recent interest offered a new possibility. It was resolved that the building should not be forgotten, but rather restored to its original state and made open to the public.

With the goal of “restor(ing) and preserv(ing) the historic Rock Hill School while revitalizing it to become an active learning center for present and future generations,” a small non-profit corporation was formed to manage the property and accept tax deductible donations to fund the restoration and upkeep. The drive to restore Rock Hill originated from within the community and was funded largely through private contributions; according to its website, the effort has generated more than $207,000 in donations to date. In addition to hosting educational experiences for State College School District and Penn State students, Rock Hill functions as a sort of community center, hosting local meetings, line dancing, an annual Halloween party, and serving as a bike path rest stop. Its supporters remain enthusiastic and active in exploring new uses for the space and raising awareness about it.

Both buildings have direct connections to the founding era of Penn State. Moses Thompson, who, along with his partner James Irvin, owned the Centre Furnace, was a key figure in selecting the site for the original Farmers High School. Thompson also built the Boogersburg School and donated property for the 1850 schoolhouse that preceded the Rock Hill School. Additionally, Rock Hill counts among its former faculty William G. Waring, one of Penn State’s Founders, Strong and Great. As the College’s first superintendent of the grounds, Waring, who was also a horticulture professor, was crucial in establishing the early campus; he even planted the legendary Old Willow.

Perhaps the key point to extract from both stories is the integral role played by the people of the Nittany Valley in breathing life into these institutions. Without the imagination and generosity of the Strubles and the generational effort of countless other to support the CCHC, the Boogersburg School would not have had its second act. It takes the energy and passion of the volunteer “teachers” there to produce a memorable experience for visitors. Likewise, the determination and hard work of local enthusiasts intent on keeping the Rock Hill School alive have brought forth a new and valuable community resource.

Of course, these aren’t the only interesting historical structures found within Centre County. The Historical Society also famously maintains the Centre Furnace Mansion, which is rife with significance to the founding of Penn State and unfolding of the regional story. Boalsburg’s Blacksmith Shop recently completed a successful fundraising campaign to pay for needed repairs (with help from the Boalsburg Village Conservancy, another small, volunteer venture similar to the Rock Hill School group). The Curtin Village in Howard recreates a 19th century workers’ village and preserves the family home of former PA governor Andrew Curtin. There are others still.

They all offer a chance to connect with tangible, physical reminders of what came before. Specifically, for an area that so prizes education and whose growth has been so caught up in it, the Boogersburg and Rock Hill schools offer a window into a style of learning, and of daily living, that have all but vanished. Thanks to the vision of donors and the ongoing support of dedicated community volunteers, these two facilities continue to maintain a fascinating link to our forebears that provides us with compelling knowledge and vital perspective.

This is the fifth installment of a multi-part series that examines local efforts – by The Nittany Valley Society and others – to refresh the stories of our past so that the knowledge and experiences of those who came before us can make a tangible impact on the present. Next month’s sixth and final installment will examine plans for formal instruction in University history at Penn State.