Tribune-Courier Freelance Reporter
“Teaching children sure has come a long way since the days of the old one-room schools,” said Ruth Agnes Riley as she looked back, nearly 72 years since she first taught in the bygone rural schools of Marshall County. “We did the best we could with what little we had,” Riley said.
ऀBorn to Ivan and Mae Crawford Carter on September 8, 1921, Ruth Agnes Riley was raised in Calloway County during the trying years of the Great Depression which instilled in her a sense of compassion for the underprivileged she carried on with her throughout her life.
ऀ“We lived on Highway 94, about a mile and half from Lynn Grove toward Murray, and there was people coming all the time begging for something to eat during the Depression. We didn’t have much, but we tried to help them,” Riley recalled. “It was sad to watch these people starving. You talk about making an impression on a 10 year old little girl,” Riley concluded.
ऀThough the times were rough, Riley said her family always had plenty. “We were poor, but we didn’t know we were poor because so was everybody else,” Riley recalled.
ऀRiley walked to school every day to nearby Lynn Grove School which offered grades 1 through 12, and after graduation in the late 1930s, Riley enrolled at Murray State College for three years where she studied Home Economics.ऀTeachers were in great demand during World War II.
ऀ“During the war, teachers were in need, so I stopped school and was issued an emergency certificate to teach,” Riley said. “One of my roommates at college was teaching in Marshall County in the one-room schools and she told me they were needing a teacher at Maple Springs so I applied and Mr. Holland Rose, who was a wonderful man, hired me,” Riley recalled. ऀThe pay was decent for the time.
ऀ“I was paid $67 a month which I thought was good money,” Riley recalled. “I lived with Mr. and Mrs. Blanch Henson across from where Jonathan Elementary School is now and I paid them $20 a month for room and board,” Riley said.
ऀHaving attended a large, well funded school in Lynn Grove, Riley had never been in a one-room school and she was shocked at the poor conditions of these rural schools.
ऀ “There was no electricity, no running water, and the only toilet was an outhouse,” Riley recalled.
ऀLittle funding and resources were available to these one-room schools and the teachers were also given the monumental task of raising funds for the school through pie suppers, recitals, and school programs.
ऀ“I remember when I first started at Maple Springs, the walls were painted a very dark color and it made the school look drab. One of the first things I did was hold a fundraiser and we painted those walls to brighten it up,” Riley recalled. ऀA typical day in a one-room school was much different than a modern school day.
ऀ“Even though the conditions were poor, the times were much simpler,” Riley recalled. “The day started out with prayer and Bible reading,” Riley said. “Then you would teach so many minutes to the first grade, then so many minutes to the second grade, and so on until all eight grades were taught,” Riley remembered. “We taught arithmetic, geography, history, English, and reading,” Riley said. ऀWith no principal to supervise the school, teachers like Riley were also charged with the discipline of the kids.
ऀ“When they needed it, I would whip them,” Riley recalled. “You just can’t do that now.”
ऀBy her second year of teaching, Riley was transferred to teach at Church Grove just outside of Benton.
ऀ“I had 67 pupils that first year at Church Grove,” Riley said “Needless to say, I had my hands full!”
ऀAt the time, the Marshall County Board of Education had a policy which stated that every child had to be within walking distance of a school. Walking distance was determined as 3 miles. There were no bus routes to these country schools and the children walked to school every day.
ऀ“I remember one family at Church Grove that had several children and they were extremely poor. The kids would walk three miles in the winter time with sandals and socks on because that was all they had,” Riley recalled. “When they got to school there feet were soaking wet and cold, so I would build a fire in the potbelly stove, pull their socks off and dry them on the stove and rub their frozen feet,” Riley remembered. “It was just pitiful and I felt so sorry for them.”
ऀThe schools had no lunch program so the school children brought their own lunches from home usually in a pail bucket.
ऀ“When I boarded with my aunt, she would fix my lunch and she would put a few oranges and bananas in with my lunch.” Riley recalled. “Most of them little kids didn’t have anything like that so they would stand around me while I was eating and I would give them the fruit because I knew they didn’t have anything like that,” Riley recalled.
ऀSome of the schools had organized sports such as basketball and softball which would travel around the county playing other schools.
ऀ“I remember when I was teaching at Church Grove, the school went to Liberty School in South Marshall to play a soft ball game,” Riley recalled.
ऀAfter three years of teaching in the one-room schools, Riley resigned from teaching when her husband, Talmadge Riley, returned home from a P.O.W. camp following World War II. Riley briefly returned to teaching at Brewers School years later where she taught 6th grade, but the conditions did not compare to her experiences in the one-room schools. “Things had vastly improved by that time,” Riley said.
ऀBy the late 1950s, Superintendant Holland Rose and the Marshall County Board of Education concluded the first phase of the consolidation process of the Marshall County schools which closed the one-room schools and led to a greater enhancement in the educational system in Marshall County.
ऀ“It’s been 72 years since I taught in them old schools,” Riley said. “And I have sure have seen lots of improvements in the schools in Marshall County since them days,” Riley concluded.