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Woodford County's 102 one-room schoolhouses once provided education for children

Tim Shelley
Karen Fyke, Author of One Room Schools of Woodford County, Illinois

When you think of one room schoolhouses, images of Laura Ingalls Wilder's seminal Little House on the Prairie series might come to mind.

But in rural areas of Woodford County, the institutions remained the main way for many child to obtain an education well into the 20th century.

Karen Fyke of the Woodford County Historical and Genealogical Society is the author of the recent book One Room Schools of Woodford County, Illinois.

Another member of the society started the project about six years ago. Fyke picked it up after discovering a nearly-complete set of Woodford County School Bulletins in the society archives.

"They had all kinds of little details, like there'd be a little paragraph and say that there was a fire at so and so's school. And this is what happened. And then it'd be something like they had a big party at such and such a school. They were kind of interspersed," she said. "And so I thought that's a lot of information. That's pretty cool."

Fyke said it was a lot of work to gather up information about the 102 one-room schoolhouses of Woodford County.

"It was a real drudgery to do. I enjoyed it, but it was hard. And so when I got it all together, of course, then you have to make a book," she said.

Education was a high priority of settlers even before the county's formation.

"Whenever our settlers settled out in the frontier, which was Illinois at that time, the first thing they did was to set up either a church or a school. I mean, it just seemed like they hardly got the crops in the ground, before they were building either one or the other," she said.

The first schools were subscription-based, where families paid a fee to send students to school. When the county was established in the 1840s, a plan was drawn up to establish nine schools in each of the county's townships.

"The idea being that the kids wouldn't have to walk more than a mile and a half to school. That didn't always work that way, but that was the idea," Fyke said.

Before the 20th century, schools in Woodford County operated in three terms built around the growing and harvest seasons. Each school had a class of 30 to 35 students, ranging in age from young children to as old as 21 or 22.

The country schools were dissolved later in the 20th century. Many of the schoolhouses still stand, converted into houses.

Fyke said compiling the photos and information for the book has brought her a lot of enjoyment, and she hopes the readers enjoy it, too.

"It's one of those things where you may pick up looking for one particular school that your ancestor went to or taught at. And before you know it, you're reading about other schools," she said. "And there are a lot of very intriguing things. And while you think 'wow, like the way electric lights came to be in schools, that just amazing.'"

The book can be purchased at the Woodford County Historical Society's offices at 112 N. Main Street in Eureka or at the Eureka Public Library.

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.