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Reading and 'riting and 'rithmetic: taught by the tune of a hickory stick. Courtesy of the Denver Public Library.

he West lured female teachers for several reasons. First of all, teaching could provide a modicum of economic stability to women who were seeking to stake their own homestead claims. A surprising number of female teachers held down claims while teaching. Second, moving West gave women the hope of leaving behind the fearful specter of spinsterhood, as men tended to heavily outnumber single women on the frontier. One Montana schoolteacher remembered, "I decided to go and teach school in the West. My home was in Missouri where I grew up with five brothers and a younger sister. All Mother and I ever did was wait on the menfolk. Certainly, a schoolmarm in the West would not have to work any harder than we did at home. Besides, there were plenty of eager men in the West in those days."

Many frontier schoolmarms did, in fact, find husbands in the West, which led to enormous turnover among teachers, since married women were not permitted to teach. By the 1870s, over 25% of all American-born white women had taught at some time during their lives.

Though schools were mandated by law, it was often up to community members in sparsely populated areas to organize and maintain frontier schools. Log cabins, abandoned claim shanties, and even barns and sheds were pressed into service to function as schools. If no satisfactory structures existed, it was not uncommon for community members to pitch in and hold a "school raising." Families whose children attended schools were often responsible for housing and feeding frontier teachers, if there was not adequate living space for the teacher in the school itself. Homesteaders and other settlers supplied the fuel for the schoolhouse stove, and built the desks and seats their children would use. Even school maintenance fell to the school's occupants; in 1884, education reformer Edwin C. Hewett suggested, "The old-fashioned way of having teachers and pupils gather on Saturday and clean the schoolhouse is not a bad one. It furnishes a good deal of fun, and at the same time gives pupils a sense of responsibility in the matter."

frontier fact
As late as the 1930s, nearly 80% of American school districts employed no married women, and more than 60% required female teachers to resign if they married.
The frontier school itself was generally a one-room building with a wood or coal-burning stove in the center. Montana settler Sarah Newman remembered her first school as "A little log cabin located along the Yellowstone River. The cabin was owned by my father, O.N. Newman. It was low and small (maybe ten by twelve feet, with a window at each end of the structure). I don't think it would have held more than 12 seats, the teacher's desk, and one bench up front where we went up to recite our lessons."

Since they were often the only "public buildings" on the frontier, schoolhouses were often the center of homesteaders' social life. During the 1870s and 1880s, community-wide spelling bees became the rage at schoolhouses all over the West, and schoolhouses frequently played host to debates, traveling lecturers and theater troupes, literary societies, and charitable organizations.

One-room schoolteachers often taught grades one through eight in their classrooms, with class size ranging from three or four students to as many as fifty. Montana settler Margaret Veasey Osborn faced little difficulty in reciting the entire attendance roster at her school: "As I recall, the school consisted of Marie and John Dahl, and a little girl named Flora St. Xavier."

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