Back in Time: Back to School 2

History of Schooling in Chesterfield

As the heat of August gives way to more unexpected heat in September, a ritual takes place in communities across the country. School supplies are purchased, new clothing is selected and crayons are broken in. It’s that time of year when most children begrudgingly head back to begin a new school year. However, it wasn’t that long ago that most children looked forward to returning to school. Those seemingly endless summers that children now enjoy are a direct result of schools closing their doors to allow children to help on farms during the labor-intensive months of summer and then harvest.

In the earliest days of Chesterfield, parents usually taught their children in the home; as the population grew, school districts were formed giving each town its own school. Most of the one-room schools in the area were built around the turn of the century, out of use by the 1950s (as the larger school districts such as Parkway and Rockwood emerged) and now sadly demolished. These included: Chesterfield School located on Wild Horse Creek Road, the Orrville School located near Eatherton Road, Bonhomme School located at 18455 Olive Street Road and Bellefontaine School located at 14950 Conway Rd.

My family attended the Lake School located on Olive Boulevard near the current entrance to the Green Trails subdivision.  Originally, this school was a small, wood-plank building. Historians date its construction to 1897 and it is listed as “School No. 1” on 1909 maps. As more families moved to the area, the 25×60-square-foot room was bursting at the seams—one year,  62 students were enrolled and using that tiny space. So in 1925, E. W. Zierenberg purchased the frame structure and moved it across the street behind his mercantile for storage and a new, more modern brick building was constructed. In 1967, the Creve Coeur-Chesterfield Historical Society moved the original school to Lake School Park, where is still stands today. Several different preschools used the brick structure until widening of Olive Blvd in the late 1990s necessitated its demolition.

The harsh realities of the times meant segregated schools. The schools pictured above were for white children only. While historical and photographic information about the schools for black children is sparse, one such school existed in the Lake School district. Around the turn of the century, local farmer Frank Storch donated an acre of land on River Valley Road (or Lower Bottom Road as it was known) near the St. Louis County Water Co. to be used for an “African School.” Most of the students came from the Brooks and James families, who were descendants of slaves living in Missouri prior to and during the Civil War. There is still a small grove of trees were the school once stood.

My dad’s family farm was across River Valley Road from the black school and he remembers when he was too young to officially attend school, he would play with the children at the black school during their recesses. He also remembers asking the teacher if he could attend class there and the teacher told him only if he was quiet. Perhaps that makes Dad the first integrated student in St. Louis County!

What was it like to attend one of these small schools? Take a look at the photo of the children in the classroom, taken in 1932 at the “new” Lake School. There are four grades in the photograph, with the First Grade class on the far left row, back to front, Second Grade in the row second from the left and so on. Imagine how difficult it must have been to teach four grades–ALL at once. The Seventh Grade and Eighth Grade were taught on alternate years—presumably using alternating material rather than having students sit out a year. When my great-grandmother, Lena Hoefer (Lena Reising at the time), graduated from Eighth Grade, there was no high school in the area, so her teacher gave her the Ninth Grade textbooks so she could continue studying on her own.

Take a look at a report card from the era; you can see that some of the subjects taught are what you would expect: arithmetic, spelling, reading and geography.  Others are perhaps a bit more surprising for a small, country school of the era, including: music, drawing and physiology. Others, like agriculture, have all but disappeared from the modern curricula.

Often, we think of school in the early days as being rather strict, with very standard subjects being taught.  While this is partly true, these were still children and sometimes behaved as such. I have an old textbook that belonged to my great-grandmother, Elements of Arithmetic. It is from 1904 and on the first page she has written her name and the date. It always strikes me as fascinating that the juvenile, girly penmanship of a 9-year-old Lena is evident on the page and belongs to a woman I remember never being younger than 80 years old.

Also on the front page are “doodles” typical of a bored schoolgirl—a heart and curlicues surrounding the words “Kiss me Quick,” as well as the following: “If my name you do not see, look on page 203.”  When one turns to page 203, you are greeted with, “You are a fool for looking.”  Some things never change.

Comedian Jim Gaffigan recently said, “Who doesn’t deserve a three-month break after a rigorous year of kindergarten?”  So the next time your child complains about the summer being over, remind them that the early children of Chesterfield looked forward to going back to school, as it meant the heavy labor of the harvest was finished.

You can find more information about visiting the Old Lake School at AboutStLouis.com.

Faust Park also has an authentic old school house you and your family can tour to get a feel for what the one room school houses were like—back in the day.