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By Sue Hancock Jones

If Horace Greeley did say “Go West, young man, go West,” he failed to mention that wide open spaces usually meant one-room schools or no schools at all. Until urbanization and transportation made mass education possible, one-room schools with an outhouse were common in ranching country.

Moving the one-room Bairfield Schoolhouse from its remote location to the National Ranching Heritage Center historic park in 1972 has allowed decades of visitors to visualize a time when children carried their lunches to school in lard and coffee cans and drank water from the same water dipper in a bucket filled from a nearby stream or well.

Rural one-room schools were usually named for the rancher or ranch where the building was located. The rancher hired a teacher to handle nine grade levels with only one or two children in each grade. In addition, the teacher acted as a janitor, nurse and counselor for the children. Because standard textbooks didn’t exist in ranching country, the teacher used what the children brought from home.

Many frontier children were educated in one-room schools with homemade furniture and a pot-belly stove.

Subjects taught to the students included arithmetic, geography, reading, writing, grammar and agriculture. In addition to academic work, children were assigned chores. One child might be asked to take care of the stove during the winter months. He would arrive early in the morning to stoke the fire with coal bought under school contract or cow chips gathered from the ranches. Another child might be responsible for filling the water bucket.

All the classroom furniture was homemade, and students sat on wooden benches. Money was unavailable for paper or pencils, so students used chalkboards. These were wide, wooden boards painted black and covering the wall behind the teacher’s desk or they were small slates and chalk that students could hold in their hands. On a shelf in the corner sat a water bucket and dipper, while another shelf held the school library. A cast iron wood-burning stove sat on stones in the middle of the room so sparks wouldn’t land on the wooden floor.

Charles E. Bairfield was five in 1907 when he started his nine years of school in the Bairfield Schoolhouse. Sixty-six years later in 1973, he was the keynote speaker at the dedication ceremony marking the opening of the school as an NRHC exhibit.

The 16-foot by 16-foot building was originally built in the 1890s near Rushing Bull Springs in Donley County, Texas. It was built as a box-and-strip house, but wood siding was added later. In that location, it served the children of three homesteaders: Fred Wiedman, Jim Porter and Joe Beaty. It was called the Porter School but also was known as the Bull Springs School or the Troublesome School.

The little one-room school became the Bairfield Schoolhouse when Wintfry (Wint) Bairfield loaded the building onto two wagons at its original location in an arroyo on Troublesome Creek and unloaded it on higher ground at the top of the canyon slope closer to the Bairfield homestead. The site later became part of the C.A. Bairfield Ranch near Clarendon in Donley County.

All that’s known about this undated photo is that parents and their children were gathered for the last day of school at the Bairfield Schoolhouse in Donley County, Texas.

Moena L. Blocker taught at the school from 1915 to 1917 and lived with the Bairfield family three-fourths of a mile from the school. The schoolhouse was bordered by the road that led to the JA Ranch headquarters, and children from the JA Ranch attended the Bairfield School. Blocker paid the Bairfield family $10 a month for room and board and received $50 a month as a salary her first year and $65 a month her second year. During her second year, the funds set aside to pay her ran out and she was issued script, which the bank would discount and hold until taxes began earning again in January.

Education was an early concern throughout Texas, but taxes were not enough to support many schools. Few people had much money at the turn of the 20th century, so it was only by pooling resources and working together that rural schools were able to be built and used.

Grand opening of the Bairfield Schoolhouse after relocation to the NRHC.

The Bairfield Schoolhouse served the children of cowboys, ranchers and homesteaders in Donley and Armstrong Counties from the 1890s until the school had only one student in 1937. For nearly five decades the school was taught by 25 teachers (three men and 22 women). Dr. Zell Rodgers SoRelle, who later became a speech professor at West Texas State University in Canyon, was the last person to teach in the one-room school. She recalled that five taxpaying ranchers supported the school when she was there.

School buildings historically were utilized for social gatherings, meetings, plays, parties and church services. One-room schools often were found on isolated ranches, but they fell into disuse as towns consolidated for the education of their children.

Bairfield Schoolhouse was brought to the NRHC in 1972 and dedicated in 1973 after the exterior was painted to match remnants of paint found on the building, and the interior wooden walls were returned to their original appearance.

Charles E. Bairfield donated the schoolhouse in memory of the pioneers of Donley County, Texas. M.H.W. Ritchie, president of the J.A. Cattle Co., and his daughter Cornelia Adair Ritchie provided support for moving and restoring the building.

Ranch Host Spotlight

Ranch host Saundra Wimberley

First-grade teacher Saundra Wimberley has brought her students to the one-room Bairfield Schoolhouse every December for 23 years to participate as part of Candlelight at the Ranch, an annual living history event emphasizing what Christmas would have been like on the Western frontier.

Wimberley began volunteering at the NRHC in 1980 when she was a student at Frenship High School. Years later as a teacher, she developed a pioneer life curriculum that includes dressing her students like frontier children and participating in the annual Candlelight event.

During the last 23 years, about 450 of her first graders at Crestview Elementary have played the part and dressed the part of pioneer students in a one-room schoolhouse. Because of her dedication and commitment, Wimberley was named in January as the 2023 NRHC Volunteer of the Year.

Wimberley accepted the award at a Volunteer Appreciation Luncheon. “This experience is something I love,” she said, “but I mostly am happy for the opportunity to enrich my students’ lives with such a rich historical experience. A classroom and a good museum are just natural friends.” ★

This article appears in the Winter 2024 issue of the Ranch Record.  Would you like to read more stories about NRHC and ranching life? When you become a member of the Ranching Heritage Association, you’ll receive the award-winning Ranch Record magazine and more while supporting the legacy and preservation of our ranching heritage. Become a member today.