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Rural Education & The Farmer's Library

One-Room Schoolhouses: Rural Education

In the early 1900s, rural North Carolina communities built separate schools for black children and white children. Most of these were one-room buildings where teachers had as many as eighty children ranging from the first to eleventh grades. A few schools with better community support had buildings with two, three, or four rooms and teachers for each.

Holmes Fourth Reader (1902) - This school book belonged to a student named Mary Rose of Princeton, NC.


Eastern Carolina’s small rural communities often hired teachers from outside their area, had them live in teacherages, and enforced a strict code of conduct inside and outside of the classroom.


Most of eastern North Carolina’s communities built their schoolhouses out of locally harvested timber and each had a wood-burning stove to heat the room in winter when school was normally in session. The school year ended in the spring when parents needed their children to help on the farm. Schools also excused most farm students from classes in the fall when their families harvested crops.


Agriculture for Beginners (1903) - This book was written to be taught in public schools. Its authors were professors at NC College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (which is now NC State).


Schools, especially secondary schools, were few and far between in the early 1900s, with only 200 rural high schools found in all 100 North Carolina counties as of 1911. While many farming families believed in the importance of education, school attendance was not legally required statewide until 1913.


Innovations in transportation and improvement in state roads in the 1920s allowed new motorized school buses to transport children to school instead of having them walk from home. Better transportation meant communities could build larger schools further from each other, and new multi-room brick school buildings began to replace the old wooden schoolhouses.


The Farmer's Library

Rural farmers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries knew the value of education, knowing that reading and writing skills, economics and math, business skills, and science knowledge could all help them to best grow and sell their crops. Farmers have long turned to books, magazines, and other periodicals for the latest news, information, scientific advancements, and market trends in agriculture.


Yearbook of Agriculture, 1927 (1928) - Published by the United States Department of Agriculture, this book is a collection of short articles about inventions and discoveries in agriculture. Its preface makes a point of stating that the book is primarily written for and distributed to farmers, rather than researchers, professors or students.


One of the oldest books used by farmers is the Old Farmer’s Almanac. Its first edition was published in 1792, during George Washington’s presidency by its first editor, Robert B. Thomas. The Old Farmer’s Almanac was not the only almanac being published at the time, but it quickly became one of the most popular, tripling its circulation in its first year. An almanac is a calendar that records and predicts information such as tide tables, weather patterns, and astronomical data. Some forms of almanacs date to ancient times, tracking various celestial and atmospheric events (such as full moons, flood times, solstices, eclipses, seasonal weather changes, etc.) The Old Farmer’s Almanac remains the oldest continuously published periodical in North America.


Farmers in the 1800s had many options in periodicals to look to for advice. One study of 19th century agricultural periodicals noted that “no other economic group in the early 19th century was the recipient of so much free advice, practical and impractical, as were the farmers.”[1] The same was true of the late 1800s. Editors, businessmen, politicians, government officials, and university experts all wrote articles about agricultural trends, scientific advancements, markets, and more.

The Progressive Farmer magazine got its start in Winston, North Carolina in 1886. Leonidas Lafayette Polk (1837-1892) began the publication as a newspaper. It was taken over by Clarence Poe after Polk’s death and in 1903, Poe and three partners purchased the paper and turned it into a magazine. It had 36,000 subscribers by 1908. The magazine still publishes 14 editions a year.

Everyday Foods (1927) - This book about home economics has handwritten recipes added to its inside cover and front pages by its previous owner.


Reading was also a relatively inexpensive leisure activity for farm families to enjoy in their limited down time.


Formal Agricultural Education in Public Schools


Over the years, the subjects taught in public schools varied, but the basics included reading, writing, and arithmetic. Some secondary schools taught home economics, farm workshop, and other practical skills.


From 1911 to 1916 the state of North Carolina established 21 farm-life schools, which, among other vocational skills, included cooking courses. In 1917, vocational education became part of secondary school curriculum, reducing the need for farm-life schools.


Elements of Agriculture (1914) – This 14th edition of this title is part of the Rural Textbook Series and was intended for use in high schools, academies, and normal schools. Its preface indicates that it should also be useful for farmers or general readers.


[1] Quoted in Richard T. Farrell, “Advice to Farmers: The Content of Agricultural Newspapers,” 1860-1910, Agricultural History (51:1), 1977, 209.


All of the books pictured here are in the Tobacco Farm Life Museum's collection and several are currently on display as part of a temporary traveling exhibit at the Public Library of Johnston County and Smithfield in downtown Smithfield, NC.

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