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State Historical Society of Iowa

Boone County one-room schoolhouse added to National Register of Historic Places

Apr 10, 2020

The one-room Cole School in rural Boone County has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its association with the history of education.

The schoolhouse's brick construction suggests the area was more affluent or had a high population with abundant resources. It largely remains true to its original design and is a testament to the community's dedication to rural education when farming called many children away from classes during fall harvest and spring planting.

“Congratulations to all who worked so hard to successfully nominate the schoolhouse to the National Register of Historic Places,” State Historian Laura Sadowsky said. “This recognition marks an important milestone for Boone County as it continues to preserve its history for future generations."

The Cole School, also known as Des Moines Township #7, was built in 1888 during a time when Iowans were particularly committed to public education. The first schoolhouse, in Lee County, had been built 16 years before Iowa was a state. By 1888, there were more than 2,000 schools in Iowa, and the number continued to grow as the population rapidly increased.

The school opened its doors in 1888, but records of students were not kept until the 1889-1890 school year when there were 19 students enrolled, ranging in age from 5 to 16.

Like many rural schools, Des Moines Township #7 had one teacher who worked with students from first to eighth grade. Most teachers at the time were women, and Nellie Harvey became the school's first teacher after teaching four previous terms in the area.

Operating for nearly 50 years, the schoolhouse was a fixture in the community and spanned generations. Two boys who attended during the inaugural year, John Ross and Oscar Nelson; their sons were among the final class of eight students. 

Much of the time was spent doing "busy work" such as arithmetic and handwriting out of booklets for each age level. Other activities included recitation at the bench, reading aloud, and a "spell-down" at the end of each day, similar to today’s spelling bees.

Like many other rural schools at the time, Des Moines Township #7 served as a voting place, a community center and a storm shelter. For a time, the community operated it through a board of trustees of district residents.

As time went on, many farm families in the area moved to the cities for better employment opportunities, and the school's enrollment dwindled.

Progressive political and educational leaders of the time pressed for better teacher training, standardization of curricula, more specialized educational offerings, and improved school buildings with individual classrooms, restrooms and lots of light and air movement through large windows. They also pushed for schools to consolidate and pool their resources.

In 1920, Iowa passed legislation to improve the plight of rural elementary schools. A point system was devised, and schools that scored at least 80 out of 100 received financial assistance of $10 per student. However, mass migration to cities continued, due to an economic downturn, and sealed the fate of many rural schoolhouses. In 1933, Des Moines Township #7 finally closed its doors.

Afterward, the town retained ownership of the building, which sat idle before its sale in 1948 to Olive Cole, a former teacher at the schoolhouse. It was used to house livestock and store farm equipment before the land was purchased by the Daughters of the American Revolution, who turned it into a museum.

The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs and its three divisions – the Iowa Arts Council, Produce Iowa - State Office of Media Production and the State Historical Society of Iowa – empower Iowa to build and sustain culturally vibrant communities by connecting Iowans to the people, places and points of pride that define our state. The department’s work enables Iowa to be recognized as a state that fosters creativity and serves as a catalyst for innovation where the stories of Iowa are preserved and communicated to connect past, present and future generations.