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University of Missouri

Writing His Chapter on One-room Schools

David Burton preserves Missouri’s one-room schools.

David Burton

One-room schools expert David Burton stands before Liberty School in Springfield, Missouri. Photo courtesy of David Burton.

David Burton’s grandfather used to regale him with his boyhood stories, including several revolving around Coleman School, a one-room schoolhouse in Ash Grove, Missouri. The yarns included schoolyard fights, long walks between school and home, and run-ins with a surly ram along the way, says Burton, an authority on one-room schools in Missouri who works for University of Missouri Extension in Greene County. But he was surprised to learn that the schools were hubs of local social life, such as community dinners. And on picture day at school, he says, it wasn’t just students in front of the camera but the whole town.

In 2001, as an extension agent in Greene County, Burton was a natural to take on the task of cataloging the area’s one-room schools. “I said, ‘Sure, how many could there be?’ ” It turned out 72 were still standing in his county alone, which he photographed and researched for his first book, A History of the Rural Schools of Greene County, Mo. (CreateSpace, 2013). Missouri’s 1905 mandatory school attendance law prompted construction of hundreds of one-room schools, whose heyday lasted through the 1930s. School consolidation in the 1950s turned one-room schools into relics. An estimated 900 still exist in Missouri, with up to 100 in usable condition.

Burton’s take on the historic structures — many of which now serve as houses or barns — has shifted over time. “Twenty years ago, I thought of them as local resources, as a panel in Missouri’s cultural quilt along with battlefields and water mills. Now I see them as among a rural area’s heritage tourism attractions.” In fact, Burton fielded so many requests for directions to schools that he wrote a second book, Driving Tour of One-room Schools in the Ozarks (CreateSpace, 2013).

“But I’ve also seen the value of one-room schools as rural community centers and meeting places,” Burton says. Restoring them rallies locals around a project they can use for events such as potluck dinners, just as their grandparents might have done, he says. “So, they can be powerful tools to help keep rural communities together.”