- Associated Press - Saturday, February 6, 2016

EFFINGHAM, Ill. (AP) - Once upon a time in an era that some people are still alive to remember, the Illinois countryside was dotted with thousands of one-room schools. Not only did those schools educate generations of rural children, but they also served as community centers for the typically tiny area they served.

Jill Moomaw didn’t attend a one-room school, but many of her maternal relatives did. Recently, Moomaw shared the results of a documentary photo project on the old McCoy School near Altamont during the monthly local history presentation at the Effingham County Cultural Center and Museum. Moomaw put together the project more than 20 years ago while a student at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

McCoy School was founded in the final full year of the Civil War - 1864. The original building was located on what is now U.S. 40, about where a popular flea market sits today. But the building was moved one mile north and a bit east of the original site several years later and a new school was eventually built.

Elisha McCoy donated the land on which the school building still sits, while John Percival of Watson built the new school, Moomaw said.

Over the school’s many decades of service, several changes were made to both the exterior of the school itself and the surrounding playground. For example, a porch was added during the 1928-29 school year. The porch was built by Albert Heischmidt for $19.50. Lumber for the porch cost $32.50 and a post cost another $3.56.

Moomaw said enrollment at McCoy ranged from more than 60 students in 1900 to between 10 and 20 students in the final years before the school was consolidated with Altamont Unit 10 in 1952. The school was closed during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-19, but even in other times, students would be affected by illness that would cause them to miss school.

Attendance was also affected by the need for many children to help out on the farm or in some other sort of family business.

Like other schools of its time, McCoy saw a gradual increase in the number of school days.

“Before 1881, the school would just have winter terms,” Moomaw said, adding that the school eventually added a spring term. By 1894, she said, students would attend school from September to January and February through April.

Fred Reichel was the school’s first teacher. Teaching salaries would range from $35 to $90 per week, with males making more because - theoretically, at least - they were supporting families.

Like modern schools, the old country schools had a routine for both teachers and students.

“Teachers used to sweep the floor before school started,” Moomaw said. When students got to school at 9 a.m., they would recite the Pledge of Allegiance. In the early years, they would often sing patriotic songs during that period.

Students would also provide a morning update on world events. Each class was 10 minutes long with an hour for lunch and two recess periods. The subject matter was typically basic, but comprehensive.

“They had a really well-rounded curriculum,” Moomaw said, adding that - in one room - students would hear the same presentation for several years in a row.

McCoy alumnus John Finfrock, one of several McCoy grads at Thursday’s presentation, said the repetition was beneficial once he started at Altamont High School in the late 1940s.

“We didn’t have as many subjects as the town kids, but we heard the same thing over and over,” Finfrock said.

The McCoy Club was founded in 1937 as sort of the rural equivalent of the PTAs in town schools. That group continued to meet into the 21st century, even though the school had long since closed.

McCoy, like other one-room schools, fell victim to the drive in Illinois toward fewer governmental entities. The effort stalled because of World War II but resumed in earnest after the war.

The building was eventually sold and is now privately owned, Moomaw said.

Moomaw said the consolidated school districts might have been able to offer more options for kids, but she added that the rural areas that lost their schools suffered greatly.

“There was less of a sense of community,” she said.

Allegra Ellis was one of the kids uprooted in 1952 after three years at McCoy.

“I learned to read there,” Ellis said. “We had a lot of fun.”

Series moderator Delaine Donaldson said the demise of country schools severely harmed the sense of community in many rural areas.

“The world we live in has lost a sense of community,” Donaldson said. “People need that sense of community in their lives.”

The next presentation is set for Feb. 11, when Siemer Milling Co. CEO Rick Siemer will share the history of his company.

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Source: Effingham Daily News, https://bit.ly/1QfF4i0

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Information from: Effingham Daily News, https://www.effinghamdailynews.com

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