Richwood School – The history of a local progressive one room schoolhouse

OHS Vice President Andrea Fohne names off the Richwood School class of 1936. (O’Fallon Weekly Photo by Angela Simmons)

By Angela Simmons

O’FALLON – A former O’Fallon Township one room schoolhouse was the topic of the O’Fallon Historical Society’s (OHS) November program. Newly elected OHS Vice President Andrea Fohne gave the presentation about Richwood School, which her grandfather and several other relatives used to attend. 

The school was in the city of Lebanon, to the north of where the city and Horner Park are located. Richwood School Road connects at each end to a different section of Old Lebanon Troy Road. The school had the schoolhouse, school yard an outhouse and a well. 

“The only remnant of the school that’s left is the well cover,” Fohne said. She excitedly shared the only photograph known to exist of the school. Reading from a dissertation about one room schoolhouses that was loaned to her, she explained that Richwood School was a clapboard frame structure, and had been destroyed by a fire, vandalized, and the site was ultimately used by O’Fallon Township to store rock piles.

She had no idea when the school was built, but the earliest record she was able to find was from 1904. “It was fully functional then. I believe it closed in the 1950s or 1960s,” she said.

Fohne met with one of the students that used to attend the school, Robert Schmitt. She noted that Schmitt’s memory was still very clear about his time at the school, and he was able to provide her with several more photos of the students, as well as the names of the majority of them. Schmitt was also able to recall much about the students’ families, and would have attended the meeting to present with Fohne, but could not due to illness. 

She shared photos from multiple years, noting how the student dwindled as the years went on. 

“I was able to connect with the Lebanon Historical Society and they were able to give me the records that they had,” Fohne said. 

She found that the student population in the earliest years of 1904 to 1907 ranged from 34 to 38 students and ages ranged from five up to 18. “It went all the way from that to the last records I could find in 1953, their annual furnace statement, and the same names were still in the records. It really was a tight knit community out there,” she said.

By 1911, the school had 25 to 34 students and was accepting transfer students from Madison County, for which a tuition of $15 per year was charged. Teachers were both male and female teachers that taught for eight months of the year, being paid $75 per month in 1936. 

The school was labeled as District 94 and had its own elected board. The mowing, cleaning and maintenance of the school was a community effort. She marveled that much of the cleaning was done by her great-grandmother. She also marveled that the records for the entire school were meticulous, including student records, coal used, names of community members that helped with upkeep, and more, including parties and events held on the property.

“It really was a focal point for the community. Mr. Schmitt told me they had cake socials, raffles, picnics, Halloween parties, Christmas parties where they all got together. It was more than just a school, it was almost a community center for those rural families,” she explained. She also mentioned that the schoolhouse was used for elections, and shared old documents showing the votes for the former school board. 

Fohne noted that the school was progressive for having boys, girls, Caucasians and African Americans all educated in the same classroom. 

“There was a whole part of town, north of the school on the Madison County line road where the African American families lived. I was just talking to our member Kenny Joseph, and he agreed with Mr. Schmitt that they were all the same. Hearing stories from the 1930s and how the country was at that time, out there, it was just different. They were all the same. They were all just kids growing up together, and their families helped each other,” she said. 

Joseph said “When we consolidated schools, our school was probably 50 percent black. The kids that I went to school with, their parents went to school with my dad. It was just common. The only thing that was segregated was that everyone had to have their own cup for drinking from the well.” He continued to mention that when he later attended city schools and his African American friends were not allowed to attend because of segregation, it was hard to deal with. “They were hardworking, respected families,” he said, sharing some personal stories from that time. 

Learning about the connection between families made Fohne want to learn more, so she visited William Cemetery, an African American cemetery that’s north of O’Fallon. Fohne mentioned the terrible condition of the cemetery, talking about how much of it is overgrown, and stones were overturned. Some graves didn’t even have stones. Fohne said she wasn’t sure how many graves existed, but the last burial was in 1986, and added “I did find out that old funeral homes used to plant daffodils in the general area of graves, and there were daffodils everywhere. That was beautiful.”