Homestead Act: Who Were the Settlers?
24 of 29

Pioneer Children:
School

sod school
Sod school, District 62, 2 miles west of
Merna, Custer County, Nebraska, 1889.
In 1974, S. T. Lyon, Jr. identified the teacher as
Elsie Thomas, who later married a Mr. Bidgood.

One of the first acts of the new Nebraska territorial legislature in 1855 was to provide for free public schools across the state, but life for children during the settlement period was probably centered less on school than it is now. The “Free Public School Act of 1855” created a territorial superintendent and provided for county school superintendents to be elected by popular vote. Each county superintendent was to organize school districts and levy a property tax to support the schools. But not every locale levied the taxes and built the schools, and economic slow downs might force local districts to close down. Schools were important, but sometimes the resources weren't available to support a public school.

Also, not every child attended school. In 1860, only 30 percent of school-age children in Nebraska attended school. That figure rose as settlement continued — by 1870, 52 percent of Nebraska kids attended school. Nationally that year, 55 percent of school-age children attended.

Those who were able to go to school usually attended every day except for Sunday, from October to May. That way, they could be at home during the main planting and harvesting seasons. In fact, the current school year calendar — with classes during the fall, winter and spring — was designed so that students could attend to their agricultural duties in the summer. Only eight grades were taught, and usually you would have kids in all eight grades in one room of the schoolhouse. Students were frequently required to memorize their lessons, or write on slates.

Alice Butcher milking a cow
Alice Butcher milking a cow on the T. J. Butcher
place on Middle Loup, West Union, Nebraska.
Photo by Solomon Butcher.

In 1889, 70 per cent of the Nebraskans lived on farms. Children were expected to help the adults with the farm work. Milking cows and gathering cow or buffalo chips for fuel in the cook stove was a duty for both girls and boys. Girls helped with the cooking, cleaning, mending, gathering eggs, and taking care of the younger children. Boys helped with the planting and harvesting of crops and also helped hunt for food to feed the family. Yet there was also time for fun.