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Siblings recall 'good education' at one-room Elioak School in 1930s

At the northern edge of Cedar Lane Park at Clarksville Pike, siblings Doris Rausch and Alfred Bassler pointed out changes to a residential property that once housed a one-room schoolhouse, opening in 1922 and surrounded by farmland.

“The building, even though added onto, is one of the few Howard County landmarks recognizable, so of course it brought back memories of a simpler life, a totally rural scene,” said Rausch, 88. “This area, lying between D.C. and Baltimore, was bound to be developed and Columbia did an orderly job of it.”

The lifelong Howard County residents say they attended Elioak Elementary School in Ellicott City, where grades 1 through 6 were taught in the same room and divided into six rows of students. On Oct. 16, Rausch and Bassler, 90, visited the old school grounds more than 80 years later to reminisce about school in the early 20th century.

“If Miss Elizabeth O’Donnell was teaching first grade, she would be over on the left side of the room” and move along to other grades, Rausch said. “She tried to have lessons that fit each grade, but obviously, it wasn’t going to be that much in-depth.”

“I didn’t like school,” said Bassler, chuckling. “I learned in different ways. I learned by doing and hearing other people talk about things.”

Rausch said she was always found with her nose in a book, whether at home or in school. Bassler, uninterested in his studies, said he frequently missed school to help raise chickens and cows on the family’s farm off Cedar Lane. He also earned a pilot’s license and flew his small plane around their pasture.

The Elioak school was originally located on the second floor of a two-story building built in 1893 above a country store and post office, said Shawn Gladden, the Howard County Historical Society’s executive director. The building was located along Route 108, Gladden said. Although its precise location is unknown, historians believe it may have been located on land now operating as Clark’s Elioak Farm.

In the early 20th century, schools nationwide were segregated until 1954 when the Supreme Court’s verdict outlawed public school segregation by race in Brown vs. Board of Education. However, Howard County’s Board of Education slowed desegregation in the school system, which remained segregated until 1964 when the board voted to integrate Guilford Elementary in June 1965.

The 2012 Board of Education apologized for the 10-year delay in county schools desegregation.

When the post office closed in 1922, the schoolhouse attended by Rausch and Bassler was built on an acre of farmland donated by well-known landowner James T. Clark. Gladden said J. Wilson Lord was the principal and teacher of Elioak Elementary from 1927 to 1933, while E. Elizabeth Linthicum taught at the school above the post office as early as 1896 and moved to the new schoolhouse at least through 1924.

According to Rausch and Bassler’s records, Elizabeth O’Donnell was a teacher at Elioak as early as 1933.

The school operated until the mid-1940s, Gladden said, after which students moved to Clarksville School and the building was converted into a storage facility. In the 1960s, the building was turned into a house and today includes new additions by the current owner.

“Howard County was a very rural community, where public education wasn’t anywhere near where it is today,” Gladden said. “It seemed like every farming community in Howard County had its own little school. You had your school in Daisy and Elioak and colored schools in Cooksville.”

The Elioak postal community was named after the Elioak plantation, he said, built by Baltimore Orphans’ Court Judge Owen Dorsey. The word Elioak also refers to a type of silty clay loam.

There were between 35 to 40 private, elementary and colored schools in the county between the 1920s and 1930s, and most communities had their own “smaller schools,” Gladden said.

According to the historical society’s records, Ellicott City High School operated in a large structure on Strawberry Lane for nearly a century and moved to another location on College Avenue in 1924, housing grades 1 through 11. The high school moved again in the 1930s to what is now the site of Ellicott Mills Middle School; however, the College Avenue site remained an elementary school until the 1970s.

Other schools included Guilford School along the Patuxent River from 1876 to 1941; Virginia Hardy’s School in Highland in 1910; St. Mildred’s Catholic School in Laurel in 1913; West Friendship School in 1925; and Savage School from 1921 to 1937.

Gladden said schools were not publicly funded, but instead, built with donated private money or attached to prominent churches in the area.

“We did have some Catholic schools here, and most of those could be traced back to families,” he said. “For the most part, the schooling around here was what you would’ve seen in a small rural community.”

School in the 1930s

About two-dozen students attended Elioak Elementary School around 1935, Rausch recalled, with an average of four students per grade. Bassler said he started first grade at the school in 1933, and his sister followed two years later.

Bassler said a wooden school bus picked up students from the Elioak and Simpsonville communities. Leather seats wrapped around the entire bus, which drove around a pear-shaped flowerbed on the school property to drop students off at the entrance footsteps.

“Miss O’Donnell had a little bell with a handle on it, which would ‘ding-a-ling-a-ling-a-ling’ as she would hold it out the door and everybody would come in,” Bassler said. “She would ring students in in the morning and after recess.”

One window was placed on both sides of the wooden schoolhouse’s white front door. After walking through the entrance, on the left, Bassler said students would put their coats and lunch kettles in a cloakroom.

Steps next to the cloakroom led to the basement, where a coal-filled bin rested on a windowsill. Students or the teacher would shovel coal into a bucket to bring upstairs and feed the large potbelly stove on the eastern wall of the building.

A long blackboard was on the opposite wall of the stove, Bassler said, with alphabet and numbers posters above. The first-graders’ horizontal row was nearest the entrance followed by five more rows for second through sixth grade separated by aisles and windows overlooking Route 108.

“You would have to take the chalkboard erasers outside every once in a while and clap them together to let the chalk dust go downwind,” Bassler said. “When it was somebody’s turn to go out and clap the erasers, everybody wanted to go out because it got you out of school.”

The building had no bathroom inside but an outhouse for students, he said.

When O’Donnell wasn’t teaching your grade, Rausch said, students worked on assignments and, sometimes, listened to lessons taught to kids in other grades. Rausch completed first and second grade in the same year since her mother taught her to read before attending school.

“I remember Miss O’Donnell having an advanced class in the upper grade, [and] they were talking about evolution, but she didn’t really believe in it,” Rausch said. “She would still teach it, but she said, ‘Well, this is at least what scientists tell us.’”

Students used textbooks, known as McGuffey Readers, to learn arithmetic, reading and writing, and practiced penmanship because “everything was in cursive,” or script, she said. Art was also taught, featuring student plays for parents around the holidays.

Rausch said all grades played together during recess and “everybody got along OK together.” Bassler said the boys usually climbed wild cherry or persimmon trees on the edge of the schoolyard, and there was a playground, too.

“The boys especially would swing from one tree to another like Tarzan,” he said. “We would climb up and eat the wild cherries. The persimmons were edible, but they dried your mouth up.”

Once or twice a year, Rausch said, a traveling dentist visited the school to clean students’ teeth for a small fee with parental approval. A foot pedal, similar to a sewing machine, powered the drill.

“I can picture that thing, and I was so scared to have my teeth worked on that I talked my parents out of letting me do it. That was a mistake,” said Rausch, laughing.

Bassler and Rausch continued their education at Clarksville School – home to grades 1 through 11. Rausch graduated in 1945, while Bassler left school to continue work on the family’s farm, built a chicken house in 1955 and instructed flying lessons.

Both agreed the house is still “somewhat recognizable,” even without the outhouse and a walnut tree where the persimmon tree once stood.

“It is amazing that we all managed to get an education in a one-room, one-teacher, six-grades environment,” Rausch said. “In the long run, I think we got a fairly good education because when the school finally closed and we all went to Clarksville, each grade had its own room and teacher. We seemed to be able to fit in.”

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