Looking back at Aurora's earliest schools

John McDonald and other students in front of a school "hawk" which were farm wagons used to transport students to and from school. Local farmers were hired by the school board to provide transportation.

Early this past spring the schools in Aurora were abruptly and unexpectedly closed.

Families across the community were thrown into the world of virtual education with their school-age children sitting in front of a computer screen at the kitchen table. In the winter of 1803-04, just four years after its founding, Aurora’s first school opened in the vacant log cabin of Samuel Huntington located near the corner of East Pioneer Trail and Page Road.

The teacher Samuel Forward, Jr. taught a class of seven students seated around the kitchen table. Three of the students were the children of Ebenezer and Lovee Sheldon, Aurora’s first settlers, while three were the brothers of Forward along with his sister.

Aurora’s early settlers came from New England where education was highly valued and the teaching of the “three R’s” was emphasized. The New Testament, The New England Primer, and the Columbian Orator were the primary texts. Students shared the books passing them from hand to hand during the school day.

The first log school houses were built by “neighbors” who quickly fashioned the school with timber cut from the surrounding forest. Split log floors and a stone fireplace protected students from the elements. A wooden plank was placed on pegs inserted into holes on each side of the cabin’s walls.

Boys and girls sat on opposite sides of the cabin facing the wall with their backs to the teacher who stood in the center of the room.

Students too young to write sat on benches placed near the teacher. Paper was scare and students completed lessons on slate boards. Eventually paper found its way into the classroom as foolscap paper 13 by 16 inches stitched into copy books by the teacher. They also carved pens from turkey or goose quills for each student.

Teachers were paid in produce or other items such as grain, cattle, sheep and whiskey. Some were compensated by being “boarded around” among the families to save on living expenses. In 1870 Aurora had seven one-room school houses, which were often moved and relocated to sites closest to the youngest students. Several still exist to this day and have been converted into residences.

Between 1883 and 1886 a two-room school house was erected on the site of the current city hall. In 1894 two additional classrooms were added to the existing building.

In an interview published in the Record Courier in October, 1978, then 90-year-old resident John McDonald recalled that while the addition was being constructed classes were held in a temporary school across the street from the 1815 Tavern on the site once occupied by the Pioneer Tavern.

McDonald recalled that they “near froze to death” that winter in their makeshift school.

Consolidation of schools was established by the State of Ohio in the 1890’s with Aurora having the first centralized system in Portage County. This had the effect of increasing attendance while encouraging students to stay in school until age 17, providing five additional years of schooling.

The one-room schools were abandoned. Students were transported back and forth to school in covered wagons called “hack” provided by local farmers who were contracted by the school board.

By the turn of the century the four-room school house was no longer meeting the educational needs of the community. In 1910 the Board of Education began discussions on how to meet the need for additional space.

At its June 23 meeting the board hired architects Briggs & Nelson of Cleveland to design an addition to the existing building. The design called for the removal of the school’s winding staircase, considered to be a fire trap, additional classroom space and a library. The state inspector required that a new addition had to be masonry and conform to all current building codes. Windows had to be added to equal 20% of the floor space. The entire building would need a new heating system with proper ventilation. New stairways would have to be enclosed in brick with self-closing fire doors.

The Board’s appeal to build a frame addition was denied.

As a result, in February, 1911 the Board of Education announced the need to build a new school. Since it did not have the estimated $20,000 needed for construction the Board placed a levy on the ballot. In March township voters approved the sale of bonds by a vote of 62 to 58.

However, 102 voters signed a petition protesting the construction of a new school and favored an addition to the exiting building. A lawsuit was filed against the Board, which stopped the sale of bonds. The Portage County prosecutor informed the Board that he did not have the funds to take on the case and told the board to hire its own attorney.

Upon advice of its new attorney the board proceeded to sell the bonds and obtain estimates for the construction. It was determined that $17,900 was needed, with an additional $1,200 for heating and ventilation and $400 for rough plumbing for a total of $19,500. However, the board was served with an injunction preventing it from accepting bids. The board’s attorney advised it to conduct another special election. This time the levy was defeated by a vote of 76 to 113.

In June, 1911 the board met with township trustees to discuss the possibility of using the town hall next to the church as additional classroom space. The trustees indicated that they did not have the funds to make the building suitable for educational purposes. In July the Board once again held another special election. This time the voters approved the levy 77 to 67.

Opponents had come to the realization of the necessity for a new building since the State would not approve a frame addition and that Township officials were unwilling to allow the use of the town hall.

Bids for the construction came in over the $20,000 estimated cost. The board authorized a change in fireproofing, the elimination of blackboards and the concrete basement floor.

While estimates were being sought, the board needed to find land for the new building. Negotiations were entered into with Mrs. W.W. Lacy to purchase four acres of her farm located along East Garfield Road for $250 per acre. Construction began in 1912 with the school’s opening in the fall of 1914.

The old centralized school house was bought by the village to be used as the town hall with the Masons meeting on the second floor. Within 15 years of its construction the board authorized the construction of two “portable” classrooms adjacent to the western end of the building to accommodate the growing student population.

Today the red brick building is occupied by the Board of Education offices.

Throughout the decades, the school district has added to existing structures, constructed additional buildings, utilized local churches for additional classroom space along with “portables” at both the middle school and the high school. August, 2020 will see the return of Aurora’s youth to the classroom with a segment of the school’s families opting for virtual learning.

Two hundred seventeen years have passed since the seven students sat at that log cabin kitchen table. Does “history repeat itself?”

John Kudley Jr. is president of the Aurora Historical Society.