FORT KENT, Maine — School is in session at the Acadian Archives on the campus of the University of Maine at Fort Kent with the gallery exhibit “La P’Tite Ecole,” or “The One-Room Schoolhouse.”
Running through May 15, the exhibit features artifacts, books and photographs depicting daily life in the one-room schoolhouses that once dotted the St. John Valley landscape from Allagash to Van Buren.
“We thought it would be cool for the kids of today to see how their parents and grandparents went to school in a building that was one room with all the grades together,” said Lise Pelletier, archives director. “I, myself, know a lot of people who went to school like that as recently as the 1960s.”
A day at school was very different from modern academic schedules, Pelletier said.
“All the students had to pitch in to help out,” she said. “The older students were in charge of the heat and had to go in by 5 in the morning to make sure the fires were lit in the stoves.”
Older students also took on the roles of teacher’s assistants and helped the younger grades with lessons, Pelletier said.
The entire layout and architecture of one-room schoolhouses was a testament to the geographic and cultural times.
“There was no electricity, so no lights,” Pelletier said. “One wall was entirely made up of windows and it was planned so the light would shine over the students’ left shoulders all day.”
This was done, she explained, because all students were expected to write with their right hands, even those who were naturally left-handed.
At least two other walls in the building were covered with blackboards or maps, Pelletier said.
Unlike the current school year, which provides up to 10 weeks of vacation in June, July and August, decades ago a school year revolved around the agricultural and seasonal cycles.
“Schools would let students out for times of harvest and planting,” Pelletier said. “They also shut down when the weather got too cold.”
Anna Raymond of New Canada, who was visiting the display over the weekend, remembered a time when there were two schools in the Little Black Lake area of Fort Kent.
“One was close to the lake for the warmer months,” she said. “The other was out near the road, and that was the winter school.”
According to Pelletier, children were expected to walk either a mile north or a mile south to get to a school.
“That’s why there were schoolhouses every two miles,” she said. “One of the games we have for kids coming in today is to take a special measuring stick and use a map of the St. John Valley to figure out just how many schools there once were here.”
Class sizes varied greatly from schoolhouse to schoolhouse, Pelletier said. Some would have fewer than a dozen, while others had up to 50 in grades one through eight.
Among the items on display in the exhibit is the original manuscript of a newly published book “Door to the Future” by Rose Bossie-McBreiarty who taught in Allagash in the 1940s.
“In her book she mentions there were never any discipline problems in the schools,” Pelletier said. “A big part of what she said was the students were often all siblings and would rat each other out.”
The first thing visitors to the exhibit see is a scale model of an old one-room schoolhouse made by Gerald Dubois of St. Agatha and on loan from the St. Agatha Historical Society.
Historical societies in Van Buren, Cyr Plantation, Fort Kent and Allagash also lent items to the exhibit.
Hanging from the wall is a copy of the Cyr Plantation school construction contract, written in French, in which the school board agreed to pay $150 for the new school on donated land.
In direct contrast to that French contract is a painting by Lulu Pelletier, 53, depicting herself as a young schoolgirl being forced to write, “I will not speak French in school” as punishment for using her native language instead of English.
“This is all the history of yesterday and today,” Pelletier said. “I want the community to see history is not only what happened a long time ago but some of it is recent, and it gives insight on what shaped a person and community.”
The exhibit is open to the public 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, through May 15, in the Acadian Archives Building on the UMFK campus.