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University of Iowa News Release


June 11, 2007

Photo: Pressure from developers is threatening the bucolic, rural setting of many historic, one-room schoolhouses. This one, owned by University of Iowa law professor Lea VanderVelde and her family, is in Dodge County, Wisc.

Law Professor Hopes States Consider Greater Protection For Rural Schoolhouses

The one-room schoolhouse is one of the great icons of America, a powerful symbol of the country's pioneer spirit and its commitment to education.

For decades, they were the places where most Americans learned their educational basics, usually from young women, most of them unmarried, surrounded by students as young in age as 4 and as old as 20. Students raised the flag, played crack-the-whip and stoked the wood-burning stove, usually after hiking miles through a blizzard to get there, frequently uphill (or so the stories go).

The one-room schoolhouse achieved a particular iconic status in the Midwest and Great Plains, where their isolation made them bastions of settlement of a country moving west and conquering a continent. In Iowa, the one-room schoolhouse is such an important part of the heritage that the image of one is featured on the state quarter.

But University of Iowa law professor Lea VanderVelde said more and more of these icons are being squeezed by residential and commercial real estate development that is reaching further into rural areas. While federal laws offer some protection to the old buildings, VanderVelde thinks many states might want to consider new zoning laws that would protect the school's historical context and uniqueness.

"The one-room schoolhouse is a great symbol of American culture and education, and a powerful visual memory of our past," said VanderVelde, who holds the Josephine Witte Chair in the College of Law. "To protect that, we should preserve not just the buildings, but the surrounding rural, agricultural settings in which they were built."

VanderVelde, an expert in zoning and property law, believes state lawmakers should consider placing development buffers around old rural schoolhouses to protect them from encroaching development and maintain their historical uniqueness.

"The lands on which these schoolhouses were built are agricultural fields," she said. "The surrounding lands have been used for agriculture for decades and can still be used profitably as agricultural fields. That use is compatible with a schoolhouse's origin as a place located midway between the farms, so that each child had to walk some distance, but no child had to walk too far to get to school."

Thousands of one-room schoolhouses dotted rural America until they fell out of favor for the consolidated school following World War II. By the 1960s, most had been shut down and sold. Their fate since has been a mixed bag. Some have become homes, while others have fallen into disrepair or collapsed.

Many have been converted into museums, such as the Abbe Creek School near Mt. Vernon, which is operated by the Linn County Conservation Board, or the Stoney Point School House in northwest Cedar Rapids. The Iowa Historic Preservation Alliance counts 155 former one room schools in the state that are now used as museums.

But many of the old schoolhouses that survive are in danger of being overtaken by exurban development and suburban sprawl. Increasingly, VanderVelde said, those that are near larger cities are threatened by strip malls, housing tracts or McMansion developments.

"Many people are leaving the urban periphery to build on their own piece of land in the countryside," she said. While the buildings themselves are protected by federal historic preservation laws, VanderVelde said few if any communities have zoning laws that require the land around the school to be left alone.

She said that to continue that lack of legal protection would be a loss because a one-room schoolhouse surrounded by ranch homes or big box retail stores is missing much of what made it historically important.

"The uniqueness of the one-room schoolhouses is that they were intentionally built in isolation, far from any farm house," she said. "To build houses or malls on adjacent fields would undermine the notion that these were bastions of settlement on the landscape. An important visual memory of our past would be lost if these were engulfed by development."

VanderVelde herself is working to save a one-room schoolhouse and preserve the surrounding agricultural land near her family's farm in Wisconsin. The school, which her family purchased in 1960, is located in the town of Oak Grove, equal distance from Milwaukee and Madison. As a result, the area is under pressure on all sides by the encroaching developments of commuters to both metro areas, leaving the farmland around the school threatened by development that could rob it of its historical authenticity.

To protect historic rural schools, VanderVelde said states might want to consider zoning laws that limit development by creating a buffer that requires the land be used for agricultural purposes or left empty. There are precedents for this, she said.

For instance, federal law prevents development on land surrounding old lighthouses that are now privately owned, in order to protect the sense of isolation and the maritime ambience that made lighthouses their own kind of American icon. Laws also limit development around airport runways to minimize interference with air traffic.

She said the size of the buffer zone does not need to be large -- no more than a few hundred feet -- and would pose minimal hardship for farmers or developers. She believes it's a small price to pay to save these links to our history.

"We don't have a lot of things that stimulate our shared historic memories as Americans committed to education and cooperation, and rural schoolhouses are of the few things left that do provide that stimulus," she said.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Service, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACT: Tom Snee, 319-384-0010,