Getting to School

Getting to school in the days before school buses were used was often an adventure. From the time of Iowa's first schools, most children walked to and from one-room country schools each day. In the winter, the trip often began before dawn. For many students it was a chance to receive an outdoor education as they explored the countryside.

Chores, Then Breakfast

In Iowa's early days, most children lived on farms. Most rose early in the morning to help with farm chores before breakfast. In the winter, they might warm their clothes on the kitchen stove before heading outside to feed the chickens, collect eggs or milk the cows. They typical farm family started the day with a big breakfast where the children ate well before heading off on their long walk to school.

Iowa's early schools were organized by the counties. After the 1840s most schools were located so that no child had to walk more than two miles to attend a school. Because school usually started at 9:00 a.m. students had to time their trip so they didn't miss the morning school bell. The bell warned students that classes were about to begin.

An Obstacle Course

Before good roads were built, early trips to school were adventurous. Children might cross fields, prairies and pastures to arrive at school on time. Because of weather, walking to school could be difficult and dangerous. After heavy rains, the dirt roads were often too muddy to walk on. During winter snow storms, children had to be careful about frostbite. Young children often stayed home during harsh weather.

Some students arrived at school on horseback, tying the animals outside the schoolhouse or boarding them at a nearby farm until it was time to return home. Sometimes in very cold weather, the children might get to ride a horse-drawn sled through the ice and snow.

Early Buses

As Iowa's schools developed, town schools housed in larger buildings enrolled larger numbers of students. But they were usually located a greater distance from home than the closest one-room school. So a horse-drawn wagon, called a hack, often carried students the longer distances to school.

In the 1930s and 1940s as Iowa's roads were improved, hacks were replaced with yellow motorized school buses that ran on fuel rather that oats and hay. The buses were more comfortable and could travel faster over the improved roads.

Many older Iowans recall the days when they walked or rode a horse to a one-room school in good weather or bad. For many just getting to school was a daily challenge.


  • Sherri Dagel, “Getting there Feet, horses, buses, and more,” The Goldfinch 16, no. 1 (Fall 1994): 24-25.