White men did not enter South Dakota in any great numbers until 1876 so the 1880’s, 1890’s and 1900’s were frontier times in this area. The early days were tough times for the first pioneers in South Dakota and the hardships they endured are reflected in the schools of that era. When enough families had come into a locality to warrant opening a school, the district was organized and the schoolhouse built, or more likely, for the first years, an abandoned dugout, claim shack or sod or log house was appropriated. Even in 1935, South Dakota still had 2 schools made of sod, 13 made of logs, 77 made of stucco, 3 of stone, 59 of brick, 3 of concrete and 18 of hollow tile.
The frontier school itself was generally a one-room building with a wood or coal-burning stove in the center. Montana settler Sarah Newman remembered her first school as "A little log cabin located along the Yellowstone River. The cabin was owned by my father, O.N. Newman. It was low and small (maybe ten by twelve feet, with a window at each end of the structure). I don't think it would have held more than 12 seats, the teacher's desk, and one bench up front where we went up to recite our lessons." Amy Jacobsen found that when she went to the schoolhouse where she was to teach near Newell, South Dakota, “I found the door open and some cattle had visited there. Only six books were on the library shelf”.
One-room school teachers often taught grades one through eight in their classrooms, with class size ranging from three or four students to as many as fifty. Montana settler Margaret Veasey Osborn faced little difficulty in reciting the entire attendance roster at her school: "As I recall, the school consisted of Marie and John Dahl, and a little girl named Flora St. Xavier." Student attendance also varied as students were kept home when needed for farm chores.
Teachers would room and board with a family near the school house. Julia Hall, a South Dakota teacher described: “My bedroom was an unfinished attic room with an outside stairway which at times was slick with ice and snow … the room was heated with a small wood and coal stove …. I kept my clothes under the covers so they would be warm in the morning; sometimes my bed was covered with snow. I would go downstairs to wash, eat breakfast and take my school bag and pail to start walking the one and a half miles to school.”
Teachers would arrive at the school house before the students, light a fire if needed, sweep the floors and prepare to welcome the students. Teachers were also the last to leave. It was the teacher’s responsibility to cancel school if the weather was too cold or dismiss school early if a storm was blowing in. In January 1888, a sudden blizzard hit the Dakota’s, Nebraska and Minnesota during the school day - more than 100 children died as well as many teachers while trying to make their way home. The difference between life or death on that day depended on the wisdom of the school teacher.