The one-room school house was once a defining aspect of life in rural America, with nearly 200,000 of them dotting a landscape, but now only a few hundred such schools persist. The schools were already being viewed as a relic in 1941, when LIFE went to document one in Ryegate, Montana.

The school was, in the modern parlance, off the grid. LIFE described it as a “clapboard building” standing in a “stark and lonely” stretch in Golden Valley County. It had no running water or electricity, no telephone or telegraph. But in 1941 it was a place of learning for 17 boys and girls between the ages of six and 16.

“From farms as far as four miles away, they come to school on horseback, in cars, on foot,” LIFE wrote in its May 12, 1941 issue, which featured a U.S. Army parachutist on its cover. “They wear blue jeans, checked shirts, cotton dresses, and stockings. Their talk is of the chores they do at home when school is over: milking cows, splitting kindling, gathering eggs, running tractors, putting up preserves.”

Their teacher was Dorothy Albrecht, a 24-year-old from Billings, Montana who had come to Ryegate for her first teaching job. In a school day of 330 minutes, she taught 32 “classes,” four per day for each of the eight grades. Her pay was $90 a month—which today would be about roughly $1,660. LIFE said that pay rate was better than the national average for teachers in 1941. Albrecht was also given a place to live—a two-room cottage next to the school.

The images of kids arriving at school on horseback, taking spins on the merry-go-round and playing baseball out front certainly conjure a sort of nostalgia for a simpler life.

But the photos also capture what was hard about the situation, particularly for young Ms. Albrecht. According to the story she bathed once a week, sitting in a washtub with a scrub brush, cleaning herself in water that she had to collect from a cistern, haul 100 yards and then heat on the stovetop. LIFE’s photographer, Hansel Mieth, also photographed her sitting at her desk at night, writing letters by the glow of a kerosene lamp—surely not the ideal way for a 24-year-old to spend her evenings.

Note that 80 years later, the town of Ryegate remains quite small, with the 2010 census putting the town population at 245. The website for the Ryegate Public School, home of the Blue Demons, shows a building that, while not huge, has multiple rooms, and the school claims a 100 percent graduation rate and a 2:1 student-teacher ratio. The high school has 39 students in pre-K to 8th grade and 14 students in grades 9-12 . Education, in short, remains an intimate experience.

The one-room schoolhouse, teacher’s cottage and outhouse in Ryegate, Montana, 1941.

Hansel Mieth/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

A student raised the American flag at a one-room schoolhouse in Ryegate, Montana, 1941.

Hansel Mieth/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Children raised the flag outside of a one-room country school in Ryegate, Montana, 1941.

Hansel Mieth/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Clem and Frances Shaff rode to school on their pony, Shortie, in Ryegate, Montana, 1941.

Hansel Mieth/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Some students came to school on horseback in Ryegate, Montana, 1941.

Hansel Mieth/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Dorothy Albrecht, 24, taught at the one-room schoolhouse in Ryegate, Montana, in 1941.

Hansel Mieth/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Students ranged from ages 6 to 16 at the one-room schoolhouse in Ryegate, Montana.

Hansel Mieth/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Wayne Sillivan (standing), a 16-year-old eighth grader, was the oldest student at the one-room school in Ryegate, Montana, 1941.

Hansel Mieth/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Clem Schaff, who arrived at school on horseback, did battle with a history book at one-room schoolhouse in Ryegate, Montana, 1941.

Hansel Mieth/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

A student took a water break at the one-room schoolhouse in Ryegate, Montana, 1941.

Hansel Mieth/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Ms. Albrecht and the students at the one-room schoolhouse had lunch while listening to radio reports about the war, April 1941.

Hansel Mieth/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Children played outside of a one-room country school in Ryegate, Montana, 1941.

Hansel Mieth/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Ms. Albrecht took a turn at bat during a baseball game outside the one-room schoolhouse in Ryegate, Montana, 1941.

Hansel Mieth/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Dorothy Albrecht, the 24-year-old teacher at the one-room schoolhouse in Ryegate, Montana, 1941.

Hansel Mieth/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Dorothy Albrecht, who lived in a two-room cottage by the one-room schoolhouse, hauled coals, Ryegate, Montana, 1941.

Hansel Mieth/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Bathing was a complicated process for 24-year-old schoolteacher Dorothy Albrecht; first she needed to haul water from a cistern 100 yards away from her cottage and heat in on the stove before climbing into the washtub, Ryegate, Montana, 1941.

Hansel Mieth/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Dorothy Albrecht, teacher at a one-room schoolhouse in Ryegate, Montana, stretched out on her sagging iron bed and prepared for the next day’s lessons, 1941.

Hansel Mieth/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

At night Dorothy Albrecht wrote letters by a kerosene lamp in the two-room cottage provided to the teacher at the one-room schoolhouse in Ryegate, Montana, 1941.

Hansel Mieth/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

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