The minute her husband Kelly hit the "record" button on their video equipment to shoot a documentary about one-room schoolhouses, Tammy Rundle said she was worried.
"When we started out on the project, I thought, ‘I don't know about this stuff.' I didn't know if it would be interesting or what," she recalled, thinking back to the first day of shooting in June 2009 in Spragueville, Iowa, a small Jackson County town outside Maquoketa.
But the Moline-based filmmakers say they learned as much about the subject as students learned in the classrooms once they had completed "Country School: One Room - One Nation." The documentary, which debuted during November in Des Moines, will have its Quad-City premiere next month.
"The one-room schools didn't just serve an educational function, they were literally the center of the (rural) community, the farms around that school," Kelly said. "Those folks may not have attended the same church, but they sure all did have kids in that school."
The couple, through their production company, Fourth Wall Films, spent more than a year traveling from Wisconsin to Kansas to see various one-room schoolhouses and talking to people who were teachers or students in the days when first- through eighth-graders all met under one small roof.
"Just seeing those one-room schools in their original locations, so many of them, hearing how important this icon was to the people that attended them, the people who taught at them," Kelly said. "We found that our little premise at the beginning held true to that."
"Country School" covers the time period from the mid-1800s to the 1950s and ‘60s, by which time most of those schools had closed in the upper Midwest. At the turn of the 20th century, the Rundles say, there were 13,000 one-room schoolhouses in Iowa alone. About 3,000 remain in existence, the most of any state in the country, Kelly said, in conditions ranging "from fully restored to near-collapse."
About a half-dozen are still in operation, the Rundles said, primarily serving Amish and Mennonite communities around the state.
Iowa has the most active groups dedicated to the preservation of one-room schoolhouses, they said. A statewide convention of a preservation group, held in Spragueville, drew a greater attendance than the national convention; a one-room school adorns the flip side of the Iowa state quarter.
The look of the schoolhouses varies from state to state, they said, with wood used for buildings in Iowa and Wisconsin, and limestone for Kansas. If a town had a brick factory, they said, bricks were used to make the school.
One building, in Spring Green, Wis., was designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
The quality of the education depended primarily on the dedication of the school's lone teacher, as well as how many resources from the area were used, the Rundles said.
A majority of teachers were female, some as young as 17 or 18 years old - sometimes making them younger than their male students, who could only attend school when farm work wasn't calling.
"They loved teaching," Tammy said.
"But they loved the whole system of teaching eight grades all at once," Kelly added. "They just had it all down."
A lot was expected of the teachers, he said.
"They were the caretakers of the school," he added. "They were the teacher, they were the janitor, they were the physical ed teacher. They were everything."
For teachers needing additional resources, Wisconsin assisted with "School of the Air" several hours a day on the radio. It would broadcast lessons in various subjects at different grade levels.
Both teachers and students suffered from bullies, but it wasn't a strong deterrent, the Rundles said.
"For the most part, these schools were very well run," Kelly said. "There wasn't a discipline problem, but things did happen from time to time."
The documentary was shown six times in Des Moines and had its Wisconsin premiere this past weekend. It will be released on DVD later this month and shown on Public Broadcasting System stations before the end of the year.
The Rundles said they are pleased with the response to the documentary.
"Both the scholars we worked with and the general public were getting excited about it," Kelly said. "That's a pretty broad spectrum."
The Rundles discovered that each school had its own fingerprint in the cultural and educational landscape.
"I figured if you've seen one one-room school, you've seen them all. They are all different, every single one of them," Kelly said. "And so were the experiences."