My country school was about two miles from home, if you went by county road. I usually cut across a cultivated field, which shortened the distance by about a quarter mile. In the winter my dad would sometimes drive me to school. Our car was a 1927 Whippet, which, like most cars of that time, did not have a heater. Starting this car in subfreezing temperatures was a hit-and-miss situation. Pouring hot water on the intake manifold often did not help, and the battery would run down in a futile starting attempt. This called for pushing the car out of the garage and running it down the hill in gear to get it started. At times this would not do the trick, which required Dad getting the team of horses harnessed and have them pull the Whippet back up the hill to try again.
While walking to school, I was glad to get a ride from any auto going my way. One neighbor had a Model T Ford and on occasion would come puttering down the road. When going my way, he would offer me a ride. This offer was accepted with a certain amount of misgiving on my part… When going up a long, steep hill, the Model T would seem to just barely sputter to the top. To try to remedy this lack of power, the speed down the next hill would be as high as possible for the momentum to carry the vehicle and its occupants at least partly up the next hill. These downhill trips on this “roller coaster” were what terrified me. The seats on the Model T were high off the ground, and the top was a tall, rickety, cloth-covered carriage. Careening at full speed downhill, swaying back and forth over rutted tracks, I was thankful when the trip ended and wondered if the ride was worth the trauma.
About 1939 Dad bought a used Plymouth, and I thought we were really living it up. It still had some of the new car smell, and at times I just liked to sit in it and inhale the odor. It had been rolled over by the previous owner so that the door posts were broken, and they rattled at the slightest bump, but it had a HEATER. It also had a windshield wiper that could be turned on, not like the Whippet, which had a crank above the windshield you had to move back and forth manually. In this Plymouth was where I learned to drive, with a clutch and floor gear shift.
The school did not have any water supply. This meant that water had to be carried by buckets from a farmstead nearly a half mile away. Water would be poured into a crock with a spigot for our drinking water. Each student had their own cup. Water would be poured over the hands of each student at lunchtime with the use of soap. In cold weather a bucket of water would be heated on the potbellied stove for washing purposes. When I was in sixth grade, a well was drilled in the schoolyard just a few steps from the door. Since it was a quite deep well, it took the weight of a couple of smaller boys to depress the pump handle to get water to flow, but what luxury.
Every student was supposed to come to school with clean fingernails and a clean handkerchief. Each day a student would be appointed to do the checking. All of us guys always had a clean handkerchief because of the spare we carried in a hip pocket for “show” purposes.
Once a year the teacher was to check the teeth of every student and report on their condition. To whom, I don’t know. There was quite a bit of tooth decay that needed attention, but I doubt that these “inspections” did much good.
One day at recess time I took out my pocket knife, something every red-blooded schoolboy carried, and tried to push it through a dried sunflower stalk. The sharp blade folded and cut my index finger and partway through my fingernail. There was plenty of blood, and since a school first aid kit was unheard of, the teacher used her handkerchief to wrap around my finger. I completely forgot I had a clean “show” handkerchief in my hip pocket I could have used.
During class time, if a student had the need to go to an outhouse, permission to do so had to be given by the teacher. The student’s request was made by raising an arm and extending one or two fingers, indicating to the teacher which bodily function was to be remedied. To this day, I cannot understand why one had to announce, not only to the teacher but the whole schoolroom, what they intended to do in the outhouse. If they were given permission to do number one and later found that they also needed to do number two, were they later supposed to confess to giving a wrong signal?
One day during class a girl who had been to the outhouse came back quite disturbed. She told the teacher, and then the whole room, that some animal was in the outhouse pit. At recess time, everyone surrounded the little building and began taking turns looking down into the opening and seeing the eyes of some large animal. When we tipped over the outhouse, there was a bedraggled coyote hound staring up at us. He belonged to one of the neighbors who had a pack of hounds for coyote hunting. This one jumped out of the pit, not informing us why he got there in the first place.
Good penmanship was stressed in country school. I believe that it was called the Palmer Method. This consisted of exercises using even, overlapping circles or vertical strokes, going across the page. I got good grades in all of my subjects except penmanship, where I was never able to get above a C. The pens we used were ones where we inserted a steel penpoint into a holder. Every desk had about a two-inch hole in the upper right corner. Suspended in it was an inkwell into which our penpoints were dipped. When the ink level was getting low in the inkwell, the student had to be careful when touching the bottom about possibly impaling a drowned box-elder bug or perhaps a wasp or fly. In winter the inkwells had to be checked for frozen ink.
The teacher had a “copying machine” that consisted of a kind of gel that was mixed up and poured into a shallow pan and allowed to solidify. I believe that the paper that was to be copied had to be printed in a special ink. When this paper was laid on the gel, the purple ink was absorbed by the gel, which would then be transferred to a blank paper. The little kids liked to poke their fingers into this gel. Other “duplicating” was done by putting the drawings behind a sheet of paper and tracing against a windowpane.
In first grade we had a man teacher, which was quite unusual as grade school teaching was considered “women’s work.” The teachers after that were female, I think just out of high school. It must have been quite a challenge for a young teacher to be thrown into a situation where kids from first to eighth grade had to be taught. Kids in such a school in the lower classes would be exposed to the recitations of the upper classes and couldn’t help but absorb some of the upper-class knowledge ahead of time. These teachers would usually “board” at the home of one of the parents during the week.
During my last two years in school, I had a very good teacher. She was determined to expose us to some of the books that we would most likely not have the opportunity, or perhaps the inclination, to read. Every day after the noon recess she would read us books for fifteen or twenty minutes. Since there were several grades that did not have students, there was extra time for this to be done. We all looked forward to these times, and at times persuaded her to read longer than usual. Some books I remember hearing her read were Tom Sawyer, Call of the Wild, Ben Hur, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The latter conveyed to us, perhaps better than any history book, the evils of slavery.
Something that has not been required in grade schools for many years was not only the reading, but the memorizing, of poetry. This learning of poetry “by heart” was made easier by the rhyming of most of the lines. It seems that rhyming in poetry has since been abandoned in favor of text that I suppose is a great deal easier to compose.
I believe that the writing of poets such as Longfellow, Whittier, and Edgar Allan Poe can never be equaled.
Whittier’s “Snow-Bound,” which portrays a rural, three-generation New England family before, during, and after a heavy snowstorm: “No cloud above, no earth below,— / A universe of sky and snow!”
Poe’s ominous “The Raven”: “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary, / Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore— / While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, / As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.”
Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” is a memorial to Lincoln’s assassination, comparing Lincoln as a captain of a ship that is the nation, which he steered safely to shore, only to die upon reaching port: “O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done / The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won.” The conclusion, after a number of verses: “Exalt O Shores, and ring O bells! / But I with mournful tread, / Walk the deck my Captain lies, / Fallen cold and dead.”
A few lines of Helen Hunt Jackson with her poems of rural beauty:
“September”: “The golden-rod is yellow; / The corn is turning brown; / The trees in apple orchards / With fruit are bending down.” “October’s Bright Blue Weather”: “When on the ground red apples lie / In piles like jewels shining, / And redder still on old stone walls / Are leaves of woodbine twining.”
Longfellow’s poem about a blacksmith extolls the virtues of a man who serves as a role model for his family and community. “The Village Blacksmith”: “Under a spreading chestnut-tree / The village smithy stands; / The smith, a mighty man is he, / With large and sinewy hands; / And the muscles of his brawny arms / Are strong as iron bands. // His hair is crisp, and black, and long, / His face is like the tan; / His brow is wet with honest sweat, / He earns whate’er he can, / And looks the whole world in the face, / For he owes not any man.”
We would be given a day or two to memorize the assigned poem or stanzas before having to “perform” by standing in front of the class and reciting. This added to the need to not mess up too badly.
In our forays into the prairie surrounding our school, we couldn’t help but notice various natural phenomenon that piqued our interest. For example, at times there appeared at the base of various broad-leaved prairie plants blobs of foam up to an inch in diameter. Since these blobs appeared at ground level, it was natural for us to refer to them as “snake spit.” It wasn’t until years later, in taking an entomology course at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, I found out that that foam was due to spittle bugs. These quarter-inch true bugs inserted their piercing and sucking mouth parts into plants to ingest plant juices and eject a liquid from their abdomens, which they would vibrate to create a foam that would shield them from predators.
I have mentioned the yucca plants growing on the steep prairie slopes. When we would open their mature seed pods, we found that there always was destruction to part of the seed by larva, which also left a part of the seed number unharmed. I later learned that this larvae was that of a small moth, which was the only way the blossom could be pollinated. In pollinating the blossom, it also laid eggs that turned into larvae, which fed on some of the resulting seeds.
An insect that created a certain amount of unwarranted schoolyard fear was wasplike with what appeared to be about a thin, six-inch-long stinger. This dangerous-looking insect, I later learned, was an ichneumon fly. The “stinger” was an ovapositor, which was only used to drill into dead trees to lay eggs into the wood, not push into the bodies of schoolkids.
I made the model schoolhouse in the photos from brass kickplates from store doors. The walls are made of solid sheet, and I then used a plasma cutting torch to make the individual clapboards, which were fastened to the flat sheet. It weights about 25 pounds, and is 11 inches high or 19 inches to the top of the flagpole on the belfry. The bell revolves. I made just two rows of desks; there were at least four rows in the actual school. I also included lunch pails, a water cooler, and a wash pan with a bar of soap. I have also made a model of the barn with the windmill and stock tank out of brass and copper, as well as a model of our old farm wagon, also made of brass and copper. I received first prize for the wagon model at the Nebraska State Fair for metal sculpture some years ago.