One-room schoolhouse in Seward County, Nebraska
While Ernest’s may not have been exactly like this one, this photo of a one-room schoolhouse comes from a similar time, 1938 in Seward County, Nebraska. (Library of Congress)

Reflections on 1930s Life in the Great Plains

Grandpa looked at the shattered corn leaves. “This is hail country. We don’t want to settle here,” he stated in his native Czech. He was in the North Loup Valley in the early 1880s, looking for a suitable place to homestead. Instead of selecting his 160 acres in this flat, fertile valley, he headed about 20 miles west into the loess hills of Valley County, which he found more to his liking. This hilly terrain seemed to have a strange lure for people of Czech ancestry, as there were many more of them who also thought that these hills were the place in which to settle.

I was born in 1927 on a farm not far from Grandpa’s. My brother was three years older than me. He and I were to get our earliest education in a one-room school that was located, by road, about two miles away, but about a mile and a half “as the crow flies.” The crow route led over a neighbor’s cultivated field, which at times provided impediments such as planter furrows or cornstalks. I began my first-grade education in 1932. The next year was the start of the Great Depression, the drought years of the “Dirty Thirties.”

The schoolhouse, with its coal house and two outhouses, was tucked between several big prairie-covered hills. These were too steep to farm, so the grass was cut for hay. Little bluestem and side oats grama made up this typical mid-grass prairie.

I have heard that most country schoolhouses had strict rules prohibiting students from leaving the school grounds during the school day. This was not the case with us. Many times when recess came, we were like a covey of quail taking off for the surrounding hills. It was only when the schoolteacher yanked on the rope to ring the big bell in the belfry that the kids came straggling back to class.

There were several prairie plants that drew our interest. One was violet wood sorrel. This short-growing spring plant with three-lobed leaflets and violet blossoms had a tart, sour taste, and after a winter mostly devoid of fresh greenery in our diets, we happily picked and snacked on these leaves. We even stashed some in our pockets to sneak a bite during class time. Later, as our taste grew more sophisticated, we ate only the flowers or the small bulbs just under the soil surface. Another prairie plant that took more effort to harvest was the prairie turnip. This required the borrowing of a hatchet, which the teacher used to break up big coal chunks for the pot-bellied stove. The “turnips” were about an inch in diameter and about four or five inches below the soil surface and required some effort to harvest. When peeled, these turnips had the taste of a damp wad of paper, but the Indians were supposed to have eaten them, and it was a challenge to find the plants and dig them up.

On some of the prairie slopes that were too steep to mow, yucca plants stabbed their sharp-pointed leaves upward. Their masses of white blossom-covered spikes in June livened up the prairie landscape. In the fall, the blooms were replaced with seed pods. Each pod was about an inch and a half across and sectioned like an orange. Each section had a row of about 15 thin, triangular black seeds. In inspecting these seed pods, there was always a row or two of seeds that had holes drilled through them. In later years, I found out that a small white moth was required to pollenate these plants. In doing so, it also laid eggs in the ovary, where they hatched into larvae that took their “family pay” by feeding on some of the seeds their mother was responsible for producing.

Shell leaf penstemon also grew on these steep slopes. Their lavender blossoms started out closed like small balloons, which we liked to pop.

One big reason why we spent so much time on the prairie during recess was that there was not one bit of playground equipment to keep us on the school grounds. This was in the latter 1930s, the height of the Great Depression. At the start of the school year, the school board chairman presented us with our “playground equipment.” This was in the form of a baseball-sized rubber ball. We were told “This ball cost a quarter, and if you lose it, too bad—we are not going to waste money through your carelessness.” Needless to say, we took great care of that ball. One game we played with it was “andy over,” which involved one group on each side of the school throwing the ball across the roof for the others to catch.

The boys’ outhouse was not kept in the best of repair. At the start of school in the fall, a member of the school board would set newspapers on fire and wave them around to burn down the webs of the black widow spiders that seemed to prefer the outhouse as their home. There were places where the dirt caved into the pit, leaving gaps. There seemed to be a magnetic force that pulled the errant andy over ball through one of these gaps and into the outhouse pit. Knowing that the ball had to be retrieved, a trip to a nearby crick for a couple of branches, which were used like chopsticks, caused the ball to be reclaimed. A couple of swipes through the grass with the ball, and the game went on.

We wanted to use “the ball” in a game of baseball, except we didn’t even have a bat. This was remedied by again going to the crick where trees grew. The use of teacher’s coal hatchet cut off an ash branch of about the right diameter. At least we used the regulation wood for our bat. Since our bat did not have the enlargement below the handle, the pitcher had to be ready to dodge bats that came flying out of the hands of batters.