You Learn About People

Every year when schoolkids go back to school, historians and preservations go way back to school. Read the following article about country schools that we pulled from the archives of Iowa Heritage Illustrated. But don’t worry: There won’t be a quiz.

Iowa Heritage Illustrated, Fall 2001

“You learn a lot about people” Attending a one-room school in the 1920s

By Harvey R. Horton

I attended Brushwood School #5 in Doyle Township of Clarke County, Iowa, for six years, from the fall of 1922 until the spring of 1928. Our one-room school was located at the foot of a steep hill less than a quarter of a mile from East Long Creek, which overflowed in the spring — hence the school’s informal name, “Frogpond.”

In late summer before school started, the neighbors with children would spend a day cleaning the place up. The ladies would scrub the floors, wash the walls, and tidy up the inside. The men would mow the weeds, cut brush as needed, fill up the woodshed with firewood, check the pump, and make any necessary repairs.

The school was a frame building (replacing a log cabin that the old-timers had attended), oblong in shape and fairly large, as I remember it. It was heated with a Round Oak type stove located toward the center of the room. (The teacher used to pay one of the older boys to come early and start the fire before the rest of us came.) In cold weather we clustered around the stove to keep warm, burning in front and freezing in back. We were all farm kids, and some of the older boys ran trap lines in the wintertime. When they gathered around the stove and their heavy wool and denim clothes got steamed up, it was real easy to tell if anyone had caught a skunk in one of the traps.

Besides holding a winter’s supply of fuel, the large woodshed to the back also had a high door and room for horses during severe, blizzardy weather. Our teachers sometimes rode horses in bad weather. So did some of the rest of us, but we usually just tied the reins when we got there, gave the horse a slap on the shoulder, and told him to head for home, which he did.

The grader ditch along the road was where the teacher had us go out and lie down on those occasions when a neighbor came tearing by on a horse or in a car, warning that a “cyclone” had been sighted and might be coming down along East Long Creek.

In those days the schoolteacher was one of the most respected and highly regarded individuals in the community. One of the terms of the contract was that if he or she was not a local resident, he or she must board with a family in the community. Most of the parents had received little education beyond a one-room rural school, and they were determined that their children would get a basic education. Actually, very few of the schoolmates I had in Brushwood ever went on to graduate from high school. The distance, ten miles, plus the Great Depression, helped to account for that.

School board members were landowners with children or grandchildren in school. My father served on the school board for more than 30 years. Having your father on the school board then was like being a minister’s son in a small town. Members of the school board frequently stopped in unexpectedly for a couple of hours when they were in the vicinity to check on the teachers and pupils and make sure everyone was “reciting” every day.

Candidates for office also would drop by and leave little tokens such as rulers, yardsticks, and pencils. Once in a while others did too. County officials — the superintendent of schools, sheriff, auditor, et cetera — were expected to stop by at least once a term and talk to us, tell us something of what they were doing and why. I can remember others, insurance men and the lumber yard operator, doing the same.

You might say the country school then had so much community interest that was a community project, so to speak. The school was where the pie suppers and box suppers were held, also the recitals and spelling and ciphering contests. Grown-ups participated, too, and school board member John Brand could sometimes outspell a teacher.

All the students brought their lunches from home in lard pails or improvised dinner buckets. It was good healthy farm food — apples, pears, custard, egg and meat sandwiches, slices of pie, hard-boiled eggs, cookies, bottles of milk, and the like. The last couple of years we started making something hot at school — cocoa, or maybe a kettle of navy beans or vegetable stew, taking turns furnishing it from home.

The school ground itself was by necessity also the playground, no matter what the lay of the land might happen to be. Here and there a more affluent school might sport a store-bought swing set for the smaller children. Ours was not one of the affluent ones. Although there was no store-bought equipment of any kind, we did have practically unlimited freedom to unleash our own wild ideas of self-entertainment. At least we boys did. The girls either had to content themselves with simple games of their own design or join the boys in what were usually rougher endeavors.

One winter we chopped down some of the trees and built ourselves a small log cabin. It served as a fort or clubhouse or whatever came to mind. We also built a sapling and brush lean-to that was so snug when covered with a deep drift of snow that we boys sometimes ate our noon lunches in there on cold winter days.

Much of the time we indulged in somewhat rougher sports. “Cowboys and Indians” was considered harmless until one time the “Indians” captured a “cowboy” and started to burn him at the stake with a real fire. Bow-and-arrow fights were commonplace. So were snowball fights, and they could get brutal when the snowballs were dipped in water and stored out in some hidden cache overnight during subzero weather.

We made use of whatever we happened to have. A bandanna handkerchief knotted around a boy’s throat produced an instant cowboy, and pulling it up over the lower part of his face turned him into a stagecoach robber. A lot of things could be made with spools, corset staves, tobacco cans, rubber bands cut from discarded inner tubes, raw whang leather, shoe tongues, pieces of scrap iron, and old shingles. Harness rivets made a fine decoration for any old leather belt.

It would no doubt surprise a later generation to know what the average enterprising country boy could come up with in those days using only a jackknife as a basic tool. The whole area was pretty heavily timbered, so wood of any kind was never a problem. Any boy worthy of his salt could make a bow complete with straight arrows, a willow whistle, a shinny stick, or a rabbit snare. Corn cobs were quickly fashioned into corn cob pipes. The iron bands from wooden wagon-wheel axles made good rolling hoops, and most any discarded piece of farm machinery would yield enough strap iron to make runners for a bobsled. Lariats could be spliced out of old hitching ropes.

I had a cast-iron capgun pistol, as did several others. But I also happened to be a real handy whittler, and using that pistol for a model, I carved out literally dozens of pretty realistic life-size wooden six-shooters that were used to shoot their way through scores of bitter gun battles between good cowboys and bad outlaws.

Each morning came the potential horror of being chosen to raise the flag. Then we all saluted it and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Next, we sang two or three songs, picked out from a couple of old moss-covered song books dating back to Civil War times — songs such as “Red Wing,” “Marching Through Georgia,” “Old Black Joe,” “Massa’s in the Cold,” “Cold Ground,” “Swanee River,” and such. The teacher would lead us in song and the results are not to be remembered! I still can’t carry a note.

The studies were basic: reading, writing, spelling, arithmetic, history, geography — there may have been others. In later grades, civics was added. We memorized poetry, some of it surprisingly good. I remember there were verses from “Hiawatha,” “Evangeline,” Poe’s “Raven,” “The Village Blacksmith,” Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar,” and so on.

The “library” consisted of two small wooden shelves in the corner with a collection of donated or leftover volumes. I read them all and still remember that they ran something like this: Fox’s Indian Primer, several McGuffey’s readers, Swiss Family Robinson, Life of Daniel Boone, books on the lives of Lincoln, Washington, great American inventors, great American patriots. It was also where I first learned of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, and of early Egyptian history. Ivanhoe was another one.

We didn’t have a laboratory, but we had nature studies. And we could go as far during the noon hour as we could get back from by the teacher’s handbell (we were not blessed with a belltower).

Everyone recited at the front of the room, and if all eight grades were represented, everyone got a chance to learn ahead, or review backwards, as the case may be. We learned county government, state officials, federal officials, what the state produced, names of counties, the states, et cetera.

As for social studies, when you are thrown together at any given childhood age for eight hours a day with others — boys and girls, ages five to nineteen — you learn about people.

I guess long before now you have learned that I do not consider a one-room school any disadvantage. I am proud of having gone to one. The age differences were good for me. I was the oldest in my family, and when I started to school, the older girls sort of looked after me as a little six-year-old. Later, I was proud to have held my own with boys much older than I in the rough-and-ready arena of the school grounds and the long road home (where the fist fights always seemed to occur).

In my particular case, my father and mother had both taught in one-room schools briefly before I was born and so I naturally had some head start before school. With that and the advantage of listening to all grades reciting before me, I completed the eight grades in six years. I went on to be salutatorian of my high school class, had a couple of years of college, was an officer in World War II, and at no time ever felt any disadvantage from having learned the fundamentals in a one-room country school that no longer exists today.

Harvey R. Horton is retired and lives in Denver, Colorado, after a 35-year career with the U.S. Postal Service, during which time he served as a regional transportation manager.