Memories of an Iowa One-Room Country School

Chapter 5 of Roland Rogers autobiography, with his permission ~ Images added

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Interested in contributing to a web site on the one-room country schoolhouse?
I am using parts of this site to recall “Country School Memories” which would combine memories (stories), any pictures. If you are interested, please email me.[/pullquote]
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Rodman School Days

Submitted 2007.04.25

Iowa.What I call ‘my part of Iowa’ is very flat. The roads, which are mostly straight, intersect at nearly every mile, making a checker board pattern of farmland with roads approximately one mile long on each side. These mile squares are called ‘sections’. Thirty six of these sections form a Township, and our farm was located in Cedar Township. Almost every two miles there was a one-room country school house. Most farm children walked to their assigned school regardless of weather conditions. The country school houses have now vanished, and the play grounds are producing corn or some other farm crop. Rural students are presently bused to the school in town.

Our farm was adjacent to the local ‘correction line’. Two supposedly parallel roads running north and south will get closer together as they continue north, eventually meeting at the North Pole. Therefore, surveyors had to make ‘corrections’ in an attempt to maintain roads approximately one mile apart. These corrections resulted in a small jog in the north-south roads at predetermined latitudes. Iowa has a town named Correctionville, and I am sure it must be located on the surveyor’s correction line.

Country school typical of the one described.Soon after my family moved on to the Hank Peters farm in 1927, my parents were approached regarding my school situation. It was probably the month of March, and Mother planned on having me resume school in the fall at the beginning of the Cedar No. 3 new school year. This school was about a 1-1/2 mile walk from our house. She was told the school needed students, and if I didn’t start school right away, the school would be closed, forcing me to go to a school further away in the fall. At this time, Cedar No. 3 had an enrollment of three students, Louis Cass, Wanda Cass, and Howard Armstrong. The School Board didn’t want to hire a teacher for just three students. It seems there was a five student minimum, so they requested I be enrolled immediately. At the same time, Kenneth Bartlett was also enrolled, meeting the five student minimum. Because I had about six months of kindergarten experience in the town of Early, Iowa, I was placed in the first grade, and Kenneth was placed in kindergarten. The five students spread over eight grades, each student in a different grade, all taught by the same teacher, who at this time was Lela Longman. Since I was the only student in the first grade, I was ‘valedictorian’ at the end of the school year, and that wasn’t only for the first grade, it was the same for my first eight grades. Being valedictorian was no great achievement, considering I had no competition. However, there is one advantage to being an only student in the graduating class. I can now have a class reunion any time I feel like sitting down and talking to myself.

Kenneth was only about six weeks younger than me; however, because of my previous kindergarten experience, I was always one grade ahead of him. Kenneth and I became life long friends. Throughout our lives we have corresponded, and we have gotten together a few times after we both moved from the Sac City area, he to Ohio, and I to California. We also sought out each other during World War II, when we were at separate Army Air Corps Bases near San Antonio, Texas.

Sketch of lady writing at a desk.
A lady writing at a desk.
Also my Avatar.

Cedar No. 3 consisted of a small one-room wooden school building, with three windows on the right and left sides, a very small coal shed for fuel storage, and two outhouses, all situated on one acre of land. There were two large cotton wood trees, lots of grass, and one lone Cedar tree. The Cedar tree may have been planted when the school was built as being symbolic of a school in Cedar township. The school room was heated in the winter by a large coal burning heating stove situated in one corner in front of the students. As you stood by the stove on a cold winter day, you were hot on one side and cold on the other. There were no means to circulate the air other than by natural thermal air currents. The other corner in front of the students contained the teacher’s desk. An American flag was near by. There were two rows of desks fastened to the floor with screws. The desks were made of filigreed cast iron frames with non-hinged wooden tops. Each one had a hinged seat attached to the front of the desk behind it. The desk tops had ink wells and a groove for pencils and pens. Each desk could seat two students if it was necessary. However, we never had more than one student per desk. Drinking water was carried in a large pail from the nearby well of Kenneth Bartlett’s parents. We all drank from the same pail of water using our individual tin cups. There was no telephone or electricity. Any clothing we wanted to hang up (coats, etc.) were hung on large nails driven into one of two boards attached to the wall. The lower was for the smaller students, and the higher for the big kids. This same area is where we put our lunch pails. I was lucky enough to have a real lunch pail with a Thermos bottle. Some students used metal containers that had previously contained bulk food, and the containers had been recycled as lunch pails.

I very well remember the nails on which we hung coats. One day the teacher was correcting me for having caught me smoking a cigarette. We were at the rear of the school room and my back was against the wall. The teacher had a very firm grip on my arm and was shaking me quite violently, her long sharp finger nails digging into my arm. This shaking pushed my back into one of the lower nails several times causing considerable pain. Yes reader, teachers in the ‘good old days’ could physically correct a student for a wrong doing.

A pretty fancy outhouse.
A pretty fancy outhouse.
Image from site that is no longer online.

The two outhouses were placed some distance from the school house, one for girls and one for boys. Each had two holes in the seat, one small for the little children, and one of normal size. There was no heat for comfort in the winter, nor was there a wash basin. The lack of weather stripping around the door, plus large cracks between the boards, allowed the winter snow to enter. In warmer weather, flies were a problem. We used colored toilet paper . . . sheets torn from catalogs, Sears and Roebuck, and Montgomery Ward catalogs generally served as toilet paper.

In the summer of 1929, the old school building was demolished, and we started the Fall term in a sparkling new school house. The new school also only had one class room, but there was a full basement containing a furnace and an area with a picnic table where we could eat inside during bad weather. This table was also used when making craft projects. On the main floor, where the class room was, there were also two cloak rooms, one for boys and one for girls. Each of these rooms was further divided into two rooms, one for hanging clothing and the other a toilet room containing a chemical toilet. The inside chemical toilet was a giant step forward for mankind . . . no more cold seats in the winter. Even though this was a new school, it also did not have a telephone or electricity, and we still had to go to the neighboring farm house for our pail of drinking water.

Sketch of a girl reading.About every three years we got a different teacher. They were all unmarried and very young. At that time a girl could graduate from high school in May, go to summer school, and get a teaching job in September. As they had successfully gone through high school and were several years older than the students, they did a very good job of teaching the small classes. In addition to Lela Longman, my other teachers were Irene Longman, (Avis Longman, sister of Lela and Irene, acted as substitute teacher as needed), Maxine Long, and Vera Ashbaugh.

The teacher had her desk sitting diagonally in one corner of the main room of the new school. The new individual desks had the seat and desk connected by a tubular frame. Hinged tops opened to reveal a storage area for books and school supplies. The seats swiveled to allow easy entering and leaving. These desks were not attached to the floor. The wallSketch of a bookstand.a long round handle at the other end. It was used at 9 am, the beginning of the school day, at 1 pm, the end of the lunch period, and at the end of two recess periods, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

Because the one teacher was handling eight grades (if sufficient students were enrolled), she would call a grade level to a bench near her desk and quiz them, or have them read, spell, etc. This talking between the teacher and the reciting students was very distracting to the other students who were trying to study, while waiting their turn to demonstrate to the teacher what they had learned.

In addition to covering the normal school subjects, we had walking field trips to study nature first hand, and occasionally interacted with another school for ball games, a picnic, etc. About a half mile from the school, on an abandoned road, there was a small creek and wet area. Each spring the entire student body, and the teacher, would walk to this area. We examined various wild plants and flowers along the abandoned road and watched for small wild animals. When we finally reached the creek, we looked for birds, insects, butter flies, snails, polliwogs and anything else that moved. I was most interested in the red-winged blackbirds flying among the rushes and cattails. I always enjoyed the out of doors, and found these outings to be very interesting nature lessons. They were also very educational because of the key questions our teacher asked.

There was snow on the ground during most of our winter days. This lead to snow ball fights, snow forts, and just plain ‘snow fun’. After a fresh snow, we played a popular group game named Fox and Goose. This was best done when there were no tracks in the newly fallen, fluffy loose snow. Initially, we held on to each other and did a sort of follow the leader to form a playing path by shuffling our feet, one student behind another. The path consisted of a large circle with several radial paths extending from the center to the outer circle. It looked something like a gigantic cut pie. The game was a special form of tag. The Fox was ‘it’ and tried to tag a Goose by chasing it. When caught, that Goose became the Fox and the Fox became another Goose. The Geese had to stay within the path, while the Fox had the advantage of jumping from one path to another. This advantage allowed the Fox to take shortcuts and move around the various paths faster than the Geese.

Very early in my Cedar Number 3 years, possibly when I was in the first grade, our teacher had us perform on a stage in the Sac City High School. This may have been a County wide competition, because I believe there were students from other schools also performing. Among other group activities, our school did calisthenics and marching maneuvers. This remains in my memory, because while on stage I wet my pants. Howard Armstrong, who was four years older than myself, told me later if it had happened while our group was marching and stamping our feet, it might not have been noticed.

Mr. and Miss Jones, an elderly brother and sister, lived near the school. They were uncle and aunt to the Armstrong children. Our one-acre school yard had been carved out of a corner of their farm. Maybe it was because they didn’t have a family in their house, but Miss Jones, who we all called ‘Aunt Hattie’, often did special things for the students. One day she had all the students at her house for dinner. In this area of the country, we ate breakfast in the morning, ate the main meal, called dinner, at noon, and the evening meal was called supper. Aunt Hattie served beef liver as the meat. That is one thing I cannot eat. To me, Aunt Hattie had a miserable dinner as I tried to eat the liver, but failed.

In a few years, school attendance eventually increased to fourteen students. This included Wanda Cass; Kenneth, Eileen, and Dorothea Bartlett; Randall, Larry and Maurice Wilson; Arlene, Gerald, and LeRoy Galbraith; Lucy Armstrong; Lawrence and Doris Dumdie; and myself. At this point in time, Howard Armstrong had graduated. The Galbraith children lived too far away for me to play with them. It wasn’t convenient to go to the Dumdie farm, so I only saw them at school. Howard Armstrong was older than I was, so we were together in school for only a few years. However, I did go to the nearby Armstrong farm occasionally. The Wilson boys became good friends and frequent playmates, because their home was the most convenient to our home which had children of about my age. Randall was about two years younger than me, and Larry and Maurice were close behind him. My pal, Kenneth, lived near the school which was a long walk. Nevertheless, we occasionally went to one or the other home for the afternoon, and sometimes stayed overnight.

We all walked to school, mostly on a little traveled graveled road. Because each family had different personal time schedules, we were scattered out along the road on the way to school in the morning. We all got out of school at 4 PM, and those of us who took the same route walked home together, often playing games or teasing one another on the way. If there was a reason for us to hurry, we would run the distance between two telephone poles, and then walk the distance between the next two poles to catch our breath. We called it ‘run one and walk one’. If we were really in a hurry, we would run two and walk one. It did help us cover the ground at a more rapid rate. A short way past the Wilson’s house the road crossed a culvert that always had water running through it. At this point, I generally left the group to continue home alone through a neighbor’s pasture, and then over a fence to continue on in our pasture to our house. Although it was farther, occasionally I continued to walk on the road with Howard and Lucy Armstrong, coming to our house from the north instead of the south.

All students carried their lunch. I often had a Thermos filled with vegetable soup. Whenever Mother would ask what kind of soup I wanted, the answer was always, ‘vegetable alphabet soup.’ This always came from a red and white Campbell’s soup can, and it would be steaming when I opened the Thermos at lunch time. Some times she wouldn’t ask me, and I got whatever kind of soup that was available. In addition, there would be a sandwich made with two slices of bread, maybe pickles, always fruit and generally a dessert. The dessert might have been homemade cookies, a container of pudding or something similar. We went through a major depression, but always had plenty to eat, thanks to home grown food and the knowledge of how to preserve it.

Mother always cut oranges in half so they could be eaten while holding it in your hand. One day she cut it through the stem part. That left the orange sections intact inside each half of the skin, and it was very difficult to eat. That night I instructed her to always cut the orange through the ‘equator’. Perhaps we were studying the Earth at that time and I had just became familiar with the definition of equator.

A memorable day was when the Wilson boy’s grandmother treated the entire school group by taking us to the traveling circus that was in town. It seems that it was the Ringling Brother’s Circus. This was indeed an exciting treat for farm children. It was the first circus I had ever seen, and perhaps that was true for all of the rest of the students.

There were always school programs for the principal holidays, and the parents were invited to watch their children perform. With so few students in school, these programs were very simple. Most of the programs were held in the afternoon, and generally, only the mothers were available to attend because the fathers would be working in the fields. The most ambitious program was a three act play at a time when we had several students. This was done in the evening, and the fathers and mothers of all students attended. The play was named ‘Ghost Catchers’, and I had the part of a detective. The teacher produced a very good program with her limited resources.

Wires were stretched high across the new class room near where the cloak rooms were. Bed sheets were hung from the wires to form the stage curtains. Thus, we had a stage, and could use the cloak rooms as dressing rooms. One scene required the lights to flicker off and on. Because this couldn’t be done with the school’s kerosene lamps, temporary electric stage lights were setup using a car battery. The story was a murder mystery. One of the ‘special effects’ was a rocking chair with an unseen black string attached. A person behind the stage could make the chair rock with no one in it, such as a ghost might do. When I came on stage the first time, I knocked on the ‘door’, and was met by Lucy Armstrong, who was playing the part of a maid. She invites me in and says in a seductive manner, ‘Please walk this way, Sir‘, as she crossed the stage swinging her hips in a true Hollywood seductive manner. I put my head on one side, scratched my head and said, ‘I’ll try‘, as I attempted to swing my hips like she did. Needless to say I didn’t do very well, but it produced a lot of laughs from the audience. At one point, I was to fire a hand gun. My pal Kenneth and I had experimented with a cap gun prior to the performance, and thought only one cap didn’t produce a loud enough noise. Two caps would produce twice the noise. However, wanting maximum effect for the play, at the last moment, we put three caps in the gun. Three caps exploding simultaneously should have produced three times the noise. However, when I pulled the trigger, there was only a soft ‘click’ as the gun misfired. The thick stack of caps did not explode. So . . . in the middle of the play everything came to a halt while friend Kenneth and I went out of character while we both worked on the cap gun, discussing in loud stage whispers what had to be done. Deciding to return to the preplanned two caps, I finally fired the cap gun with a resulting loud ‘bang’ and the play resumed. Needless to say, it also resulted in loud hilarious laughter from the audience.

One school play involved a wedding. It was called ‘The Wedding of the Painted Doll‘. The main characters included Lucy Armstrong as the bride, and Kenneth Bartlett as the groom. I was the preacher. Lucy needed a veil, as all brides do. Lace material would cost money and be a waste, because what could be done with it after the play? Lucy’s mother solved this by removing a lace curtain from a window of their house. She soon had it stitched into a wedding veil. After the play, the veil was ‘unstitched’ and replaced on the window. This was a period in history when ‘You made do with what you had’.

A popular school evening affair was what we called a box social. This was a fund raiser for the school. The participating ladies and girls each prepared a box of food to be sold at auction after a short student program. Some boxes were fancy pieces of art, others as simple as a shoe box covered with colored paper. The most elaborate box I remember was about two feet tall, and looked like an old square rigged sailing ship. The owner of each box was kept a secret, and the men would bid on a box with the privilege of eating with the girl who had prepared it. Of course, sometimes the identity of the girl would be leaked so her ‘steady’ could have the pleasure of her company. Often, two suitors would run the bidding up to a high price, trying to get the honor of eating with a certain girl.

Another fund raiser was the selling of raffle tickets. Raffle tickets in those days sold for five or ten cents each. At one of the Thanksgiving programs, I bought one ticket, and won a live turkey.

Balsam Fir.One year during the Great Depression, possibly 1930, money was very short for Christmas presents. An enterprising teacher solved the problem. Most homes in our area had black walnut trees. Black walnuts have a very hard shell and are difficult to crack open. However, the nut meats are very popular in baking cakes, etc. Our teacher had us ‘smuggle’ black walnuts from our home and bring them to school. As part of our school ‘activities’, we cracked the black walnuts and put the usable nut meats in a canning jar, which had also been smuggled from home. This became a Christmas present for our mothers. My mother really appreciated the effort put into a jar of ready to use black walnuts.

The Christmas programs were always held in the afternoon of the Friday before Christmas. Right after the program we were dismissed for a two-week vacation. Several times my parents met me at school and immediately after the program we would leave for a Christmas trip to St. Paul, Minnesota, to be with my Mother’s family. In St. Paul we always stayed at Grandpa and Grandma Longhenry’s home. The approximately 270 miles was a long trip in the mid-thirties of the 20th Century, especially, when the trip was started at 4PM on a winter day and very little of it driven on paved roads.Christmas bells.

At the end of each school year, which was the middle of May, the entire school had an off-site picnic. Sometimes this was at the City Park, and but many times it was in the yard or orchard of a student’s home. The picnic was an organized pot luck affair, with various types of food supplied by the various families. Some mothers could always be counted on to supply their special dishes. One food that stands out as a favorite of mine was made by Annie Laurie Armstrong, the Mother of Howard and Lucy. This specialty was date filled cookies. They consisted of a round plain sugar cookie with a few spoons of chopped dates in the center, and another sugar cookie placed on top with the edges pinched tightly. Sometimes only the lower cookie was used and it was folded over with the filling placed off center to form a turnover. I always looked forward to getting these delicious home made cookies. Another picnic item was generally a plate of bananas. What I thought was strange about the bananas was the fact they were always cut into two pieces. I always expected to get a whole banana to eat, but perhaps the effects of the depression was the reason for this economical action. The mothers nearly always attended the picnics. The fathers were busy planting corn at that time, and they were too busy to join us.

The year of 1935 brought me to the end of the one-room country school. This is the year I graduated from Sac County Schools and became eligible to attend the Sac City High School in town. This was to be a big step for a one-room country school student, who was also raised in an only child family. To understand the graduation ceremony, one has to be familiar with the political make up of Sac County. As described earlier, there are 36 square miles to a Township. About every four square miles had a one-room country school. Sac County was made up of 16 Townships and about ten towns. Each town had their own city school system, which, when subtracted from the possible total of 144 one-room country schools, leaves over a hundred schools under the direction of the County School Superintendent. Although I was the only graduating student from Cedar No. 3, other schools may have had several students graduating. Thus, the Sac County Class of 1935 may have had as many as 200 graduating students. Graduating exercises were held in the Sac City Park. This was a large grassy area with lots of trees, one of the first houses that was built in Sac City (a log cabin), and the Chautauqua Building. The dictionary describes Chautauqua as an assembly for educational purposes, combining lectures, entertainments, etc., often held outdoors. The Sac City Chautauqua consisted of a large roof, a stage, and benches to sit on. There were no outside walls except behind the stage. It was used for large public meetings and traveling stage shows. The graduating students listened to various speakers and then we received our graduating certificates. It was officially over, and I was now qualified to attend the Sac City High School in town.

Graduation generally results in gifts for the student. I must have received several gifts, but I can only recall one. Uncle Irvin, who lived in St. Paul, Minnesota, sent me a Kodak Brownie box camera. It was truly a box and was covered with green ‘leatherette’. It used No. 120 roll film, which at that time was only available to make black and white photographs. This simple camera was my prize possession for many years, and I used it to take many photos. The camera eventually was given to cousin June, and it was finally destroyed in the flood of San Jacinto, California in 1980.

Note: During the early stages of writing this book, I found Lucy Armstrong through the Internet at www.ClassMates.com. She sent me her Mother’s recipe for the above noted date cookies, and a copy of her brother Howard’s autobiography. ~ Roland Rogers

Some of the images on this page are from a black ‘n white site called Leaves of Time site. At the time I downloaded these images, the site was quite different. This is a link to the free images on the site.