Friday, April 8, 2016

School Days

Things are quiet here in my little corner of the world, so I thought I might give you one more offering from Great Uncle Walter.

That's Walter on the right, his wife Maud on the left and two of their children in between.  I believe this picture was taken in the early 1950's, about the time he was putting his memories on paper.

Yesterday I was wandering through some of the news sites, reading about all of the foolishness going on.  Much of it had to do with school kids.  Things like out of control kids and teachers afraid to discipline them.  Things like college kids needing safe spaces, and trigger warnings and requiring counseling because someone chalked a presidential candidates name on the sidewalk.  And best of all, the demands that children of either sex should be able to use the bathroom and locker room of their choice, depending on whether they identify as male or female.  Really?  I always thought God figured that all out right in the beginning, seeing to it that boys were born with outdoor plumbing and girls had indoor plumbing.  Problem solved.

Anyway, all of this stupidity reminded me of the following piece Uncle Walter wrote about his own education.  It would likely give those today a case of the vapors.  But Uncle Walter went on to work for a railroad as a telegrapher along with other supervisory duties as well as becoming a first rate photographer.  He raised his family, took care of business and lived a good life.  There are a couple of passages that contain words that would make the social justice warriors break out in a cold sweat, but I won't change a word of what he wrote, for that's just the way it was then.  Enjoy.

School Days
by Walter E. Paul

My schooling, such as it was, commenced in 1894 when my folks were renters on the Andrew Anderson farm two and a half miles south of Barnum, Minn.  
My sisters Grace and Clara and brother Andrew had attended school back in New York State but here in our new Minnesota home there was no school within walking distance of short childish legs. Something had to be done to take its place. After a family discussion of the matter Father and Mother appointed Grace to be our teacher, she being the eldest of us children.
Upstairs in a spare room of this Anderson house we had found a hodge podge of cast off school books no two of them alike, readers, spellers, arithmetics  including a “mental arithmetic,” and a ragged geography, These with the few old school books our parents had brought west were the only ones we had. The room was furnished with an old slope top desk, a few discarded chairs and a makeshift blackboard.
I started with a little red covered Swinton’s First reader. Each day Grace coached me on its simple words and how they were grouped together to form little sentences. A much battered arithmetic and a torn speller were later added to my curriculum.
On the first day I thought our little school was somewhat of a joke and began to act up accordingly until Grace set me right by jerking me out of my seat by my shirt collar and promising to report my misconduct to Father and Mother if I didn’t stop my monkey shines and concentrate on my book. Her timely action I afterward realized was one of the best lessons I learned. Owing to my tender years I was required to attend our little school in the forenoons only, leaving the afternoons to spend as I saw fit.
In the early winter of 1895 we moved to an abandoned lumber camp cabin five miles east of Barnum where we lived the remainder of the winter. This was wild country and game was often seen. The cabin stood on the edge of a tamarack swamp where snow-shoe rabbits wore cris-crossing trails through the deep snow. On the other side of the cabin heavy spruce, balsam and birch timber sheltered partridges and an occasional deer. When we needed meat and no venison was on hand brother Arthur on a sunny day would take the .44 Winchester and walk slowly along a tote road through the tamarack swamp. Catching unwary rabbits off guard as they dozed on snow hummocks in the bright sunshine he would surprise them by shooting their heads off. Returning with all the rabbits he cared to lug he would dress them, give Mother one to cook for our next meal and pack the others in a box full of snow to put away in a corner of the log barn for future use.
With the first warm days of Spring we moved our few belongings into a new but very rough log cabin Father and Arthur had built two miles further east on wild land recently purchased from the St Paul and Duluth Railway for five dollars per acre.
In the new cabin our tutelage continued under Mother and Grace until a year later when Grace left home to teach in a district near Barnum. This left Mother to continue teaching us as best she could along with the burden of keeping house and caring for her family in somewhat primitive conditions. I don’t remember that father took any hand in our schooling other than an occasional encouraging remark or inquiry about our progress. Anyway I sensed some of its importance and in spite of much squirming, biting my pencil, and lamenting over the difficulties encountered I really did work at it and felt a degree of satisfaction as I passed from addition to subtraction, the multiplication table, division and so on. Numbers were difficult for me. Spelling was easier  and in  time I became a fair speller. Geography I loved as it gave me opportunity to study maps and to day dream about parts of the world I would visit when I became a man with plenty of money and unlimited time.
Cost of writing paper being all of five cents for one large rough tablet we often used sheets of wrapping paper cut to suitable size. Slates were useful too. You could write on them with a slate pencil, then with a wet sponge, or, lacking that a little spit rubbed on with fingers or elbow would erase everything and prepare a clear space for more writing or ciphering.  Sometimes the slate pencil would develop a little grain of grit on the point which caused spine chilling schreeches as it slid over the slate surface. We would grind out the offending grain on some rough hard surface which restored the pencil to more quiet operation, save for its tapping on the slate as we wrote or did our numbers. Most every Christmas we could expect some relative to give us a few slate pencils and some of the cheapest lead pencils. These lasted us through the year.
Early in September 1897 Grace went to teach school in the Polish community of Split Rock eleven miles west of Moose Lake. A Polish family by the name of Kwapack had built a small frame addition onto one end of their log cabin. In this the teacher lived and boarded herself.
When Grace took the position she arranged for Andrew to go with her and attend her school. He stayed with her through the winter until school closed in the spring. The following year I went with Grace and attended school until Christmas then Clara went from New Years until spring.
When Grace and I went out to Split Rock just before school commenced, George Watson who later became her husband, drove us out from Moose Lake in a two horse livery rig. The horses were good steppers and the buggy was large enough to carry our personal belongings with us. We three sat in the front seat with the baggage piled behind. The horses were trotting along the dusty gravel road when we came to a log bridge spanning a small stream about a mile from the Kwapack house. As the horses trotted onto the bridge we heard a loud crash as the supporting logs broke in the middle and the bridge collapsed under us. Mr. Watson hollered “Whoa!” as he was pitched out headlong over the dash board landing in a heap against the horses hooves. Instantly the horses stopped, their front feet up high, their hind feet low and the buggy with its front wheels
low and hind wheels high. The break in the bridge was directly under the whiffletrees. Mr. Watson fearing the horses would kick his brains out in the position in which he lay had presence of mind enough to talk to them quietly while he painfully extricated himself, untangled the reins and stepped out onto firm ground groaning in misery because of a bruised knee. Taking the horses by their bits he slowly led them up the incline of the collapsed bridge the buggy with Grace and I still in it following onto firm road ahead.
I missed Father and Mother and the home surroundings sorely. This was my first experience away from home. How I wished I could have my dog Carlo near me to pet or to go hunting partridges and rabbits with. I still have one of Mother’s letters to me in which she told how the first few days after I left Carlo wandered about the place, looking here and there, watching the road, and occasionally whining disconsolately. However my time and attention was soon taken up with the new surroundings and experiences, and evidently in time Carlo also became reconciled.
Mrs. Kwapack had three or four small children whom she frequently whipped severely for small childish sins. Aside from her severity with her children she was a good neighbor, occasionally rapping on our door when she wished to come in, sit awhile and talk to “Miss Paul.”

From our place a road ran across an open field into a maple and birch forest, down across the Split Rock River and up the opposite slope to the school house set back among the trees a little way from the main road. Heat for the school was furnished by a large cast iron heater burning big chunks of birch and maple wood a good supply of which the School Board kept piled close behind the building.
Most of the school children spoke broken English. On the playground their conversation was mostly in Polish which of course left me in the dark as to what they were talking about. I did soon learn some Polish words for “teacher’s brother” so knew when they were talking about me. Grace was careful not to show me any partiality on account of our relationship. She would correct me as sharply as any of the other children and on cold winter days she saw to it that I did not shirk my part when the kids had to bring in the days supply of wood from the pile behind the building.
There was no social and very little other kind of entertainment outside of school hours. Sometimes I amused myself by wandering off into the woods, sliding on the river ice or helping Grace with household duties. Sometimes I went to spend a little time with Joe Burlik or with Ignace Skruilock, schoolmates of mine, but most of the Polish children had farm work to do at home with little time left for play. Part of the long winter evenings were spent with my lessons for the next day. On Sundays, there being no Protestant church closer than Moose Lake, Grace and I would read the International Sunday School Lesson together and discuss it a little in sort of a Sunday School formality. For special Sunday treats we had a supply of Brazil nuts, or nigger toes as we called them. These were carefully counted, divided by the number of Sundays until Christmas and that number we cracked and ate each Sunday.
After Christmas Clara went to the Split Rock School to take her turn until spring. The following summer Grace and Mr. Watson were married so for a time that ended our formal schooling.
Two miles east of us in our community which had come to be known as Deer Park, lived the Dye family.  Mr. and Mrs. their boy William about my age and his half brother Clyde a few years younger. Mrs. Dye’s maiden sister lived with them as did also her mother Mrs. Munger, an elderly retired school teacher and a graduate of the Winona Normal School.
In the summer of 1900 Mrs. Munger sent out word to the parents of Deer Park that she would undertake teaching their children that fall and winter in her home providing each child would bring his or her own books, some kind of a seat, and of course any paper or pencils they might need. I hope we children appreciated what Mrs. Munger proposed doing for us as we did in later years when with more maturity we looked back to that time. I don’t think she ever suggested payment of any kind for teaching us, at least I never heard our parents mention it. Of course in our circumstances any payment would have to be very meager. The same thing was true with the other families.  
On the morning of the opening day five or six children gathered at the Dye home besides William and Clyde. There was Clara and I, the three Lind girls and possibly one or two more whom I have since forgotten.  Mrs. Munger proved to be a very capable and likeable teacher. First, she examined each of our books no two of which were alike, and inquired how far we had studied in them. She assigned lessons for each pupil, admonished us to study the pictures accompanying the lessons and to think about them. She would then leave us in the bed room school room for a time while she busied herself with household duties. After awhile she would quietly return and ask one of us to stand up and tell her what we had learned, or do some of the arithmetic problems on our slate or rough writing paper. She would prompt us with questions as we went along, or, when applicable relate some little event out of her past to illustrate what she was trying to teach us. About 1030AM and again at 230PM she would send us out of doors for fifteen minutes of exercise and fresh air which we sorely needed after being cooped up in that small room. At noon we had an hour to eat our lunch either inside or, if weather permitted, outside under the nearby balsams. This makeshift school lasted through the winter and spring.
The spring and summer of 1901 a one room school building was erected a mile east of us on the main road running north from Woodbury’s place to Cain’s Corner. With the opening of this school that fall we of course had a regularly employed teacher, standard modern books, a large case of roll up charts and maps hanging from the wall, a globe, blackboards and a huge dictionary perched on a tall wobbly metal stand. Heat was furnished by a large wood burning heater in the back of the school room surrounded by a sheet of galvanized iron supported a foot from the floor the function of which was to help circulate heat on a cold day. Between the stove and this sheet of galvanized iron there was just room for a person to squeeze in and get the first heat of a slow starting fire before the rest of the room was warmed up.
There was unlimited play room around the building, room for baseball, tag, anty over, and fox and geese. The nearby forest afforded opportunity for Indian fighting, bear hunting and other Daniel Boone exploits. There was no well so we had to carry drinking water from Woodbury’s well a half mile away. On cold winter. days we ate our lunches in the hallway or huddled around the heater. Severe cold or deep and drifted snow did not deter us from plenty of outdoor exercise during the noon hour or at recess time. When the bell rang there would be a great scurrying into the hall to take off our snow laden overshoes, mitts and caps. Our wet garments were draped over the sheet iron encircling the stove, our overshoes placed under, then with much puffing and giggling we would slide into our seats keeping a wary eye on the teacher who was watching the commotion and patiently waiting for it to subside.
With the first warm days of spring what zest we ever had for education slowly oozed out of us as we often sat idling away a few minutes, gazing out the windows at screaming bluejays and whispering chickadees flitting about in the nearby balsams and spruces. Chattering red squirrels running up and down the tree trunks and leaping across from one tree top to another were noted with languid interest. As spring crept in and the winter snow disappeared frogs began singing in every swamp puddle. Most any day now we could hear the distant muffled drumming of partridges. In fact the whole creation now seemed to be coming into a new and stirring life while we kids were like galley slaves still chained to our desks, compelled to continue our tedious progress over the seas of more learning.
We liked our teachers, perhaps a little too well. Some of them were not much older than we and were always ready to join in any of our fun. The first one was Jeannette Hall. She started the school off from the very first day. She had good discipline and knew when to be firm but she could also get out and play with us, go on picnic excursions and be as much of a kid as any. Unbenownst to us kids the time came when she carried a clinical thermometer in her lunch bucket and each day took her temperature wondering what made it climb slowly higher and higher. Dr. Inez Legg who had an office in Barnum was finally consulted and found Jeanette had typhoid fever. We were dumfounded and could hardly believe the news. We talked about her in subdued whispers. Would she die? Would she recover? Would we ever have her for a teacher again? The substitute teacher was all right but still we could not get the face of Jeannette out of the school room entirely. After long weeks Dr. Legg announced that she was out of danger and would recover. How happy we were now. It seemed as though the only way we could express our feelings was to whoop it up a little louder on the playground, and perhaps work a little harder on our lessons.
Our next teacher was Alberta Pineo who also came to be much beloved of us kids. She also played with us and taught us much that cannot be found between book covers. When some of us older boys indulged in coarse  or unfair play her gentle, steady gaze was a more effective rebuke than words.

Then came a Miss Poupores for a brief period. She had a boy friend and because of her devotion to him lost her job. Her term was filled out by Mrs. Woodbury the saw mill owners wife. She had once been a school teacher and was very popular with us because of the welcome we always found in her immaculate home.
Arthur Simpson taught us two years. He was older than the others and had very poor discipline but we did get a great deal of good from his instruction. He was deeply religious and read to us from the Scriptures each morning.
Friday afternoons were the high spots of the week. It was then after lunch that books and lessons were forgotten, Our teacher would devise some kind of diversion, a spell down, a guessing game, problems in mental arithmetic or a talk on some subject not found in our books. Arthur Simpson especially gave us talks on  
astronomy, geology, exploration, foreign lands, or scientific experiments and discoveries. These talks were interesting for the older pupils but younger ones with a bad case of the wiggles were often excused and sent home. For awhile we even published a quarterly school paper called the Pine Knot, hand written on large sheets of fools-cap and illustrated with pen sketches by the most artistically gifted pupil. One of these issues I still have in my possession.
My schoolmates were a varied lot both in age and personalities They ranged from the second to the eighth grade. During much of the school session some one would be on the long bench up front reciting. Little jealousies and rivalries developed and were soon forgotten. Puppy love budded, blossomed and faded on the stem. In games and at school parties some of the older boys and girls often showed an attraction for each other which called forth derisive remarks from the younger ones who might themselves be secretly trying to conceal similar budding feelings toward their favorites.
Christmas programs given the last day of school before the Christmas vacation were looked forward to with mounting enthusiasm. We older boys went into the woods to cut a well shaped spruce or balsam tree six or seven feet tall. This we dragged to the school yard where we sawed the butt off square, nailed a short piece of wide board to it then set the tree up beside the teacher’s desk. Necessary guy wires from the tree to hooks high up on a window frame or on top of a blackboard prevented an unlucky upset. As was customary in those days the tree was lit by small wax candles of various colors set in small tin holders with clamps which held them firmly on the branches. Luckily these candles when lit never set our tree afire owing to the care exercised in placing them to see that the flame did not ignite some branch directly above it. The girls made strings of popcorn, chains of brightly colored paper, and with store bought spangles, glass balls and other glittering decorations borrowed from our various homes the tree became a thing of beauty adding much to our program of Christmas songs and spoken pieces.
I was given the job of janitor in this school. My duty it was to stay after school to sweep the floor and rearrange any misplaced books, paper or furniture. I arrived early in the morning to start the wood fire in plenty of time for the room to warm up before the teacher and first pupils arrived. I dusted the furniture and saw to it that the blackboards were clean and ready for the days work. The first of every month was pay day and brought me a school warrant for two dollars. This with what little trapping money I made through the winter kept me in  spending money, some of it spent for necessities such as sox, mittens, a cap, 22 shorts or school writing material.
In our home and in all the other homes in Deer Park there was a dearth of books or magazines suitable for growing children. Father had an oak book case handed down from his father which was filled with books. There were also four or five open shelves nailed to our log walls all of which were full of books but very few of interest to children. There were two leather bound volumes of Wesley’s Sermons, a leather bound volume of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs with many grisly wood cuts depicting various ways in which the martyrs died. There was Milton’s Paradise Lost, Young’s Night Thoughts Emerson Watt’s Improvement of the Mind, a set of six ponderous volumes of Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible, and a History of the Jews by Josephus. At Christmas   time we usually received a few children’s books from distant relatives which we read and re-read until they commenced to fall apart. When we came from New York State we brought two large home bound volumes of Youth’s Companions which were handled so much that they broke in the middle. Some of the half leaves were lost making it difficult to read an entire story but by guessing at what was lost in the missing half sheet we still enjoyed the stories. Finally after a few years we subscribed to the Youth’s Companion which I believe came weekly and was always awaited with much impatience.
In time some one in Deer Park heard about the Minnesota Traveling Library Service which could be had free on written request of a certain number of adult residents. On person was to be responsible for the books and to collect funds to cover carrying charges both ways. The proper application was made by the required number of people and Mrs. Young, whose cabin was centrally located was named librarian.
In due time the first consignment of books arrived packed in a sturdy book case holding perhaps forty or fifty volumes. Mrs. Young set the case on a bureau in their cabin and passed word to callers, and to folks she met at religious services held around the neighborhood each Sunday, that the library had arrived and was now in business. The books were mostly for grown-ups, but we children did find many gems fitting our ages; Alice in Wonderland, Jo’s Boys, Little Women, Little Men, Treasure Island, Robin Hood, Robinson Crusoe, and books of fairy tales fired our imaginations and introduced us to a life long enjoyment of good literature. After a few weeks when the first case full seemed to have served its purpose, it was returned and another one came in its place.
My formal education ended with the eighth grade. My parents were too poor to send any of their children away for further education, they did however instill in us an insatiable curiosity to find out just what lay beyond our immediate horizon. Grubbing stumps, raising potatoes and rutabagas, keeping a few scrub cows, and in the winter time cutting a little pulpwood or making a few ties, did not appeal to me at all. Soon after my final day at school I found a job, said good bye to Father and Mother, patted my aging Carlo on his glossy head and stepped out to see what lay beyond the distant horizon.

Copyright © 2001 Kenneth E. Paul and Frances W. Prussner


  1. You are blessed to have his writings!

  2. Oh, how I love these stories! We were poor when I was little (but didn't know it) and was lucky both my parents loved to read and passed that love of books down to me. I could read before I started kindergarten.

  3. Chickenmom...I know what you mean. We were poor, too, but I never realized it until I was grown. I didn't learn to read until I was in school, but one of my daughters was reading on a third grade level when she entered kindergarten. My Dad had an eighth grade education, but loved to read. He was one of the smartest men I ever knew in that he could figure out most anything even without much of a schooled education. He passed his love of books on to me and I am grateful. My idea of a good day is one spent curled up with a good book and a cup of coffee. :) I am so glad you enjoy the stories as much as I do. I may post a couple more later on, just for the fun of it.