Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The School in the Hills

Living in Southeastern Kentucky during the 1950’s and ‘60’s has given me a lot of first-hand, daily life experience to draw from when I’m writing my western historicals. It wasn’t until the late 1960’s and early ‘70’s that real progress began to filter into the Appalachian Mountains and, until then, many things remained pretty much the same as they were back in the 1800’s. Since a couple of people have expressed an interest, over the next several weeks I will attempt to share some of my experiences with you. Even though not directly connected to the Old West, I hope you might find it useful in some way.

The first school I attended was called Bennett’s Branch. It stood atop a high ridge that was known locally (although you'd never find it on any map) as the Tollie Hill. It was called that because Tollie Sasser, the teacher at Bennett's Branch, and his family lived in the only house midway up the hill. Coming from my grandmother's farm, in the opposite direction, the walk to school was only about a quarter of a mile, if we took the shortcut through the woods.

To give you some background, here’s a picture taken circa 1943 or '44, when my mom and dad were students. I’ve drawn arrows to them. Mom is the little blonde holding onto her best friend and dad is the cute fella with the dark hair. This old photo is one of my treasures, but there were a lot of people not in the shot, including my aunts and uncles. It’s a shame, too, because—as far as I know—this was the only class picture that was ever taken at Bennett’s Branch.

Click on photos to enlarge.

At the time of this photo, the school was actually two separate buildings. Tollie Sasser (that’s him standing on the far left) taught the upper grades (5-8) in the stone building you see here, and the lady standing on the extreme right taught the lower grades (1-4) in a separate one-room log building. The log building, which was built in 1935, was the original school.

Our desks looked like this.
By the time I started school, the log building was long gone and so was the lady teacher. The stone building was all that remained and Mr. Sasser was the only teacher with all eight grades lumped together in one room. The students in each grade were separated by rows of desks. Depending on the number of people in each grade, there might be two grades in a single row. The year we started, my cousin and I were the only students in 1st grade. Being the youngest and smallest, the older girls quickly took us under their wings. We were allowed to sit anywhere we wanted while the others were given their lessons. Most of the time, we shared a desk with the older girls, who drew paper dolls and made drinking cups out of notebook paper for us. When it was time for our lessons, we sat right up in front of Mr. Sasser’s desk, all eyes and ears and eager to be the smartest. We were quick learners. I think it was because we had the advantage of hearing the other students' lessons throughout the day. By the time we moved up to the next grade level, we already knew the material.

Like all the buildings and households in the area, the school had no indoor plumbing or running water. Thinking about it now, I'm not even sure if it had electricity back then. A lot of light came through those big, tall windows in the southern exposure. (note to self- ask mom) But back to the water...when you walked in the door, the first thing you encountered, standing in the left hand corner, was a small wooden table holding a water bucket. There was also a wash pan. When someone used the wash pan, they were expected to carry it outside and dump the water when they were finished. Mr. Sasser drew the first bucket of water from the well every day. After that, it was up to the older boys to keep the bucket replenished. A communal dipper hung from a nail above the bucket, but most of us used the aforementioned paper cups made from notebook paper when we wanted a drink. Even back then, we must have had some vague notion about cooties. :)

At dinnertime (we’d never heard the word lunch; the noon meal was dinner and the evening meal was supper), we all rushed to the cloakroom, grabbed our pails and ran outside. The cloakroom was a long, wide closet equipped with hooks for coats and shelves for storage. It ran along the front of the building and was situated immediately to the right when you entered the door. Outside, we sat on the ground and ate our dinner. It was like having a picnic every day. After that, we played (usually marbles, kickball, jump rope, or bob jacks) until Mr. Sasser told us it was time to go in again. If the weather was bad, we ate at our desks and used playtime for spelling or adding contests
One day each week, the older girls used the extra time between lessons to give the toilet (also known as an outhouse, but we never called it that back then) a scrubbing down with the soap, brushes and buckets that were stored in the cloakroom. As I write this, I'm reminded of something in particular about that outhouse. Whenever one us girls had to "go," we always took another girl with us to stand guard outside the door. In case any of the boys ventured too close, the girl on guard could sound the alarm or warn the boy away. The problem was, the old toilet was built of rough lumber, which had warped from the weather, leaving gaps between the boards, and we girls were afraid the boys might see us sitting on the throne if they wandered too close. The latch on the door wasn’t all that great either, just a small piece of wood with a nail driven through it that you turned to hold the door closed. A tug on the door handle would drop the latch to the floor. Looking on the bright side, at least no one could lock themselves in. ;)

During the winter, Mr. Sasser arrived at school extra early every morning and built a fire in the big potbelly stove so the room would be warm when we got there. During those cold months, the boys took turns carrying in buckets of coal and keeping the fire fed. At dinnertime, we all sat around the stove while we ate. If we were lucky enough to have a moon pie (huge treat back in the day) in our lunch pail, we held it up to the heat and melted the icing so we could lick it off. I'm telling you, you haven’t lived until you’ve scorched your tongue on a hot moon pie. ;)

Mr. Sasser was a firm believer in daily exercise. If the weather was too cold or nasty to go outside, sometimes he’d go out and cut a long switch from a tree and we’d all line up inside the schoolhouse and take turns jumping over it. After each round, the switch was lifted a little higher. If you tripped, you were out of the game. When it was our turn, he always lowered the branch for my cousin and me because we were the smallest. Since we were given special treatment, we were usually declared the winners as well. Can you imagine kids these days being entertained by something like that. Sometimes, like when my electronics are giving me fits, I miss those simpler times.

Many of the students of Bennett’s Branch--mostly those of my parents' generation--migrated north when they reached adulthood because that's where the jobs were. In those days, working the family farm was pretty much the only option if you stayed here. Before I started the fourth grade, my dad moved us to Ohio so he could earn a living as a welder. As you can imagine, this little country girl had to make quite an adjustment when we moved to the city, but I hardly missed a beat when I started school in a new place. Mr. Sasser had taught me the basics very well. Granted, there were no art classes at Bennett's Branch, no music, and no library. If I had continued there, would I have become an avid reader, or learned to play the piano and paint? Would I have pursued writing and publishing? There's no way of knowing, of course, but these questions have crossed my mind a time or two. 

Before I go, I want to share another picture. This one was taken seventeen years ago. This is a view of the front of the school, and that’s me standing in the doorway. As you can see, the place is overgrown, the windows are all gone and the roof has collapsed. I wanted a picture of the old girl before she fell down completely, so hubby and I got in the car and drove over one day. The school is only about ten miles from our house. If you look closely, you can see the remnants of the tongue and groove walls behind me. That area at the front of the building where the windows are was the cloakroom. The stone step I’m standing on is where I sat and cried and refused to budge on my first day of school because I was terrified of going inside. (I thought it was like jail because it was built of stone, very similar to the jailhouse in town, but without the bars on the windows.:)

Since this picture was taken, the current owner of the property gutted the building and rebuilt it. I wish I could say it was restored, but it wasn’t. The cloakroom was not rebuilt, a new roof went on and the walls inside were covered with modern paneling. The room stands empty now, no desks, no stove, no water table. But once a year, the owner opens the building and many of the surviving former students gather there for a reunion. My mom and uncles go, but I can’t bring myself to go with them. Call me strange or overly sentimental but I’d rather remember the old school as it was when class was still in session.

Happy reading and writing! If you have questions, please don't hesitate to ask.


Jacquie Rogers said...

What an enriching experience! You obviously received a very good educational foundation there. I attended the largest school in our county--we had two classes of 30 kids each in the 1st grade. Even so, we had more contact with the older kids than my grandsons do. Oh, and there was no such thing as a teacher's aid, either.

Thanks for sharing, Devon. What's next? I'm impatient now. :)

Cheri said...

Devon, I enjoyed reading this wonderfully written and fascinating look back on your school days. I can certainly understand your sentimental feelings of such a nostalgic time in your childhood.

Ginger Simpson said...

What a wonderfully written accounting of your memories. Although I went to a much more traditional school, you brought back some fond memories for me and also created visions of you in your youth. Awesome. I look forward to learning more about your childhood.

Paty Jager said...

What a wonderful rural life you had! It does help to have lived this way when writing westerns.

Devon Matthews said...

Thanks, Jacquie. I'm still debating what to post next, but it might have something to do with a mule, a cane mill, and a big neighborhood get-together. :)

Devon Matthews said...

Thank you for reading it, Cheri! I'm so glad you enjoyed it. I do get sentimental when I think about those times.

Devon Matthews said...

Thanks, Ginger. I was afraid the narrative "telling" of it would be boring because it ran so long with just the basics. I'm glad it painted a picture for you. :)

Devon Matthews said...

Yes, it does, Paty. I treasure the memories of my childhood. I recently read somewhere that you also had an outhouse and a woodburning cookstove in your early years. No wonder we are hooked on the old west lifestyle. ;)

Peggy Henderson said...

what a great way to grow up. I often think and feel sad how my kids are growing up in a big city, with no experiences of rural life. I grew up in a small farming town in Germany, and I miss that a lot. My kids are such city slickers, it really depresses me.

Kathleen said...

No wonder your settings in your novel are so vivid! You've got a remarkable eye for detail. This post was thoroughly fascinating and charming, Devon. :-)

Devon Matthews said...

Peggy, my son has lived all his 23 years here where I was born and spent my childhood but his experiences have been totally different. The old ways are completely gone and it's sad. Thanks for coming over and commenting. :)

Devon Matthews said...

Oh, good! Thank you, Kathleen. I was so afraid it would be boring. Thank you for coming by and reading! :)

Shirl said...

Devon, I grew up in the country in the Bershires of Mass. I went to a two room brick school house with each row of desk a different grade. Grades one through four in one room a long hallway then grades 5-8 in the next room. I loved that school house and love the great memories your brought up. Photo of it on my Pinerest page.

Alison E. Bruce said...

Your description conjures up stories my mother shared of her school days. In her case, she did the reverse. She was born and started school in London. I imagine it was very similar in structure to the school I went to that was built at the turn of the 20th century.

Then she was evacuated to a village (WWII) and finished her schooling in a schoolhouse wasn't much bigger than the one you attended, Devon. I think it was split into junior and senior grades. In any case, on cold days, the older girls would gather around the coal stove and share a cigarette while left to eat their dinner. Then they'd toss the evidence into the stove, thinking no one would be the wiser.

Devon Matthews said...

Hi Shirl! Im so glad my post brought back good memories for you. :) My cousin went to a two-room school when they moved to a different part of the county. It was just like you described, minus the hallway running between the rooms. In this case, there was only a wall with a doorway separating the rooms. Thank you so much for stopping by!

Devon Matthews said...

What a great story about your mother, Alison! I can just picture them huddled together, sneaking a smoke. :) Wow. I can only imagine she had a wealth of experiences from that time in our history. Thank you so much for stopping in and sharing with me!

Kathy Otten said...

Hi Devon,
Loved your post! Sounds similar to my own school experience. In my home town the original one room school house is still standing, complete with a boy/girl outhouse, though I did not attend school there. The school I attended was farther down the road and had three rooms. First and second grade, third and fourth, and fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth. For nineth and up we attended the district high school which encompassed eight towns. But our school had sixty-three kids, my brothers and I three of them. Like you, lunch was called dinner and we carried dinner pails to school. Nobody called them lunch boxes. The principal, who taught the most grades began teaching when she was sixteen in the stone, one-room school house the next town over. She was very strict and she used to grab kids from behind, just to the side of their neck and "shake them out" as we all called it. We had old-fashioned desks similar to yours. Ours had a drawer under the seat for books. Then once you got into the bigger grades like seventh and eight we got the desks that had the lift up tops and swivel seats. All the desks had holes for ink wells. There was a piano in the back of the room and if our teacher was in a good mood we would stand around the piano and sing. She taught us some really old, old songs, like Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight and Old Black Joe. If the boys started fooling around, she'd slam the cover over the keys and give us all a spelling test. Every morning we had the Pledge of Allegiance and prayer. Like you we all ate our lunch outside and we made up our own games for recess.
Your post brought back so many memories, I could easily go on. Thanks so much for sharing yours. They were wonderful.

Meg said...

My husband's aunt first taught in a one-room schoolhouse in eastern Kentucky, and her stories are similar to yours! What an eye-opening experience that must have been. Thanks for sharing, Devon. :-)

Devon Matthews said...

Hi Kathy! I looked at your profile to try and find out which part of the country you live in. LOL! Loved your comment! You mentioned the principal who began teaching when she was sixteen, not gonna see that nowadays. On a similar note, there was one little girl who began school at Bennett's Branch when she was three years old. Her mom had died and there was no one at the house during working hours to look after her, so they sent her to school. Not gonna see that nowadays either. Back in my mom's day, for someone to go on to high school, which was located out on the highway, they had a walk of several miles each way. Only the most determined went past eighth grade. My mom had one older sister who continued past high school and went all the way into town every day and got her teaching credentials at the local small college. She ended up moving to Pennsylvania and eventually retiring from the phone company. Go figure. If I had stayed here and gone on to high school, there was bus service by that time. Thank you so much for telling me about your school experiences! I loved it! And I'm happy my post brought back all those memories for you. :)

Devon Matthews said...

For anyone unfamiliar with this part of the country, I imagine it would have been an eye-opener. Thanks for stopping by, Meg! :)

Ellen O’Connell said...

Thanks so much for this post, Devon. My mother was Canadian. Her "nuclear" family came to the U.S. at the beginning of the Depression, but we visited Canadian relatives for several weeks every year. The first visits I remember include an outhouse, a pail of water in the entryway with a dipper, water that had to be pumped, and a huge woodburning stove downstairs. The stove pipe from it seemed to run all over the house and I imagine provided the only heat, although we never visited in winter until after there was central heating and indoor plumbing.

Years later my cousin who went with us said something that made me realize he looked down his nose at those poor Canadian relatives - I always envied them for living on a farm. Maybe those preferences are born in us.

My mother's mother was a teacher before marriage in a one-room all-ages school. She never told stories about the physical environment, just what it was like teaching and how her credentials came from graduating from "normal school." I wish now I'd listened harder.

Lyn Horner said...

Devon, what a wonderful post! I thoruoghly enjoyed reading about your memories of the one room school house. I grew up in a city -- Minneapolis -- but the first school I went to was really old. I remember a cloakroom much like the one you describe, and our desks were the old fashioned kind like the picture above. After I finished fourth grade, my folks moved us to a newer part of town, where the school was also much newer. There I had one of those desks with the lift-up top. Boy, I thought that was hot stuff!

By the way, I love both pics of the school. You're a hottie in the second one! ;)

Deirdre ODare said...

Wow this is so neat! I was in Arizona in the 1950s but I attended one and two room schools from 2nd thru 7th grade and 5 of those years was taught by my own father. I was the only girl in 2nd and 3rd grade and we had all eight grades in one room. It was an amazing experience and will be in my memoirs if I ever get around to wrting them LOL. Thank you for sharing! I don't have them scanned in but do have a picture or two of the schools somewhere.

Devon Matthews said...

Ellen, thank you so much for your comment. In later posts I hope to talk about what it was like living on my grandmother's farm. For the adults, it was very hard, neverending work.

About your cousin, I've been on the receiving end of people looking down their noses and making snide remarks more times than I care to remember, so I know exactly what you're talking about. Being considered poor never bothered me. What bothered me was being considered less intelligent.

You said you wished you'd listened harder. When I was a kid, I asked questions. I wanted to know everything. I couldn't understand why everyone around me wouldn't want to know everything. LOL! Years later, it's paid off. I know more than any surviving member of my family about the family history. A small for instance- when my grandmother passed away, most of her own children didn't even know that her given name was Lucinda Susan. I was horrified. I'd known it since I was six years old.

Thanks for coming by. :)

Devon Matthews said...

Thanks, Lyn. Old buildings are magical, aren't they? I love the smell and textures, but then I'm weird that way. Thanks for giving me a chuckle with that "hottie" comment. LOL! Thanks, sweetie! :)

Devon Matthews said...

Hi Deirdre! I hope you get around to writing those memoirs. I would love to see your pictures of your school. BTW, I LOVE Arizona. It's the most visually breathtaking state I've ever seen. Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. It's very nice to meet you! :)

Caroline Clemmons said...

Devon, this was an interesting post. Can you imagine teaching eight grades at once. Yikes! I wonder if there are still one room schools in existence in the US?

Devon Matthews said...

Caroline, when I saw your question, I went looking but didn't find any reliable numbers to quote. Over on the Facebook Western Book Club, Kirsten Arnold said she applied to teach at a one-room school in Montana a few years ago. And according to what I saw on the internet, they are still out there, mostly in remote areas in the western states. Thanks for stopping by! :)

Teresa Reasor said...

Your blog has brought back some memories. I've loved every word. Thank you so much for sharing.
My great grandmother taught in a one room school house in a coal mining camp at Verda, Kentucky. I was unlucky enough to miss out on that experience. I think your education may have made you more independent and ready for the world than today's youth. Just my opinion.
At Ma'am and Dad's house, we had a bucket of water on a table in the kitchen with a dipper in it to drink from. Her children went in together and installed running water in her house when I was ten.
And she and Dad, my great grand dad, never had an indoor toilet. We used the outhouse and scrubbed it down just as you described. Dad would drop a cup of lime down it each day.
And the fastener inside the outhouse was just as you described, a piece of wood with a nail driven through it.
We pumped water. Brought in coal, and walked the railroad tracks to collect the coal that fell off the cars as they passed through. And we bathed in a wash bowl with water she heated on a huge cast iron stove.
And I can still remember her making home made lye soap out in the yard over an open fire because the fumes were so bad.
And canning vegetables on that cast iron stove in the summer time –it was 100 degrees in the kitchen when we were canning.
So many memories, most of the good.
Thanks for the trip down memory lane.
Teresa R.