“We didn’t have to walk any further than two miles to school. We didn’t have buses at that time. Most of my school days I drove a horse to school. We had a barn in town we rented, and we’d put the horse there throughout the day. After school you’d pick the horse up and come home.”
— Alton Wolf, quoted in “Cracked Corn and Snow Ice Cream” by Nancy Willard
My paternal grandfather and his brother Sam told some great stories about the ‘kid wagon’ that came through the old country neighborhood to carry the children to the one-room schoolhouse.
The horse-drawn wagon was a great idea that someone came up with after years of everyone walking the long distances to and from school.
“I remember that we were thrilled to have our long walk cut in half by meeting up with the kid wagon where it came through. We would hoist our little sisters up and then jump on ourselves. The horse and driver never had to come to a stop,” Uncle Sam recalled.
The younger students would chatter and sing all the way to school, delighting in the experience, Sam said with a smile, adding, “The older I got, the less fun I saw in going to school.”
The older boys would help get the wood stove going for the teacher, while one of the younger boys would carry water in from the nearby well.
Often, the one-room schoolhouses did double or even triple duty, serving as a church on Sundays as well as a community club meeting place for other events.
The nearby land often served as a cemetery for the community. The men of the community gathered to dig graves when needed, while the women began preparing food for a funeral dinner. My maternal grandmother recalled her sisters and friends carrying picnic basket lunches to the cemeteries in the community, long before rural neighborhoods had parks or recreational areas.
She told us that the cemeteries were the most beautiful places that existed in the days of her childhood, and she and her sisters and friends would examine the newly-placed monuments as amazing pieces of art, sculptured and chiseled by hand in that day by fine artists.
School, in our grandparents’ day, was much more than just a place to learn reading, writing and arithmetic. Teachers knew that when they signed on to teach, they would become a figurehead of an entire community.
My paternal grandmother “lived in” when she took on her first teaching job in 1930, meaning she was welcomed in to the home of a family living near the one-room school for the duration of school year.
Though she was homesick for her own mother and father, it proved to be a wonderful way to become a part of a new community. She was welcomed in to the home of each of her students, as evidenced by the scrapbook she kept, black and white photographs of smiling children in their home setting, another taken at school.
Daily life involved hard work, though no one complained about it. Men joined together to accomplish the most labor-intense jobs on the farm. Connections ran deeper, and neighbors and classmates were as close as family. School, church and community club was an amazing tie, bonding a kinship lost in today’s enormity.
We have, in many ways, made life simpler, and yet much more complicated. Ironic, isn’t it?