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Articles & Local History > Country School Days 1905-1915

By Lillie M. JohnsonSubmitted by Bob Johnson

By: Lillie M. Johnson

My day in the rural public school - District #46, Fairfield Twp., Bureau County, Illinois. On the first Monday in September, at the age of 6, I carried a small round tin dinner pail and walked the mile down the dusty road to the schoolhouse. School was called to order by the teacher, ringing a hand bell. The morning session opened with group singing and repeating the Lord’s prayer in unison. There was no school work to do at home. Most parents let their children help with chores. There were wood boxes to be filled, eggs to gather, and the reservoir of the cook stove seemed always to be empty, and the water pail to be filled with water from the outdoor pump. We often drove the cows from the pasture to the barn at milking time. Our one-room schoolhouse with neither basement nor all was near a crossroad. (If the schoolhouses were planned as intended there were nine in every township). The building was heated by a coal burnng stove. On cold nights the ink in the desk ink wells froze if we didn’t wrap paper around them. The double desks and seats were used by two pupils. The schoolyard was shaded by beautiful trees and enclosed with a board fence. The top boards were flat. During warm weather we sat on this fence to eat our lunch. There were planks to place thru the fence so we could teeter-totter. Our walks to and from school were not always pleasant. There were many quarrels, for we were developing socially as well as physically, mentally and spiritually. Sometimes a neighbor going our way with a horse and buggy or wagon gave us a ride. On cold or stormy days some parents took their children to school or came after them. When the roads were snow covered a bobsled or cutter ride was great fun. A brother and sister from a neighboring district drove a team of spotted ponies, named Topsy and Teddy hitched to a pony cart. How we envied them as they drove by! During freezing weather our fingers sometimes became numb with cold before we reached school or our homes. We soaked our fingers in cold water to take away the sting. A county ditch crossed our road. When a dredge cleaned this ditch, the bridge was removed and a workman took the ones that crossed the bridge across in a row boat. That was a pleasant experience, as many of us had not ridden in a boat. On our walks to and from school, in the spring we picked violets, wake robins, and dutchmen’s breeches for our teacher of our mother. In the fall, we picked hazel nuts, and wild grapes which grew along the road fences. This didn’t always please the farmer, but few objected as there was plenty for all. Along the road were two sand hills which we slid down when the weather was good. Certainly our parents did not give us permission to o this. Since the schoolhouse was near the road, we saw many of the neighbors with horse-drawm wagons filled with grain or stock, going to the nearest market; others with horses and buggies taking eggs and butter to nearby towns, to trade for clothig and food. Each day we looked forward to seeing the mail carrier pass by in his enclosed horse-drawn buggy. The mail carrier’s beautiful friendly wife took over the job of delivering the mail when her husband took a vacation. She always nodded and smiled at us and we lover her. At suppertime we told interesting stores about school and passersby.

The teacher was a busy person. In addition to teaching, she did the janitor work, kept the water pail filled from an outdoor pump near the school and supplied us with clean towels and other necessities. One fall a sink and indoor pitcher pump were installed to replace the outdoor pump. Occasionally we pupils would do an easy job, such as pounding the blackboard erasers. There were usually less than twenty pupils, ranging in age from 6 to 14 years. The teacher supervised us in games such as: Dare Base, Red Line, Come, Come, Pull Away, Hide and Seek and Happy as a Miller. On stormy days we played indoor games such as Fruit Basket Upset, Tic Tac Toe, and Bird, Beast or Fish. This last game amuses children who are taking a trip or recovering from illness. In playing “Bird, Beast or Fish,”the leaader points to a player and calls out one of the three classifications and coutns to ten. By then the one to whom the leader points is to name a specific bird, beast or fish or take his turn as “it.” In the winter when the ground was snow covered we played Fox and Geese, or built snow forts and held snow ball fights. Sometimes the older boys brought their homemade sleds and we went coasting down a nearby hill. We enjoyed looking up the definition of words at the dictionary stand Miss Rylander made to hold the large, new dictionary. Our school looked forward with pleasure to the annual visit of the county superintendent of schools, the late Geo. O. Smith, who by his kindly manner endeared himself to the pupils, teachers and parents of Bureau County. About once a year the teacher presented a program of recitations, songs, and dialogues to which the parents and friends were invited. I recall the following poem in a part I had in a play, because it amused the pupils so much.

 “Bill Jones went out one deep, dark night To court Susannah Cree, He fell over a great big log, And hurt the cap of his knee Now if Jones had stayed at home, And hadn’t sparked Miss Cree, Until the moon had got full again, He wouldn’t have hurt his knee, But that’s the way when a fellers courtin’ He’s sure to go out the deepest darkest night, No matter if he does hurt the cap of his knee.”

Sometimes the programs were followed by box socials. The older school girls and young ladies of the community brought well-filled, beautifully decorated lunch boxes. These boxes were auctioned off to the highest bidder who was entitled to eat with the lady who prepared it. Many a young man paid a good price for the privilege of eating with the teacher or a special friend. The proceeds from the sale of the boxes was used to buy school equipment, often library books. One term our school and a neighboring school at Thomas, Illinois held a debate on “Who is the greater, Lincoln or Washington”? To advertise the debate we made posters with the following slogan: “Come one, come all to the Thomas Hall And listen to the question That then will be solved On Lincoln and Washington The debating will be, Which is the greater We all then will see.” Our school took the part of Lincoln. We worked hard on research and came up with some convincing arguments. We learned that in 1860 Abraham Lincoln became the first Republican president. The Republican party was founded in 1854, primarily as an anti-slavery party.

I recall this quip from my speech, “Some men are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. Washington had a little of the latter.”

Somenone said, Lincoln was great not because he was born in a log cabin, but because he was able to get out of it. The greatness of the father of our country is well portrayed by this story. One day when George Washington and a friend were out riding, a slave doffed his hat at Washington. To his friends’ astonishment Washington also removed his hat and saluted the slave. His friend asked, “Are you in the habit of saluting your slaves”? Mr. Washington answered, “I allow no man to outdo me in courtesy.” The judges decided in favor of the debaters on the opposing side, however, everyone agreed that our team gave excellent speeches. To us it ranked as important as the historic debate between Lincoln and Douglas. Some mornings we responded to roll call by reciting maxims and poems. There was a large list from which to choose. One I remember was, “Duty,” by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

So nigh is grandeur to our dusk, So near is God to man, When Duty whispers low, “Thou Must,” The youth replies, “I can.”

Singing was difficult as there was no organ, piano or other musical accompaniment instrument to accompanied the singing. Occasionally our teacher whistled the accompaniment. Before a program we sometimes went across the road to the C.T Gudgell home and Mrs. Gudgell played the organ so we could practice singing. Some songs were patriotic, some sacred, others humorous, and many were sentimental. One I remember was this:

Mamma, when I go to heaven Will the angels let me play Or just because I am a cripple Will they say I’m in the way? Here the children never want me I’m a bother they all say. A humorous song was, “My Kitty, sung to the tune of “My Bonnie.” My kitty has gone from her basket My kitty has gone up a tree Bring back, bring back my kitty to me Oh, bring back my kitty to me. My kitty was one of the nicest, She had a white spot on her nose, She washes her face every morning She washes that spot I suppose. Chorus: Bring back, bring back Bring back my kitty to me; Bring back, bring back Oh bring back my kitty to me.

It was enjoyable to listen to the older pupils recite. I hurried with my work so that I could hear the eight graders recite their reading lesson. The stories of The Courtship of Miles Standish and “The Vision of Sir Launfal” were especially interesting.

This inspiring poem is from the latter, “The Holy Supper is kept indeed in what we share with another’s need, Not that which we give, but what we share, For the gift without the giver is bare; Who besstows himself with his aims feeds three, Himself, his hungering neighbor, and me.” I now appreciate that we were required to commit to memory many poems for they are a constant source of inspiration.

The most difficult of all the poems we memorized was: “Mercy,” by Shakespeare. The quality of mercy is not strained; It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath; it is twice blessed; Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes The throned monarch better than his crown; His sceptre shows the force of tempral power, The attribute to awe and majesty, Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings; But mercy is above this sceptred sway; It is enthroned in the hearts of kings; It is an attribute to God himself; And earthly power doth then show likest God’s When mercy seasons justice.

Friday afternoon was a special time, there was a spell down, drawing or something equally interesting. The pupils and teachers were pleased when, Reuben Johnson, one of the older boys in our school won a contest sponsored by Brown’s Business College of Sterling, and was awarded a set of Encyclopedia. A list of words, some of which were misspelled, was sent by the college to the grade schools in the surrounding communities. The books were awarded to the contestant who identified all the misspelled words.. Miss Rylander often taught the Sunday School lesson for the following Sunday. Everyone regarded the Bible as the greatest book of all. Victoria, Queen and Empress of England, from 1837-1901 was right when handling a Bible to the Ambassador of an Oriental empire, she said, “Tell your master, this book is the secret of England’s greatness.” One year, the C. T. Gudgell family who lived across the road from the school raised a crop of ground almonds. They were something new in our community. At harvest time they gave us all we could eat and some to take home in our diner pails. They also treated us to parched corn. If you have tasted ground almonds or parched corn you know they are a taste treat. One fall we visited their farm and saw molasses made by cutting, pressing and boiling sorghum cane. It was hot, hard work keeping the fire going. The bubbling juice, continually stirred and strained, moved slowly thru a series of baffles to the end of the cooking pan. After some eighty per cent of the cane juice had boiled away there was golden, syrupy, sorghum molasses. The kind so good on pancakes or homemade bread.

In the fall of 1913 when Miss Mildred Markee was teacher a school carnival was held. The farmers in the district exhibited their choicest ears of corn. The older pupils exhibited cakes and handiwork. Prizes were awarded for the best exhibits in each class.

Following completion of the eighth grade were the final examinations held at New Bedford, Illinois with all eighth graders in the township taking the tests. The final graduation exercises were held at the Center Chapel in Fairfield Township. All of the graduates wore a beautiful carnation. How I enjoyed the spicy fragrance of my first corsage flower. After the program of readings by the graduates and an address by a well known speaker, we received our diplomas. Our school closed several weeks before the graduation exercises, so our teacher who had returned to her home near Osceola, Illinois was unalbe to be present. Altho, I imagine most of the audience including the graduates, may have forgotten the name of the speaker, they may remember some of the things he said. He spoke of the folly of trying to keep up with the Joneses to the extent that we lose our individuality. To impress this fact on our mind he told of three men called, Ug, Bugger and Ugger who were always trying to outdo each other. When Ug died these words were carved on his monument. “Here Lies Ug as Snug As a Bug in A Rug” Neighbor Bugger asked that the inscription on his monument be, “Here Lies Bugger a Little Bit Snugger Than Bug.” Not to be outdone by his friends, Ugger ordered this inscription placed on his monument to be, “Here Lies Ugger a Little Bit Snugger than Bugger.” At the graduation exrcises, I recited the poem, “The Ladder of St. Augustine,” by Henry Wadworth Longfellow. Few are familiar with the twelve verses of this poem, but nearly everyone has heard the tenth verse which is entitled, “The Heights,” and is as follows: The Heights by great men reached and kept Were not attained by sudden flight, But they, while their companions slept, Were toiling upward in the night. This small elementary school made a great contribution to American education. I, and many others, should like to tell our teachers how we loved and respected them, and I should especially like to thank Mrs. Moodie who gave me a card upon which were written these words by Charles Kingsley: “Be good sweet maid, and let who will Be clever; Do noble things, not dream them, all Day long; And so make life, death, and that vast Forever One grand sweet song.” After I finished the eighth grade my parents thought I was too young to enter high school, so I attended grade school another year. This was the only year of school I didn’t enjoy. The next year I entered high school inSheffield, Illinois. I stayed at the home of my paternal grandparents. At that time few people favored free high school education. When my father went to the home of a director to apply for my tuition, a woman called my father a pauper. This caused more amusement than resentment and was often laughingly referred to in our home. Attending high school was a wonderful experience. Phillip Brooks, the great clergyman said, “He who helps a child helps humanity.” The Johnson School closed in 1939, having only one pupil, who later transferred to the New Bedford, Illinois school. Lillie M. Johnson

SOURCE: SCHOOLS OF BUREAU COUNTY PAST & PRESENT Vera E. Jackson Fletcher & Glenn H. Fletcher Printed: 1987 Submitted by: Bob Johnson

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