‘School belles’ did important work under tough conditions

Our schools will be opening for a new term in a few days. Some of my heroes have been those competent, dedicated and caring people who teach our young people. I have known some outstanding ones in my lifetime.

My last few weeks have been spent scanning over a century and a half of photographs and family history into computer files. The original albums and documents will go into the archives of the historical society in my hometown of Scobey, Mont.

I will share with you the stories of three of the teachers from these files. I respectfully call them “School Belles.” They did important work under sometimes very difficult conditions over three-quarters of a century ago.

Many children were once educated in one-room rural schools with one teacher serving all eight grades. There were 70 known schools in my home county of Daniels in Montana; including four high schools. Students and teachers either walked or rode horses to school. School terms were often six or seven months. All of these schools have now been consolidated into one, as roads and transportation have advanced and population has changed.

The one-room school near our ranch was closed just before I started school. I got to go to the big school in Scobey by bus. The bus was a wood box on the back of a 1937 Chevrolet pickup. It had a small coal stove that the bus driver fired up in the winter to keep us warm. He carried enough shovels for us to remove the snow if we got stuck.

Settlers in the area were committed to educating their children. They got together and built and operated their own schools. The schools were the community centers where traveling preachers held church services and community dances and other events. Schools had very strong community support.

The curriculum was set by the state. It included standards for mathematics, reading, language and writing. Students were required to take standardized tests to assure that they were getting an adequate education. Students who did not meet requirements had to repeat the grade. Others, like my Aunt Grace, who excelled were allowed to skip a grade.

Miss Irelan started teaching in 1930. She taught grades one through eight in one room. All shared the same books and teacher. There were usually about 20 students in school. Her day started with cleaning the school and outhouse and starting a fire in the stove to warm the school before the students arrived.

Irelan was very happy to be paid $100 a month. Housing was usually about $20 a month with one of the school’s parents. During the Great Depression, she was paid in warrants. These are IOUs that promise to pay if and when the district gets the money. At one point, she was so poor that she set up a bed and stove and lived in the 10-foot by 10-foot school cloak room.

Miss Miner taught for only a few years. She performed all of the duties of the one-room schoolteacher. What was memorable in her case was that part of her arrangement was that she was housed at the school board chairman’s house. There she shared a bed with his oldest daughter, as there was no other bed to be had.

Miss Thompson began teaching in 1924. Some settlers had built the school building in a cow pasture. There was no foundation, but it had been set on some rocks. When the cows would rub against it the whole school would rock back and forth. It was unfinished on both the inside and outside. Boards had to be put over the windows to keep the cows from breaking them.

The chimney for the stove went through the roof and would sometimes blow down and need to be put back up by the teacher and students. Rain and snow would come through the roof. Gophers would come in and the students would feed them some of their lunch.

The outhouse was made from apple crates and old boards. It would sometimes blow down and she and the students would have to put it back up.

Miss Thompson rode a horse more than four miles to school. There were about 10 students at the school. They either walked or rode horseback. She and some students would sometimes stay at the school overnight in bad weather. The school term was seven months. She would teach from August until Christmas and then return in March to finish the term.

She went on to teach in many other schools over the years. The last school was Conrad, Mont., where she had a class of 80 kindergarten students. Large classes were not unusual years ago. My grade school classes were around 50 students. Many people do not know that the original Franklin School in Anoka had classrooms sized for 64 students each.

Miss Thompson retired in 1970. She then married a year later to a man she had met 45 years earlier. She had been too busy teaching to marry before then.

I was always impressed by the abilities of students from the one-room schools when they would join us in high school. They were very well educated, good learners and helpful people. I attributed that to the need for upper grade students to help younger students in their schools. Also, the younger children would be learning what the older ones were being taught.

Some of the ones I knew went on to become teachers, college professors and government leaders. Others became engineers, scientists and factory workers in the aerospace and aircraft industries. One even became the scientific commander for atomic projects at Sandia Laboratories.

I wish our local teachers and students a great year! America will need well-educated people more than ever in the future.

Chuck Drury is an Anoka resident, retired engineer and former technical director of Federal Cartridge Company.

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