One Room Schoolhouse in Wisconsin

Elm Grove, District No. 6

Prepared by Dave Brickner on the occasion of our 45th High School Reunion in 2003.

 You asked about my grade school experience.  You must be prepared as I am a bit of a wordy cuss.  This may need some serious editing.

 Lets start by describing the setting.  Elm Grove, District No. 6 was a small, white, clapboard school building located on county “D” three miles or so south of US Highway 10.The other schools nearby included Conroy, two mile north and a mile west; Herbert, one mile north and a mile east: and Salem, two miles to the south also on county “D”.  Both Conroy and Salem had a somewhat larger student population.  It’s interesting that I really never knew anyone very well from these nearby schools unless there was some other activity such as church or the annual threshing run (another story). 

            Our Farm was a mile north and equal distant from Herbert and Elm Grove.   I am not clear how the boundaries worked but the Brenners lived a quarter mile east and attended Herbert.  Estebs were a quarter mile north and attended Conroy.  On the other hand, Louie Torkelson lived over two miles west down a twisty road to the Isabelle Creek and attended with us. The population of the district consisted of maybe five or six extended families.  We had a lot of cousins attending.

            The Farms in this district ranged from 40 to 200 acres.  This was just after the Second World War so many farms were still operated with horses.  Maybe half had converted to tractors, a conversion that would be completed entirely in the next two or three years.  Not all farms had electricity.  Most lacked indoor plumbing.  (Our own home had electricity and a single spigot in the kitchen for hot water.  Drinking water was in a pail served by a common dipper.  There was no sewer system.  There was a slop bucket on the landing going into the basement and, of course, a “two holer” out toward the barn.)  So, it was not uncommon for older students to be absent a lot in the spring and fall when the very act of surviving had to take precedence over the luxury of an education.  It took a lot of physical labor to keep even a small farm producing.

 Physically, we really can’t describe Elm Grove as a one room school as there was also a lean-to coal shed, a multi-purpose entry room, and two out houses as well as the main classroom.  The school was about twenty-five feet wide and sixty feet long including the coal shed and entry.   It stood on a field stone foundation with no basement. Of course there was a belfry and a big cast bell to announce the day’s significant events.  The front of the school faced south.  There was a single door on each end of the building and large windows down each side of the classroom.  Outside the front and maybe 20 feet away stood the flag pole adjacent to the drinking water cistern.

            The entry door was centered on the entry room which was about six or eight feet deep.  From there entry to the classroom was by a door on either end of the entry room.  This entry room had hooks along the walls for our outer wear, some storage cabinets, a ceramic Urn for drinking water, and a washstand with bucket and enameled basin.

            The classroom had several rows of rail mounted desks and seats in various sizes.  These all faced the south (front) where there was a chalkboard and roller shade maps centered between the doors to the entry.  Between the desks and the chalkboard was a low round table and chairs.  As I recall, the chairs were of a compromise size to accommodate the six to ten year olds.  Older kids had to recite from their desk seats.

             Along one side was a teacher’s desk and a foot pump organ.  The organ was old and only one of the foot bellows worked.  In the back of the room there was a set of shelving that served as the school library, a craft table and chairs, and a large coal-burning stove.  There was always a teakettle on top of the stove for hand wash and clean up water.  I’m sure it was also necessary to humidify the air during the winter months.

            I remember this room as light and airy, a cheerful place to be.  There was the usual bouquet of smells from the dry coal fire pungency to the fragrance of the wild flowers usually on a vase in the front, the sweet smells of old desk wood and the sweeping compound used on the plank floor, the dry lime smell of the chalk, the smells of little kids sweat especially in the winter when the snow melted off their clothes after thee came in from the walk to school or recess.  Of course, some of the kids came to school directly from their animal husbandry chores (we didn’t call it that back then) and added considerable dimensions to the fragrance extremities of the room. 

The temperature was never quite right during the colder months because the fire burned out at night, was stoked up in the morning and hand fed during the day.  On the really cold days, I can remember kids huddled tight around that big old stove waiting for red hands to warm.  The side toward the stove was too hot and the other side cooled by the ambient of the room and the snow melting from the woolen clothes on the kids.  That’s when the smells got really interesting.

 My first day at school was a big event for me – not because of the school but because of how I got there.  County “D” was under reconstruction and it had rained leaving miles of deep mud.  My Uncle Bill Cowan was staying with us at the time and drove me to school on our tractor.  For a perfect day, he came back and picked me up after school.

            Over the years, I never really tired of that trip.  It was a pleasant mile over three hills and through one deep ravine.  The woods were always changing and some times the ditches alongside the road offered up special treats like mushrooms and wild asparagus in the spring and rabbits and squirrels in the fall.  In those days it was not unusual for a kid to come to school carrying a rifle or shotgun to facilitate a little hunting on the way home.

            Mostly, the trip was made on a bike but the ice in the winter made it a walking trip.  The family rule was to look at the thermometer outside the school entry.  If it read zero or below, I was to wait for someone to come get me.  Otherwise, start walking.

            My favorite memory of those trips was returning from school just before Christmas.  We always had a tree in our south living room window.  In mid December it was already turning dark as I crested the last hill before reaching home.  The lighted tree in that window was really beautiful to a young kid and a great nostalgia to this old fart.

            I don’t really remember how we got our supplies to school.  Seeing the big backpacks my grand kids hustle back and forth to school makes me wonder.  I do remember we each had our own lined tablets (the ones with the big chunks of wood embedded in the surface), a wooden pencil or two, and an eight pack of crayons.  Otherwise, we always carried our lunch usually in a dinner pail.  The real luxury was one of those hinged numbers with the curved top and a vacuum thermos bottle.

 The student body of Elm Grove was pretty awesome to a six year old.  We had about 16 or 18 kids in those early years.  Some of the kids were pretty old – maybe fifteen or sixteen or more.  These kids were still there because they were still struggling with the requirements in the face of having to miss a lot of school for farm duties.  There may have been other reasons but this was what was shared with tiny ears.  I remember there was discussion about the wisdom or lack thereof in this wide spread age differences.  In some cases this may have contributed to the difficulty in getting teachers.  Discipline could be a serious issue between these big kids and young Normal School graduates with the authority of teachers but merely a couple of year’s difference in age.

            I quickly learned about choosing up sides in this crowd.  We had softball games and the like.  I was a scrawny little kid usually chosen last even among my peers in the first grade.   In these days, I developed a phobia about competitive sports I never really got over regardless of the fact I didn’t have any talent in these things.

            My classmates in the first grade were Pat Lynner and Raymond Zilckie.  Both Pat and Ray had siblings and cousins (in some cases with different spelling of the last name) so they were more adapted to the social environment than I was.  To me it was all quite an adventure – some pleasant, some not.

            Jeanene Noll was a year behind us and the only one in her grade so Pat, Raymond, Jeanene, and I became fast friends.  A few years later, Pat moved away and I lost track of her.  I still see Ray and Jeanene from time to time.

            Over time, the population of Elm Grove dwindled to the point where we only had seven kids to spread over all eight grades.  Four of those seven kids were Jehovah Witnesses so things like Christmas celebrations got pretty skimpy.  I think we were supposed to learn about diversity (they didn’t call it that back then).

 My first teacher was Mrs. Anna Burns.  She lived in Esdaile.  I recall her being older even then with a head of beautiful grey hair.  She was very patient with the little kids but I think she had some problems with some of the older kids.  She left the school after my second grade.  Then Janet Haster was hired and stayed for two years, as I recall.  I remember her as a good teacher but I think she was needed at home more than the district could afford to pay her.  The last years we had Miss Gertrude Felenz.  She drove out from Ellsworth every day and stayed as the teacher at Elm Grove until consolidation closed the school in 1955 or 56.

 Classes were all run together.  The lower grades went first.  A lot of the first four grades were as individual classes but some subjects were combined one with two and three with four.  The last four grades were mostly combined.  The idea was to go through one set of material one year and alternate material the next.  Everyone finally got through everything.  Of course, the room was small enough that everyone could hear the class in session.  By the end of the eighth grade most everything had been repeated enough times it started to actually sink in.

            Kids not in class were to do their class prep in their seats or be doing library research and reading.  Most were in their seats.  Of course whispering and trading notes were both forbidden and standard behavior.  I guess we were supposed to learn about selective enforcement.  The library had a selection of references including a big dictionary, a set of encyclopedias and selections like the almanac and several government releases concerning agriculture.

            Actually, I remember little in the way of actual homework.  It was relatively easy to get class prep done during these study periods.  I marvel at the amount of homework kids deal with today.  I’m not sure which approach is better.  Indeed, we always had chores at home so there was less time available in the evening.  Some of these kids really had a lot of work to do on the farm and I am sure school was not high on their list after milking, feeding, and barn cleaning chores.

            We were able to check books out of the library for reading at home.  By the end of the sixth grade I had read everything available and my parents began to supplement my reading with purchased books.  I developed a lifelong love of good books and ownership thereof.

 Our Textbooks were property of the school and checked out to us for our use.  Here comes another phobia I still suffer from – “Do not ever write in a book.”  Un fortunately, many could have used some markup.  The history and geography texts were all from well before the war.  Some references in the library were actually printed prior to the First World War.  Many included what today we would consider blatant racism.

 There was a duty roster posted in the entry room.  This rotated every two weeks with simple jobs going to the smaller kids.  Duties included eraser cleaning, blackboard washing, carrying in water from the cistern, carrying coal for the stove (coal was wrapped in brown paper). Carrying out ashes from the stove, spreading ashes on the drive in the winter, flag duty, wash stand duty before lunch, and sweeping the floor.  Many of these duties required a few minutes before or after school.

 Recreation at Elm Grove involved recess and the lunch break as well as impromptu sessions after school.  Our “toys” were several baseball bats; a couple of softballs and a merry go round.  This latter device had bench seats arranged in a hexagonal array suspended on chains from the overhead.  There was a center post anchored in concrete.  Of course the idea was to sit in the seats while other kids pushed the contraption merrily around in a circle, hence, the name.  Who ever invented this thing must have had a hell of a sales pitch because every little school had one.  Unfortunately, little kids are for more inventive than primitive toy designers credit them.  Very quickly, the  larger kids discovered that by getting inside the circle of seats, grabbing the center pole with one arm while pulling in the hand rail of the seats with the other the RPM’s of the merry go round could be increased dramatically.  The out side of the circle could achieve incredible velocity.

            By way of calculation, the speeds achieved could easily make 25 to thirty RPM.  The overhead support was about ten feet in diameter giving an outside tangential velocity of ten or twelve miles per hour and maybe 20 miles per hour on the pushed out seat..  Now the real fun began as kids  hung on to the chains or top support and “swung out”.  The competition became to see how long one could hang on or, if on the drive team, to see if you could make the swinger let go.  Of course if you did let go you ended up crashed in the grass several feet away.

Other distractions included organized softball practice and even the occasional trip to neighboring schools for a competition.  Early on, there was an organized league among the schools.  Later, our population dwindled to where we couldn’t raise a team.  In those years we found a new use for the bats.  We massed in a group around a stripped gopher hole while one of the kids poured in a pail of water to flush the critter out.  When he sprang forth the other kids chased him down swinging the bat.  One spring we managed to more or less murder 18 of the little creatures.  I’m not sure what we were supposed to learn but I never heard the teacher or any of the parents object.  Some of the girls voiced some concern or chagrin but that only increased our enthusiasm for this grizzly past time.  I guess we got a lot of exercise and learned how to organize a mob.

            Of course, we played all the standard games like hide and seek and such.  Sometimes when there was an especially cold wind blowing we would just all pile into a heap on the lawn and keep warm.  It was all boys and girls together groping about to feel warm.  Again, I’m not sure what we were supposed to learn but I remember this was fun.

            One activity that really only occurred one year was winter time sledding on a grand scale.  It was quite usual to go sledding on the roadway east of the school up toward the Noll farm.  Cars and trucks packed the snow into ice.  This was in the days before extensive sanding of the roads so the surface stayed slick and fast.  But this one particular year there was sort of a freak build up of snow adjacent to the drift fence in the field south of this same road.  Sledding was magnificent that year.  The run was over 500 feet long and very fast. 

 There were also organized events like Christmas programs, ice cream socials, spring picnics and the like to get the families involved.  There were Halloween parties and Valentine parties, Washington and Lincoln birthday events and even odd things like recognition of St Patrick’s day and ground hog day. 

            In the spring we had arbor day which involved raking all of the thatch and leaves on the lawn.  We generally policed up the grounds and had a big bonfire in the afternoon.  If we got done early we could have excursions into the local woods to find spring flowers and observe birds and the like.  This sort of nature walk occurred several times during the year.

            In later years, organized tours became available and we were able to go on Blue Bird Lines buses all the way to Minnesota to see the capital, museums and so on.  Once we even got to go through the Ford assembly plant.  One of the features of these tours was the opportunity to eat in a cafeteria.  My family had relatives in the twin cities and we went there several times each year to visit or shop.  I had had the experience of eating out but many of the students had never done this before.

            These tours usually involved several of the schools in order to fill the bus.  Not all students could go because the expense didn’t fit their budget.  The fees were supplemented for some especially needy kids.  Also, we had the option of packing our lunch along and eating it in the cafeteria with the other students.  I remember there was quite a mix of social skills on these tours s some of the kids came from schools far more sophisticated than our own.  I also remember some parents going along to help the teacher herd the students about and maintain discipline.

 So what?  Was it good or bad? What were the results?  My guess is it was good.  Most of us passed into high school where we competed on a more or less equal footing.  I’m not sure we weren’t a bit behind in social skills but we sure knew how to work, make do and hold up our end.  The phobias we developed probably rank right along side those others learned in different environments.  For my part, I grew up to be independent to a fault.  Like all strong personality traits, it turns out to be my biggest strength as well as my biggest liability.  I am expressive in a group yet feel inferior and reserved with strangers in a social setting.  How much of this is due to the Elm Grove experience?  probably some but not all.  Certainly there were other influences like Father Hardy and the sisters in summer school or like Mrs. Search who taught catechism.  A couple of books could be written about those experiences and the life long recovery necessary.

            Would that I could change any of it, would I? Nope! Unless of course I could have had more time with those girls in the pile.