The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

September 5, 2013

The one room schoolhouse

By Gary Herrity
Special to the Herald

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Out by Almont, there once stood two one-room schoolhouses. Almont South was near the limestone house of Highway 67 on the west side of the road, and Almont North was on the east side about two miles north at the junction between the gas station, the road west to Almont and the highway north. My mother, Ruth McClintock Herrity, once taught at the Modoc school farther north and east near the hills. Her sisters, Martha Quinn and Mary Doe, as well as thousands of other women, also taught in the one-room schoolhouses, where students ranged from five to twenty years old and were in all grades. The young woman was the principal, custodian, teacher and disciplinarian. She was helped by her students, who invariably walked to school through all kinds of weather …. many from long distances. They came early and cut firewood, stoked the pot-bellied stove, swept the floor, washed the blackboards, pumped water from the well, and found time to study too. Their teacher usually had only a two-year degree from a local college like Mount St. Clare.

The Flannery School at the Nature Center near Eagle Point Park honors those early teachers, as does the “Skunk Hollow” School at Heritage Canyon in Fulton. All over the country, people remember and revere this vestige of times-past… when both academics and character were molded into the rural children who made America strong! These students stood for hours reciting spelling words and principle parts of verbs. Very few of them grew up to say such things as “he don’t” or “them guys.”

My mother went to ‘The Mount’ in 1915, at the time the “new” building was built. Prior to that, she’d walked to class through Springdale Cemetery, when the girls still lived in Judge Chase’s old mansion to the south of the cemetery. Often, these teachers taught for just a few years and then retired to raise their own families, never returning to teaching. My mother did that, but her sister Martha Quinn returned and taught for many years in the Clinton School System.

In those days, teachers couldn’t be married or smoke, much less be seen drinking strong spirits. Once in awhile, men became teachers. Who hasn’t heard of Ichabod Crane, from Sleepy Hollow? However, you probably never have heard of Jesse Stuart from Kentucky. He started teaching in a backwoods one-room schoolhouse during the First World War, as an 18- year-old; and the FIRST job at his school, which he had to do, was to fight and defeat a strapping 20-year-old boy who was a bear-like second grader! You see in those days, a student didn’t move along until they’d mastered the subject matter for their grade. They had to attend the required number of days, too. Sometimes, as in Abe Lincoln’s case, they were needed at home to help work the farm and, therefore, couldn’t progress in a steady fashion. (Many also didn’t study incessantly on their own, just for the fun of it, like Honest Abe did!)

Jesse Stuart won the fight with a lucky flying-tackle, and the boy hit his head and was knocked out. So he, naturally, gave in and went on to become one of Mr. Stuart’s best students! Imagine the lawsuits that would cause today! Teachers back in those days drilled students on multiplication tables, spelling words, conjugation of verbs, and (my personal favorite) the principal parts of verbs. If you ever said, “I seen him do that,” or “I ain’t got no marbles,” you would have your knuckles rapped with a hard ruler! The paddle was also liberally employed. “Spare the rod and spoil the child” was then a popular adage to live by. Carrie Helfert was a student who didn’t like mean old Miss McClintock, but as a mother, I seldom ever noticed that trait.

Oddly, my mother, who had impeccable penmanship and grammar reverted to some poor grammar when she became old and infirmed. Apparently, she had retrained herself from “farm talk” through education, but could not maintain it through the ravages of old age.

Mr. Stuart stayed in the education business for many decades and supplemented his income by writing. His book, “The Thread That Runs So True,” is a great chronicle of the old farm days and how one-room schoolhouses taught American youngsters their necessary civic lessons, back when 90% of all people in the U.S.A. lived on farms.

Jesse, and all veterans of the one-room schoolhouses, had numerous harrowing experiences. Once he had to walk up into the hills to get home, some ten miles away from town, and he walked into a blinding spring snow shower so fierce that he could not see. This experience often resulted in death but, fortunately, he had the presence-of-mind to find a fence line and follow it to safety.

These early American schools were a home-away-from-home for countless families of children in all age groups. The older children were expected to help take care of the little ones. For fun and competition, they were fond of the spelling bees and rote drills at which they performed. Some children would even memorize extremely long poems, like “Evangeline.” Others liked history, so they would often commit entire documents to memory, like the Constitution or Declaration of Independence!

Teachers frequently lived with a family on a nearby farm. Times were very different, yet people enjoyed this simple lifestyle and invented most of their own entertainment. Many graduates of these country schools went on to become professionally-trained leaders, often leaving the farm and moving to urban settings …. Where the self-discipline born of strong rural roots continued to cement their firm moral compass.