Posts Tagged ‘Barnum Hill School’


Halloween isn’t what it used to be. But then, maybe it never was. When I was a child, we didn’t call it Trick-or-Treat. It was Halloweening. We didn’t dress up and go door to door anonymously collecting loot from strangers. In my neighborhood we had friendlier traditions.


My family lived in a rural community of small farms and households whose occupants worked in town. The neighborhood encompassed about a square mile, a small school district once served by the one-room schoolhouse, Barnum Hill School. After I finished first grade, the school was closed and we were bussed into town. Since we all rode the same school bus, everyone was acquainted.

Halloweening was a ritual. When we knocked on a door, the family invited us in and tried to guess who we were. That was fun. The better the disguise, the more difficult it was to recognize us. Seldom were costumes store-bought. Usually we made our own. Old sheets became ghosts, scarecrows emerged from rags, and dress-up clothes and hand-me-downs outfitted princesses, witches, and anything else our imaginations could conjure. Some clever mothers sewed elaborate, almost professional, costumes for their offspring. Everyone wore masks or makeup to change their appearance. After the family guessed us right, we unmasked and they gave us our treats.

Walking two or three miles was a lot for one night, especially for small children, so we spread Halloweening over three nights. Two days before Halloween, as soon as we got off the school bus, we’d dress up and head out. One evening we’d walk up East Maine Road, down the road another night, and the third night we’d canvass Reynolds Road. The only time our parents drove us was over to Finch Hollow where Grandma and Grandpa Masters lived. Pretending to be neighborhood kids, instead of calling at the kitchen door as usual, we’d go to the front door and make them guess who we were.

Grandma always made popcorn balls for Halloween. In those days, we didn’t worry about razor blades or poison, because we only went to homes of people we knew. Years later, I was appalled when a friend told me she went through her children’s Halloween bags before they were allowed to eat anything, and she threw out all the homemade treats! But she was one of those who took their children to neighborhoods where they didn’t know anyone, prosperous areas where they could get lots of loot. Better than candy were the homemade goodies from our neighbors, and of course Grandma Masters’ popcorn balls.

Only once did anyone question our arrival before Halloween Night. A new family moved into the neighborhood. We went to their house because their kids rode the school bus and we knew them. “But it’s not Halloween yet,” the man said and refused to give us treats. I’m sure someone set him straight by the following year.

Parents sometimes accompanied their children. My mother went Halloweening with us when we were young. Once she dressed as a scarecrow with a straw hat pulled down over her face. “I bet this is Barbara,” a lady said, as she tugged the hat up, and both of them laughed. Another new neighbor brought her children around so she could get acquainted. When my brothers and I were older, we went by ourselves and took our younger siblings with us. It could turn dark before we got home, but no one worried because all children in the neighborhood were out Halloweening.

One year I made a papier-mache Frankenstein mask at school. Somehow, word got around and my mask became the talk of the neighborhood. I was quite proud of it, but come Halloween, I knew if I wore it, everyone would know who I was, so I dressed as something else. That proved to be a disappointment to neighbors who had been looking forward to seeing “Frank.”

There was always a little mischief in the neighborhood, but nothing serious. Although most homes were modern, a few outhouses remained. Grandad had a little rental cottage with no plumbing, only a well pump and an outhouse, which was routinely tipped over every Halloween.

Ancestral Ourhouse

Ancestral Ourhouse

The schoolhouse had two outhouses, one for the girls and one for the boys. Apparently, the boys’ was adequately secured to its foundation, but when I was in first grade, someone tipped over the girls’ outhouse and we had to use the boys’ until it could be set right again. Today the culprits would be hunted down and charged with criminal mischief, but in those days, it was just part of Halloween.

This outhouse at Purdue Hill, Alabama, is similar to the girls' outhouse at Barnum Hill School.

This outhouse at Purdue Hill, Alabama, is similar to the girls’ outhouse at Barnum Hill School.

Ours was a three-seater, too.

Ours was a three-seater, too.

When I was older, our school district elected a trustee who let his position go to his head. He began making decisions contrary to the wishes of the parents, who got up in arms. The teenagers, aware of their elders’ discontent but too young to vote, took matters into their own hands. On Halloween night, the trustee found out what is meant by “tricks.” No real damage, only toilet paper, eggs, and garbage thrown at his house. He called the police, but as I remember, nothing much came of it except that the next election saw him voted out.

After we moved away, I was disappointed that other people didn’t practice Halloweening. When we went to neighbor’s houses, they’d just shove candy at us and send us on our way, no guessing or socializing.

Today, Halloween has fallen into disrepute. Some people think it has something to do with devil worship. Actually, the old Celts of the British Isles celebrated Sondheim, a harvest festival. They dressed up in costumes to trick the evil spirits, so they could do no harm. The early Christians adopted the holiday and called it All Hallows Eve, meaning the evening before All Hallows or All Saints Day, November 1st. What’s ironic is that those who today substitute “Fall Festivals” for Halloween have returned the holiday to its ancient Celtic purpose—a Harvest Festival!


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Until I was about ten, my family lived upstairs in my grandparents’ house. When we were little, my brother and I shared a bedroom. On the wall above the bed hung a photograph of a young boy, Dad’s brother Donald, who died many years before I was born. That photo remained on the wall for decades, until my grandparents sold their farm and moved to Florida.
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I could not find that picture, but here is Uncle Donald and his baby brother Russell with their grandfather, George Brown.

In their cellar, hanging on the back wall under a thick layer of dust, was Uncle Donald’s bicycle. No one rode it. Even when my siblings and I were old enough to want bicycles, Donald’s stayed on the wall. No one offered it to us and I doubt any of us asked to ride it.

Who was this young man whose spirit remained a living presence in the lives of those who knew him? Donald was my father’s only brother, about three years older than he. He was a well-behaved child and a good student. By comparison, my dad was the wild one, mischievous, non-compliant. But he loved his brother more than he could express in words. Perhaps that’s why he didn’t talk much about Donald.

Uncle Donald suffered from health problems but no one seemed to know what was wrong with him. We only know that he died in his mother’s arms. Donald was only seventeen and had just graduated from high school. My dad was about fourteen. Losing his brother threw Dad into a tailspin he never seemed to recover from. In the middle of World War II, he quit school, joined the army, and was sent to the Pacific theater. I can only imagine my grandparents’ anguish, their only remaining child fighting in a war half-way around the world.

When my youngest brother was small, he developed a seizure disorder. I remember my father’s panic when Billy had seizures. That was uncharacteristic. Dad was quick to anger but not to panic. I remember him yelling that his brother died of a seizure. This alarmed me no end, so I asked my mother. She said Donald had seizures, but that was not what killed him.

One day I broke the code of secrecy and asked Grandma what Donald’s medical condition had been. She didn’t know its name, but said when he got sick he would have albumin in his blood. His doctor knew what to give him for it, but in his last illness, the doctor was out of town. Under the care of another physician, unfamiliar with Donald’s disorder or its proper treatment, and probably refusing to listen to the patient’s mother, he died.

My grandparents hoarded Donald’s possessions until the end of their lives. After they died, my parents packed up and moved from Scrambletown in the Ocala National Forest, where they lived for over thirty years, to Blackfork, Arkansas, where they’d bought a farm. Dad built a big house on the farm, large enough to store two lifetimes of accumulated treasures. Among them were Donald’s belongings, but I had no idea of their existence until this summer.

At our biennial family reunions, we always have an auction to raise money for the next one. Family heirlooms are in great demand. Before our reunion this summer, Mom and my sisters went through boxes of old pictures, ledgers, letters, knick-knacks, and diaries. None of these has much monetary value, but to us they are precious. They went to the auction block where they garnered high prices. Among them were Uncle Donald’s belongings.

From the handsome but sickly boy who had a bicycle, Uncle Donald emerged as a full human being. His high school class ring was among the auction items, in pristine condition, of course, since he didn’t live long enough to wear it out.

Books, lots of books. Apparently, Donald liked to read. What survived was a collection of popular fiction for boys, among them: Army Boys in France, Working Hard to Win, Young Eagles, and Penrod Jashber by Booth Tarkington. These were gifts from various relatives and even neighbors. The books are not in pristine condition—they have been read, probably by many people.

Perhaps the most interesting relic was Uncle Donald’s baseball. We knew he was a farm boy as well as a scholar, but an athlete? Those were the days when kids used a stick for a bat and anything they could throw, including rocks, for a ball. Uncle Donald must have been fortunate to own a baseball.

He and my father attended a one-room schoolhouse, Barnum Hill School. Dad told a story about Barnum Hill’s undefeated baseball season—they played one game with Deyo Hill School, and won. We surmise this was the game ball from that historic event.

I find it interesting that my father and his family talked freely about other relatives long gone, yet they were almost silent about Uncle Donald. Historically, the Rogers have not handled grief well. Unspoken memories of Donald were gathered in their hearts much as his belongings were stored in boxes. Not until the last person who knew Donald was gone, did these tidbits come into the open. Although Donald’s life was as unremarkable as it was short, he touched deeply the hearts of those who knew him, and he continues to live on in our memories today.

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          Let me take you back in time to a place that no longer exists.

On a warm day in early September, my mother walked me up the road to the corner of my grandparents’ hay field, where their property abutted my great-grandfather’s farm. There my cousin Mike, some two years older than I, met us. Mom returned to the house and the younger children, and Mike walked me the half mile up East Maine Road to Barnum Hill School. This one room schoolhouse had seen the education of my father and his brother and my grandfather and his brothers. Now I was the third generation, and Mike and I were the last of the family to attend.

Over time, memories become incomplete or altered but this is what I remember. I had not been introduced to the teacher or my classmates before this day. Having led a sheltered life, I felt intimidated by all those new people. There seemed to be such a crowd, but I estimate the whole school consisted of fewer than twenty children.

Small for my age, I sat in a front seat, the second row from the north windows. These were the old fashioned desks you see in pictures, the kind that were bolted to the floor. My “desk” was actually part of two units. Underneath the writing surface was a shelf-like compartment for books , and in front was a seat where another student could sit if an additional desk were added to the row. Those front seats generally remained folded up and not used, except on occasion to hold books or papers. My seat was attached to the front part of the desk behind me.  To my left were three more rows. As you looked in that direction and towards the rear wall, the desks got larger, for the older children.

I was five and a half and this was my first school experience. The city schools offered Kindergarten to familiarize young children to the disciplines of formal education, but Barnum Hill started at first grade. As a concession, the first and second graders attended only until lunch time. Mrs. Cobley, our teacher, was able to give the older children more individualized instruction in the afternoons when her attention was less divided.

My mother had taught me to read and write my name, but in those days you did not learn to read until you were in first grade. Mrs. Cobley gave us a list of rules and wrote them on the blackboard. To avoid constant disruptions, we were to make silent requests by holding up a certain number of fingers. Mrs. Cobley could then grant permission for a student to sharpen his pencil, go the bathroom, etc. with a nod. The list seemed long and complicated. Since I could not read the rules, when I had to use the bathroom, I was in a quandary. I took a chance and held up one finger. Thank goodness, it was the correct signal and I was allowed to go.

We had electricity at Barnum Hill but no running water. Behind the school were two outhouses. The girls’ had three holes in the seat and the boys’ had two. That was in the days before potty parity, but it was an acknowledgement that girls usually needed more time to do their business than did boys. I don’t remember whether we had any way to wash our hands, but we did have a water cooler and paper cups in the classroom, and an oil furnace stood in the back of the room.

The school technically had more than one room. You entered through a small chamber where coats were hung in cold weather. Opening from this were two closet size spaces where an older student occasionally worked with a small handful of us younger children on reading.

That half day seemed very long to me. It was broken up by recess when we could eat snacks we brought and spend a few minutes playing outdoors. The school yard was a long triangle, boarded on one side by the road and the other two sides by farmland. The right size for a baseball diamond, the older children had time for a short inning during recess. Along the fences, chokecherry trees and other wild things had grown up into a hedge.

A first grade girl named Esther sat next to me in the first row. A few of the other children I remember were Marcene Ritch and her older sister Karen. They lived not far from me, on Lindberg Street. Granddad had sold a row of building lots and named the road after the great hero, Charles Lindbergh  Another first grader was Larry who had a brother in the second grade, but I do not recall his name. They lived up Reynolds Road, at the top of the hill. Then there was Johnny McNish who lived next door to the school. The first and second grades were largest classes, then class size dwindled down to only two students in the sixth grade, a boy and a girl. They looked so big and mature to me.

I do not remember any child being driven to school. In those days the country road had little traffic and parents had less to worry about. Also, children then had more autonomy than they are given now. After the long morning, we were excused to go home. Those of us who lived down hill from the school walked together until our ways parted. The Ritch girls walked with me as far as Lindberg Street, and I was almost home, ready for lunch and a well earned nap

Today, few of the familiar places remain. My grandparents’ farm is now a school bus facility. Granddad’s house burned down a number of years ago. The old folks have passed on and my cousins live far away. I Google “Barnum Hill School (historical)” and find a website that shows its location, now overgrown with trees. Maybe it’s time to revive some memories.


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