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Posts Tagged ‘One Room Schoolhouse’

 

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.

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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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I’ve been reminded of my mortality. My cousin Michael died recently. I hadn’t seen him in years, yet it saddens me. Mike was only two years older than I, too young to die. I’m told he drank himself to death.

Mike hardly lead a charmed life—his mother died in childbirth. Uncle Buck remarried to a widow from Alabama who had two daughters. Aunt Ora Mae was no southern belle, but a scrappy gal who gave him two additional sons.

Mike grew up believing Aunt Ora Mae was his biological mother, until some “well-meaning” relative told him otherwise. Although given the same love and attention as the other children, Mike seemed to feel out of place. He was the only child in the home who’d been born to a different mother. I remember a conversation between him and his brother when they were very young. Uncle Buck, frustrated as parents sometimes get, had threatened to put the boys in a juvenile home. Paul, too young to know better at the time, bragged that his mother could get him out of the home but not Mike because he wasn’t hers. Ouch.

He was actually my father’s first cousin. Dad was born to Grandad’s oldest son and Mike to his youngest. With only a few years’ difference between them, my dad and Uncle Buck were buddies. Both served in World War II, came home, married, and started families. When I was born, Mike was only two and couldn’t pronounce my name. He called me “Tishie” which stuck as a nickname until I was a teenager. Then I decided I no longer wanted to be called that, but by my real name. Somehow I bent most of my relatives to my will and was able to change my appellation.

When I started school, Mike was put in charge of my safety, to walk me to our one-room schoolhouse each morning. He and I were among the last students to attend that school. After it was closed we rode the bus together to the city schools, but following Mike through the academic ranks was not easy. I was a well-behaved scholar and he was not. In junior high, one teacher asked if I was related to Mike Rogers. When I said yes, that I was his cousin, the teacher said only, “Oh.” That one word spoke volumes.

I had an English teacher who never seemed to like me. I got along well with most teachers because I was a good student. I was a favorite of English teachers, especially, because I enjoyed reading. I couldn’t figure out why this teacher never warmed up to me. Later, I learned that Mike had previously been in her class. He told me he got in trouble when she found girlie books in his desk. How unfair! After nine months of school, you’d think this teacher could have figured out that I was quite different from my cousin.

Mike’s family lived in an apartment upstairs in Grandad’s house, just up the hill from us. He and his brothers, and my brothers and I, were childhood playmates. In winter, we would ice skate on his grandfather’s pond and during summer we played baseball in my grandparents’ field.

Then time and distance separated us. My family moved to Florida and I saw Mike only a few times when we returned to visit. I did not know him as an adult. He married and moved to California, and I did not see him for a lifetime. I never met his wife or children.

I had led a rather sheltered childhood. The only people I knew who died were old people who had lived out their years. Even during the Viet Nam Era, most of those around me avoided the draft and I lost no one I knew well. At my 40th high school reunion I was shocked to learn that some of our classmates’ lives had been snuffed out, at least one by suicide. Mike’s death was similarly unexpected.

When my grandparents were still with us, I made a point of visiting them often. I didn’t want to regret not spending enough time with them while they were alive. After I became interested in genealogy and family history, I found holes in my knowledge and often wish I could ask my elders about this or that person or event. Despite my efforts, I have regrets.

In the summer of 2009, Mike accompanied Uncle Buck to our family reunion. I had not seen him in over forty years and would not have recognized him on the street. He’d turned into an old codger with a grizzled beard. With over a hundred other relatives in attendance, I didn’t have much time to visit with Mike. I didn’t know I would never see him again. He was not supposed to die so soon.

And so I regret not having made more effort to know my cousin Michael. I also wish I had collected his stories. Living in close proximity to Grandad, what family history did Mike know that died with him? And with two more years at Barnum Hill School, what memories did he have that I lack? Must we always regret such missed opportunities?

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The pavement ends. Potholes and asphalt yield to stony dirt, intersected by little gullies dug by rain on its way to the river. You’ve not merely crossed from Oklahoma to Arkansas, from Road to Trail. You have entered another place and time, where cell phones receive no signal and the internet and social media do not intrude.

Peace settles over you as the dust settles to the roadbed. Stop a moment and gaze at the bucolic scene, a scattering of houses among fields of hay and cattle. And forests. On your left Walker Mountain slopes up into the trees. On every quarter section sits a house with a front porch. Porch swings and rocking chairs invite you to visit. Gaze across the valley and the Black Fork River to the mountain brooding beyond. An occasional gash of gray from a rock slide interrupts the medley of greens and browns of the forest. Long ago people abandoned the mountain to wild things and memories. Not so much as a radio tower tarnishes the wilderness.

Once this valley buzzed with activity. Cotton was King. Black Fork, valley and mountain, boasted of stores and schools, homesteads and share croppers. Then came the Boll Weevil. Only sketchy tales linger of the many who left to seek fortunes elsewhere. The remains of their homes, reduced to debris, mingle with arrowheads cast aside by earlier denizens of the valley.

A small clapboard building perches on the bank of the road in front of an abandoned stone house. The old post office was small enough to move up and down the valley as the duty of postmaster shifted from neighbor to neighbor. Black Fork once had its own Zip Code, but the post office closed some forty years ago. Today, a rural carrier brings mail from Mena, on the other side of the mountain, over in Polk County.

One day when I visited my mother, the mail lady drove into the yard with a package too large for the box. No yellow slip of paper giving notice of something on a shelf miles away. When Mom asked about her recent trip, the carrier grabbed her photos and joined us in the kitchen. So, the neighbors’ mail would be a few minutes late today.

Two church buildings remain in the valley. Friendship Baptist Church still holds services for a handful, but most folks go to their chosen denominations in nearby towns. A few miles east, Piney Church once competed for the souls of the valley and doubled as a one room schoolhouse, but the building is now a social hall for a dwindling number of quilters. On the front porch is a pile of firewood for the pot-bellied stove. The door is unlocked. No one minds if you visit. The building is wired for electricity but has no running water. Out front is an old well and an outhouse in the back. A large quilt frame takes up much of the room. Look closely at the stitching – all hand crafted.

On the walls a few black and white group photographs attest that this was once a school. An eighth grade education was required for teachers. The scholars who remain in the valley are now grandparents. Their descendents are bussed to Acorn, a good 45 minutes away. Many children in the valley are home schooled.

Black Fork is 45 minutes from everywhere. Haw Creek, over in Oklahoma, has a thriving church and a mom-and-pop gas station which periodically goes out of business. Better gas up before you venture here. However, should your truck or farm equipment need repairs, Black Fork Garage is the one thriving business in the valley.

Most small communities lose population as the young people move elsewhere for jobs and the old move to cemeteries, but Black Fork is different. Retired people are moving into the valley and building homes and some of the young choose to stay. They have to commute to jobs or dabble in small local endeavors. Why do they live here? Because life is good.

This is no utopia. Lives have been lost in flash floods. Logging and farming can be hazardous, and Black Fork is not immune to illegal drugs and crime. By nature or nurture, some people have light fingers, so if something comes up missing, you can bet the owner has an idea who took it. If the suspect is innocent by reason of being in jail, well, it must have been his brother.

One hot August, some convicts escaped from a prison over in Oklahoma and one found his way to Black Fork. He hid in the woods and raided vacant kitchens for sustenance. Having lost his shoes, he stole a pair, but they were too big and left him with blisters. Because he was afraid of bears, he slept in trees, unaware that bears can climb. When the authorities caught up with him, dirty, scratched, plagued with ticks and chiggers, he was happy to go home to his cell.

People in Black Fork make do or do without. Or mobilize the community. Emergency vehicles take 45 minutes to get here, or if a train is parked at the crossing in Page, twice as long. So the citizens organized a Volunteer Fire Department, raising funds through bake sales and raffles, government grants and support from nearby VFDs. Everyone pitched in to build a firehouse and garner necessary equipment. Volunteers went to training and several became first responders.

Last winter, an ice storm downed power lines. Members of the VFD checked on the elderly and disabled, ensuring their safety and providing them with food, water, and firewood if needed. Roads had to be cleared before electricity could be restored. The fire department cut their way through over twenty miles of fallen trees. Service was restored in half the time it would have taken the utility company alone.

Looking out for one another is a way of life. After a flood damaged many vehicles, Black Fork Garage made repairs, charging customers for parts only, not for labor. “We didn’t do anymore than anyone else would have done in our shoes. The best pay is the love and appreciation we get from our neighbors, and the satisfaction of being the Lord’s hand extended to others.”

Visiting Black Fork is like returning to a forgotten way of life. Not a perfect life, but one we rediscover when we slow down. The visitor can set aside worries for a time and hold responsibilities at arm’s length. I always leave with regret and look forward to coming back.

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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.

http://www.placekeeper.com/New_York/Barnum_Hill_School-2492967.html

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When I was a small child, one room school houses were still in existence in some rural areas. One by one they were being closed as citizens succumbed to the progressive wisdom that children would be better educated in the large consolidated schools. I was fortunate enough to attend a little schoolhouse in the first grade. This was the same school where my father and grandfather had been educated in their days, but that’s another story. Unfortunately, by the end of that year, our school district had voted to close the school and bus the students to the education factories in town.

In our area, the county did not provide school buses. Each school district would contract with a bus company. Ours was a one-man operation owned by a fellow named John Sokol. Here was a character if ever there was one. He seemed to enjoy his job and most of his kids, and the students, for the most part, liked him.

On my first day of second grade, I stood dutifully at the foot of our sidewalk as the bus jiggled down the road toward my house. But I was small for my age, and along the road was a hedge of barberry bushes. I was already nervous about the new school and it did not help that, instead of stopping for me, the bus just kept on going! I heard the children on the bus yelling, and the bus screeched to a stop and backed up. Mr. Sokol said something about my being smaller than a bush and from that day on, he called me “Bush.”

I don’t remember any discipline problems on the bus. Even though Mr. Sokol could be as rowdy as the roughest boy, the kids behaved for him. I remember him laughing more than any thing else, but he was certainly no angel. Usually, if a child was not at the bus stop but could be seen running down the driveway, or if a parent came out and said Johnny was putting on his coat, he would wait for him. Mr. Sokol had some favorites among the children but there was one family he clearly did not like and I never knew why. The oldest boy was no longer in school but Chester must have been in high school at the time. Mr. Sokol would make unkind remarks about Chester, in and out of the boy’s hearing, and the older children would jeer Chester. The boy appeared to be clean, did not smell bad, and to my knowledge he was from a respectable family, but there may have been some past quarrel I was unaware of. If Mr. Sokol could leave Chester behind, he would. One morning the older brother came out and asked Mr. Sokol to wait for a few minutes. He did, but the second Chester came out the front door, Mr. Sokol drove away, laughing.

We made up a song about Mr. Sokol, to the tune of “The Old Gray Mare”:

                    Old John Sokol jumped in the Delaware,
                    Pulled off his underwear,
                    Smashed all the silverware.
                    Old John Sokol jumped in the Delaware
                    Many long years ago.

When we sang that song, he would laugh and laugh. Once he resorted to a serious voice and said there was some truth to it. He used to have a campsite on the Delaware River with an old school bus for a cabin, and he said he had jumped in the Delaware many times.

At the end of the school year, it was traditional for the bus companies to host a “bus picnic” for the students and their families at a local park. The usual fare was hot dogs and ice cream. I remember seeing a supply of Dixie cups packed in a cardboard box covered by a heavy gray army blanket. I wondered why they would cover the ice cream with a blanket on a warm day. The explanation that the blanket would keep it cold just didn’t make sense to my seven year old mind. Blankets keep you warm, right?

All good things come to an end. I’m not sure whether his treatment of Chester had anything to do with it, or what the reason was, but after a few years our school district stopped contracting with Mr. Sokol and went with the larger company that served much of the area. The buses were newer and probably better maintained, and our new driver was nice enough, but it just wasn’t the same. He was a quiet man who lacked Mr. Sokol’s sense of humor.

Eventually my family moved away. The last news I had of Mr. Sokol was a newspaper clipping my grandmother sent me. It showed an old school bus, our old bus, rusting in a field. In the caption under the picture some upstanding citizen was bemoaning the fact that the county was full of such “eyesores” and they should be removed.

I thought it was sad, not that the old bus was rusting in a field, but that someone would call it an eyesore. I thought about how beauty can be more than a well manicured roadside, and how memory, laughter, and tradition, while sometimes untidy, have an important place in our hearts.

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