Submitted by Lorrie Wood and compiled by Carol Bender from the journals of Jacob P. Prickett.
Editors note: Last week began the description of the pioneer schools. This week you will find out more about the schools, what qualifications someone had to have in order to teach, what subjects were taught and how they acquired the classroom materials.
The method of employing teachers then was somewhat peculiar. A person desiring to teach in a certain neighborhood — often an entire stranger — would seek out the “leading man” in a neighborhood, and make known his desires. This leading man would question him as to his antecedents and his qualifications to teach, and if found satisfactory would sign an agreement to send a certain number of children to school at a stipulated price. Then, armed with his written agreement and with the signature of this “leading man” as a “starter” the would be teacher would visit every family in the neighborhood and secure additional signatures to the agreement, until enough pupils were secured to justify him in opening the school. This agreement stipulated that the patrons were to furnish the fuel for the school; were to board the teacher — that is, the latter was to board with the patrons of the schools; generally one week with each family. On his part he would agree to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic as far as the “single-rule-of three,” in Pike’s old arithmetic. Sometimes, but rarely, there would be no limitations as to teaching arithmetic, which indicated that the teacher could carry his pupils through the entire book, if necessary, and when this was the case the teacher was looked upon as little short of a mathematical prodigy.
There were no school books to be had in those days, but any book, no matter what, that was found in the pioneer household was taken to school as a reader. If there were a half dozen children from one home attending the school, and they were far enough advanced to use a reader, a different book was taken by each, if so many could be found in the crude home. Often there would be found no other book in some households but the New Testament, and these would be carried to the school room as readers. By far the larger number of pupils were supplied with this book, and were put in one reading class, and hence the New Testament class was by far the largest class in the school. Histories, biographies, an occasional English Reader, and the Introduction to the English Reader were among the other books in use, and where no classes existed each pupil would stand up by the side of the teacher and read his or her lesson as assigned by the teacher.
Where no classification existed it is surprising that the teacher was able to get through with the school day work, and give each pupil a hearing. But they did, after a fashion, and it is surprising that their educational work bore as much successful fruit as it did.
For beginners, those little tots learning their a, b, c’s and the rudiments of spelling, the only real school book to be had in that early day was used, and this was Webster’s old, blue backed, Elementary Spelling Book. There were reading lessons running through this book, and many of the more advanced pupils used it as a reader, and this class was next in size to that of the New Testament class. It was not until the pupil had advanced enough to get into the reading exercises, that he or she took up writing as a study, and after each reading exercise, the pupil was required to write so many lines in his or her copy book, after a copy set by the teacher, and these copy books were examined by the teacher each day, and if necessary, suggestions were made to the pupil as to the betterment of the writing.
Now, when ink is almost as cheap as water, and steel pens are manufactured by the millions, and are also very cheap, it may be surprising in the present generation to know that there was a time in the lives of their fathers and grandfathers when, to supply ink for the use of their children in these schools, the bark from the Witch Hazel was gathered and boiled down and perhaps other ingredients added, and thus a fairly good ink was made. This is what my family used; in other families other homemade ink was made from other barks and herbs.
Also to pens, steel and gold pens were unknown and could not be had. All the pens in use then in these schools were made from the quills from the wings of the goose. These were gathered and taken to the school, and the teacher was required to make the pens of the smaller pupils, at the same time teaching them how to make their own quill pens, an accomplishment not easily acquired. He was expected also to lend his penknife to the larger pupils so that they could make and mend their own pens. These pens, when properly made, were very pliable and considered by many as superior to the best pens of today. How many people of the present day can make a first-class pen from the gray goose quill? We old-timers perhaps could do so, but with the present generation it is one of the lost arts.