Reading, writing and arithmetic: Early school days

Education, particularly for younger children used to take place in small schoolhouses.

Former one-room schoolhouses are treasures of our history.

Chapter 20

Now, when the mind dwells upon the scenes of the olden time, there seems to be some long forgotten chamber of the brain unlocked, from which those recollections of childhood, when the mind and heart were carefree, come back to us with all the vividness of early impressions, and like a beautiful dream fill all the mind, heart and soul, and it seems that

There’s a beauteous song on the slumberous air

That drifts through the valley of dreams;

It comes from a clime where the roses were

And a tuneful heart and bright brown hair

That waves in the morning beams.

Soft eyes of azure and eyes of brown

And snow white foreheads are there-

A glimmering cross and a glittering crown,

A thorny bed and a couch of down,

Lost hopes and leaflets of prayer.

We heard it at first at dawn of day,

And it mingled with matin chimes;

And years have distanced the beautiful day,

And its melody floweth from far away,

And we call it now, “Old Times.”

I have said that my first school days were spent in the old log schoolhouse of my native village, but this was only for a single short term. My attendance was very irregular, so that it did not leave many lasting impressions on my mind. Of those that did so, I have already spoken. But my real school days were spent in an old log school house in the country, a mile from my home.

I can see the old house yet. Its exterior and interior arrangements are photographed indelibly upon the brain, and I can scarcely realize that more that 60 years have elapsed since its portals first opened to me. Neither can I realize that all those dear companions of my school days — little tow-heads dressed from head to foot in home spun — are now gray-haired women and men, tottering on the brink of the grave, while others of them have long since lifted the veil that hides futurity from our view, and passed across the borderland of time into the mystic realms that lie so silent and unexplored just beyond.

This schoolhouse was erected of hewn logs on one corner of a tract of land donated by one of the pioneers for schoolhouse, graveyard and church purposes. A few deaths had occurred among the pioneers and their graves, marked by rough tombstones made from sandstone, and more frequently by heavy wooden boards erected at the head of each, lined the far side of this lot and farthest away from the old schoolhouse. Several years later a church was erected between these graves and the school house, but until this was done, all church services, which were had only when some traveling preacher happened that way, were held in the schoolhouse.

Let me describe this old house as I see it so clearly today, and see how it compares with the comfortable schoolhouses of the present. It was probably 35 feet in length by 20 wide. Its door was of boards hung on wooden hinges. Its roof was of shingles shaved out by the pioneers. It had two windows on each side, and one in the end opposite the door. Many houses of that kind at that early day had greased paper in the windows instead of glass, but this particular one was a little more pretentious than the rest, and glass, 8-by-10 in size, filled these windows. To the right, as you entered the building, a bench stood against the wall. This bench was made of a wide slab secured at my father’s mill, in which holes were bored and legs inserted. In the corner, on this bench, stood the water pail, and above it hung the dipper, or more generally a gourd cut out for a drinking vessel. The remaining space on the bench was filled with the baskets and pails containing the dinners, or noonday meals, of the pupils when school was in session.

To the left was a long, wide shelf, also of slabs placed upon pins driven into holes bored into the logs of the house. Upon this shelf, the hats, caps, and the clothing of the pupils worn outside, but not required to be worn within the room, were placed. Upon other pegs under this shelf was a bundle of switches, and their very presence in sight of the entire school, seemed to have a silent influence in maintaining order in the school. Their presence there, no doubt, was on the principle that the most effective way to maintain peace was to prepare for war.

In the middle of the school room stood a very large, old-fashioned box stove, and under and around this were the ink bottles and stands of the pupils — in the winter time — placed there to prevent the ink from freezing. The floor space was filled with benches made of slabs. Some of these were very low, for the use of the smaller pupils, with higher ones for those of more advanced age. Around the entire wall, pins were driven into holes bored in the logs, in a slanting direction, and upon these pins slabs were placed. These slabs formed the writing desks of those pupils who had reached the writing stage, and when thus engaged, their backs were to the rest of the school and their faces to the wall. A vacant space was left between the benches in the center of the room, to enable the teacher to reach any part of the school room, and in his hand, as he marched up and down this space, one of the switches before alluded to was always flourished, as the emblem of authority, I suppose.

There were no public schools then, and no public school fund. The early pioneers, recognizing the need of something of an education for their children, banded together in each neighborhood and erected these rude schoolhouses at their own expense. The state had done nothing to provide funds for public schools, and there could be no examination of teachers, or those offering to teach, as to their qualifications. All were subscription schools then — each head of family agreeing to send so many pupils during the term and paying for that many, whether they attended or not. These terms were never for a longer period than three months.

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