BY BOB GREENWALL
Each summer, my wife, Eleanor, and I spend a weekend hosting visitors at the Walnut Creek Historical Museum and restored one-room school house. Both of us attended such one-room schools and have many memories of those days.
I, Bob Greenwall, was born to Clarence and Gleneva (Gustafson) Greenwall in 1943. Dad and I were born in the same house near Wausa, Nebraska, and went to the same country school. We want to focus on that school experience, because it is one of the things that folks around our present home of Walnut, Iowa, certainly have in common. Eleanor’s home school near Overton, Nebraska, was adjacent to her farm home and still stands as a storage building. It is also noteworthy that it is less than a mile from the Oregon Trail. My home school was moved to a nearby farm and became a shop for mechanical work.
Like most veterans of the one-room schoolhouse, we value the experience highly and do not consider ourselves the least bit unfortunate in that regard. That being said, there were few measures that I did not try in an effort to get out of going to school in the morning. “I don’t feel well” was the most common. Then, out would come the thermometer, as mother “took my temperature.” I tried rubbing that thing furiously with my tongue to elevate the reading by friction, but mom, who had been a schoolteacher herself, was never fooled.
There were plenty of times when childhood illnesses resulted in missed school days, and some cases when winter storms caused school closings. I remember the amused look on my father’s face when I reported that we’d better stay home since the radio had reported “a cold front coming.” Dad had a soft heart when it came to giving me a ride to school (1 1/4 miles), even to the point of harnessing the team of black Percherons (Dick and Dolly) to take me in the lumber wagon. These were the times when the dirt road was impassable even for our pickup.
On one such occasion, an unforgettable event occurred. There was a bridge on the school road, just a flat wooden platform over a creek bed, which was most often dry. On that day, as the horses went over the bridge, it collapsed and they plunged down several feet. Dad hustled me out the back of the wagon, and proceeded to guide the team out along the creek bed, fortunately unhurt. I had a fear of bridges of any kind for months after that, and, even when the bridge was rebuilt, preferred to walk around it.
The schoolhouse itself was the typical frame structure with three windows on each side, an entry hall where coats, lunchboxes and the water cooler were kept, and two outdoor privies. Desks were of the classic style, sized in keeping with the growing students. Heating was by means of a central stove, and yes, we all put our mittens on it after winter recesses.
Two major improvements were made while I attended Meadowlark school, district 132. First was the telephone, a party line, crank model mounted on the wall. I’m sure that the first few days most of us spent a lot of time watching it intently, waiting for a call to come. It came in handy for the teacher when one of us took sick and needed to be retrieved by our parents. That once happened to me, and I wasn’t faking either. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it to the door before throwing up and that did not make the teacher happy.
Now I would like to “fast forward” to the present day. That teacher later became a member of our home church and I still see her, as recently as last year. She was one of those kind and motherly teachers that we appreciated so much and it is a great joy to recall our school days together. There were many more good days than bad.
Back to the second improvement to our school, we got electricity! Prior to that time, a kerosene lamp provided light on those rare occasions when the school was occupied after dark. One of those times would have been the annual Christmas program. It would be impossible to exaggerate the scale and scope of the Christmas program, and this is confirmed by virtually all who remember the country schools. I’m not sure why this was the case, but it clearly was.
For at least a month in advance, we practiced our “pieces” and “plays” which the teacher gleaned from various publications. Each of us had our own copies of our own “script” which we were obliged to learn “by heart.” Clark Gable did not study his script of Gone with the Wind any more diligently than we studied our Christmas parts! Many of our mothers had been teachers themselves, and while they might complain that this was “too much,” it appears that they all conspired to keep the tradition going.
In the final weeks, the school had to be decorated with special attention to each of the windows, and a tree trimmed. The last touch was to transform the room into a theatre by hanging stage curtains. Now excitement was at a fever pitch! As the school filled with parents seated on planks strung between the desks, we would be nearly beside ourselves. It would be a little cold (and dark) out in the hall, where the actors awaited their turns on stage, but we didn’t feel it.
If all this was not enough, our teachers contrived to follow the program with a “pie social.” Mothers each brought a pie, which was then auctioned to the crowd. This, we now realize, was the financial dimension of the Christmas program. Now it was time for Santa Claus to make his dramatic entrance and distribute the gifts under the tree! Santa was invariably the teacher’s boy friend—suitably incognito to all. Altogether, it was an exhausting and unforgettable night.
Our school attendance varied, but typically there were about a dozen pupils, coming from each of the four directions. In our district, there was a country church, whose pastor’s family included ten or eleven children. Five of my schoolmates came from this family. Only recently did we learn that this church, Golgotha Lutheran, actually was begun in our school building when it was located on the corner of our home farm. There were two of us in my grade, and my classmate was Rogene, who accompanied me through all eight grades and ultimately graduated from high school with me as well.
A recent chapter of the Meadowlark school story was added here in Walnut, where former Peace Haven resident, Mabel Bamesberger was very familiar with it. One of her lifelong friends had been one of Meadowlark’s teachers, and in fact, had taught my father there! She provided yet more pictures and stories.
This would be the time for another “fast forward.” Rogene found my name through the internet, and after fifty years, took the initiative to contact me. That began a delightful email correspondence recalling our school days and sharing many pictures and updates on our families and friends. So the country school experience has been a “gift that keeps on giving” in ways we couldn’t have imagined back then, from kerosene lamps and horses to the internet and email!