Friday, April 12, 2013

Daddy’s School

My father (Daddy) loved telling stories about his family. And we loved hearing them. This was a favorite.
My father’s father, (Ludvig), was a Lutheran minister with country parishes in South Dakota. He’d immigrated from Hamar, Norway at age eighteen, as he wanted to be a minister. That wouldn’t have been a possibility in Norway for some reason I never figured out. The story of his arrival and early years here are inspiring, but that’s not where I’m heading with this today. Grandpa was also head of the local School Board in their county and responsible for the hiring and firing of teachers and he took this job seriously. He seemed to feel the need to be a leader in their community; owned the first automobile in the county. Was on all kinds of boards and committees. They owned a farm and Grandpa kept his boys busy. I think he took everything rather seriously. (Daddy thought so too.) 

Most of the teachers were young; many were recent high school graduates with little or no experience. South Dakota was not exactly an easy place to be living in those days. The family farm near Webster, South Dakota on a winter's day 1896.

 Parents took turns boarding the teachers in their homes, a month at a time. When Daddy was six years old and a first-grader, the teacher in their one-room school was a very pretty young woman. Daddy said he looked forward with a combination of excitement and dread for the time when his family was to board her. She would share the attic bedroom where Daddy slept. She’d be nearby, but she’d see him in his nightdress, a source of great embarrassment for him. I’m sure with Grandpa hiring the teachers, they all spoke Norwegian, for this was what Daddy called “Scandahoovian country.” English was spoken along with Norwegian in Daddy’s home for my Grandmother (Laura) had been here since age one and was fluent in both languages. Grandpa never got rid of his strong Norwegian accent. I don’t think he really tried, as he was proud of his heritage. I loved hearing him sing in Norwegian, and Daddy said he chanted the church liturgy as he had a nice singing voice.

Farmers were responsible for their children’s schooling and all donated materials and built a one-room schoolhouse. It had a pot-bellied stove and they supplied the wood for heat, as the winters were bitterly cold. The teacher had to come early to get the fire going and warm the building. Children not only had to be sure they did their schoolwork. They had to see that the schoolhouse was taken care of, cleaned and supplied with wood for heat. There was no janitor, no cleaning services. I’m sure they used slates for writing, as paper was probably “dear” and pens and ink as well. I wonder what books they used as early readers were not available in those days. I do know that when Daddy started first grade he was reading books from his parents’ library. Said he was working on The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. My grandparents bought the inexpensive library versions of the books and I have several on my bookshelves, all obviously have been heavily used. I love those old books. But back to my story.

Grandmother made sure all of her children learned to read before they entered their one-room school, and Daddy said he remembers helping older children with their lessons. Daddy’s first year, his teacher was a young woman, a pretty young woman. She was doing very well and had no serious problems until winter began. In the wintertime, the young men on the farms had little to do, and so they went back to school. So here was this pretty young woman, probably only twenty years old, with young male students who were that age and older. And the young men were all “sweet” on her. She was successful in rebuffing their advances, but one afternoon, she went to the outdoor “privy”, stepped inside and closed the door. The young men immediately tipped it over, door side down and all ran away. Pandemonium. Finally, a rescue was made, the young woman went to the house where she was boarding (my father’s home), packed her bags and left the very next day.

Grandpa quickly hired the next teacher, this time a man. Daddy said the man arrived and the first thing he did, after welcoming the children, was to tell the young men they had to leave. All went except for one, the oldest and largest. He told the teacher, “You’ll have to make me go.” The teacher, a much smaller man, knew this would be his most crucial test. He took a deep breath, took off his coat, and told the fellow to step outside. Daddy said the kids all rushed for the windows and watched the fight. The young man was larger and stronger than the teacher, but the teacher was very determined. His job was on the line. It didn’t take long. When the fight was over, the young man started for home. The teacher came inside, put on his coat, and called the classes to order. There were no further problems.

I think about the education those children received in that little one-room schoolhouse. It was probably cozy and smelly; little pot-bellied stove belching smoke, a cloakroom that smelled of wet wool and mucky galoshes, left over lunches, and warm little bodies. A one-room schoolhouse with limited supplies. No fancy science labs there. No gymnasium. Art and music only if the teacher was so inclined. Teachers with little training. It probably ended with grade six, maybe eight. For high school, Daddy and his siblings had to go to boarding school in a nearby town. Yet Daddy and all his brothers went on to college and all did well. They read books in those days, serious books, and talked about them. Everyone knew the importance of an education. In the evenings after dinner, Grandpa had the children do their schoolwork and then read stories out of the Bible. Daddy said they all hid magazines in their Bibles. I wonder if Grandpa knew about those magazines. Daddy said his father was a hard taskmaster when it came to raising boys. But I was sure Grandpa knew and allowed. I knew a Grandpa who was retired from preaching and raising boys. He was sweet, and permissive. After all, he’d been a boy once himself. When we lived with them for that short time, you could set your watch by the times that Grandpa came in for his coffee and “a bit of something sweet.” He’d give me a sugar cube to hold on my tongue, and then let me sip coffee through it. Delicious. “Don’t tell your mother,” he’d say. I never did.

I loved these tales. They were like out of storybooks for me, out of a time long past, a way of living I could only imagine. I wish my mother had told more of her stories. She did tell a few. But that’s a different post…

Dear friend Jennifer Mackley surprised me by putting together a book of my first year’s blogs. Then she peppered the pages with photos from my Mother’s old photo albums. Here is the link if anyone is interested. She titled the book Quilting Reflections:


  1. What a great post! Oh my gosh, a book! That'll be on my shelf in no time! :)

  2. You have such a rich and storied family history. Thank you for sharing it.

  3. Interesting story! I picture John Wayne in the role of your grandfather :) Juliet atCity Muse Country Muse

  4. It is an interesting story. School was so different back then. So hard on the teachers. I love how the community all came together to help out. I think schools today would be better if parents took an interest in their children's school.