Verne could hardly wait until recess time. His clear blue eyes belied his impatience as he glanced at the girl standing at her desk. The only other student in his grade at the one room rural school in Wayne County, Nebraska, District 81,1 Irma Vonseggern twisted the corner of her apron tie as she slowly articulated each word of the preamble to the Constitution, today’s history lesson.
The snowy outdoors beckoned, and waiting was difficult for a ten-year-old boy. When Irma finished, they could go. Running his hand through hair the color of hay, he thought of the row of sleds leaning against the building outside. The snow was packed and perfect for sledding down the hill from the school. Finally, Irma sat down.
“You may close your books,” his teacher said. She dismissed the children by rows to don their coats and boots. His row was last. Jim, Carl, and Neville were already outside.
Finally! With sun sparkling on the snow, Verne blinked as his eyes adjusted to the light. Hat askew and scarf flapping, he charged outdoors. Grabbing his wooden sled, he and his best friend, Richard Moses, raced toward the road where other kids were already whizzing down the hill. Their shrieks and shouts and laughter filled the air. On some sleds as many as four children piled on top of each other, the top person shoving and flopping on when momentum picked up.
Verne and Richard took a running start. As Verne thumped the sled runners onto the snow and plopped stomach down, Richard landed on top of him, and off they went, snow spraying on either side and in their faces. At the bottom of the hill, they rolled off the sled, brushed the snow off their clothes and dragged the sled back up for another ride.
With infrequent traffic on the country roads, especially during or after a snowfall, they gave little thought to cars even though partway down the hill was a cut-back that blocked the view of oncoming vehicles. This time, as Verne and Richard reached the cut-back, they whooshed in front of an oncoming car in the nick of time, the boys wide-eyed and the driver shaking his head. Fortunately, the car had been moving slowly because of the snow. They could hear the shouts of alarm from the teacher and the other children back at the school.
This is a scene I imagine from one of Aunt Virginia’s stories about school days. Telling this incident in later years, she thanked God for the boys’ safety.2
Just like children today, District 81 children mugged for the camera. In the photo below, I'd like to know who that little boy in center front is, but he's not my dad. Verne is the boy in the middle of row 3. Virginia is the first girl on the left of row 2, her white apron askew. This photo was taken about 1923-24. They certainly look like little, rag-tag farm kids.
Whatever it took, my paternal grandparents Mary and Clint Troutman made sure their children went to school.
Like most rural schools in those days, the building was a one-story, plain white, wood-sided structure usually standing on a corner lot donated by a local farmer. Three or four windows on each side provided light, perhaps a single bulb hanging from a cord if the school was lucky enough to be electrified. A hallway inside the front entrance sported metal hooks or wooden pegs where the children hung their coats, scarves, and mittens. On wet days in the spring and fall, a row of muddy boots, or snowy boots in winter, stood below the coats. If it wasn’t freezing, lunch pails sat on the hallway floor, but on cold days, the children carried their lunch pails inside the classroom, so the food wouldn’t freeze in the unheated entryway.3
On windy, winter days, the dads sometimes brought their children to school in horse-drawn sleighs or wagons filled with straw and heated bricks to keep the children’s feet warm.4 Clint’s children snuggled under a horse-hair blanket. Moisture from the horses' breath froze and hung in icicles from their noses.5
When they came to pick up their children on those snowy days, the dads would stand in the hallway and chat about their crops or their animals or another pressing farm issue. One of those days, Virginia overheard her dad talking, and for the first time, she noticed that his Virginia accent stood out from the others. She remembers: “The farmers were talking about shelling corn, a winter job when one man said he would need help. Instead of saying, ‘I’ll help you,’ [my dad] said, “Ah’l hep ya.’” Even so, some of the dads spoke with a German brogue, so her dad was not so unusual.6
Inside the classroom, the double desks, supplied with inkwells, were arranged in rows facing the teacher’s desk. Each child had a seatmate. A black board and rolls of pull-down maps covered the wall behind the teacher. Above the board hung the American Flag plus portraits of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln solemnly eyeing the students.7 Every morning, the children recited the pledge to the flag. They used the board to write their math problems or perhaps diagram a sentence.
In the middle of the room stood a big, black pot-bellied stove.8 Whoever sat closest to it toasted in winter, while the ones seated around the edges of the room shivered from the drafty walls.
Many of Aunt Virginia's storied came out of that school. More to come.
1 Virginia Nelsen, “Virginia Remembers Country School,” Troutman Family Newsletter: This One’s a Keeper!, 1998, Troutman: Family Newsletters and Other Historical Info, binder, privately held, Z. T. Noble [ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE] Anderson, Indiana, 2016. Also, Neville Troutman, “Neville’s Memory Book with Virginia’s Memories of Country School,” compiled by Sharon Lamson, Troutman Family Newsletter: This One’s a Keeper!, 1998. Also, Verne Troutman, “Grandpa Verne’s Story,” edited by Z. T. Noble, computer files, Documents, Recovered, “Dad’s Story2.”
2 Virginia Nelsen, “Virginia Remembers.”
4 Ibid. Also, Verne Troutman, “Grandpa Verne’s Stories.”
5 Verne Troutman, “Grandpa Verne’s Stories.”
6 Virginia Nelsen, “Virginia Remembers Country School.”
© 2016, Z. T. Noble