Called Elgin No. 1 —
School days, school days
Dear old golden rule days
Readin’ and ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmetic
Taught to the tune of the hickory stick
Music by Gus Edwards; lyrics by Will D. Cobb, 1907
ORANGE CITY – Built in 1875 on an acre of land, Elgin No. 1 was just one of thousands of one-room school buildings that dotted Iowa’s landscape during the 1800s up to around 1960 for Sioux County.
Phares Lefever, member of the Sioux County Historical Society, volunteers his time during this community’s annual Tulip Festival and other events to reveal to younger generations, and other visitors, the dynamics of a one-room school.
Fourth-grade students from LeMars Franklin Elementary School sat in the old school desks last week and listened as Lefever told about a day in the life in a rural schoolhouse.
“A school was located every four miles, that way a student didn’t have to walk any further than two miles. The schools sat on one acre of land.”
Lefever had attended a one room school in Lancaster, Penn., where a large portion of his classmates were Amish children. Pennsylvannia had the same pictures of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln on the school walls as did Iowa schools, he said.
The schools began their days when the teachers rang their bells. The teachers, usually women, had time pieces, as many schools did not have clocks. Before entering the building, students would first assemble outside to raise the American flag, while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Once inside she read a devotion.
The students would sing from “The Golden Book of Favorite Songs.” Lefever has seen this book in many old schoolhouses. It contained folk songs, hymns and patriotic songs. “The Star-Spangled Banner” was in the book before it became the national anthem, he said.
Lefever explained about the recitation desk, where each class member would be required to recite what they had learned. A teacher taught all the grades in that school building which often went to the eighth-grade. Some years a grade wouldn’t have any students or a class might have just have one student.
A 1908 map on the school wall shows the location of all 172 rural schools in Sioux County at that time. Later when the Historical Society wanted a school building none could be found in the county, he said. This Elgin No. 1 building was located in Plymouth County not far from the county line. It was purchased for $50 on Dec. 15, 1969 from the Hawkins family on whose farmland the school sat.
David Hawkins attended that school. It was located just a quarter of a mile north of his family’s farm. When he began kindergarten in 1943, his older sister Blanche Hawkins (later Dennler) was his teacher. His first day was quite memorable.
“I broke my elbow to bits,” he said. “The older boys were pushing the teeter totter around too fast. I couldn’t hang on any longer so fell off. Someone went to the farm place across the road to call my parents as the school did not have a telephone. I missed several weeks of school.”
Hawkins said he attended that school through the seventh-grade in 1950. That year also signified an end to the 75 years that classes had been held in Elgin No. 1.
During his time there he had four teachers, including his sister, Mrs. H.A. Stevens, who taught for a short time before injuries sustained in a car accident ended her career. His sister Blanche finished that teaching term, who as followed by Miss Joyce Utesch and Miss Gysbertsen, who later became Mrs. Brinkman.
Hawkins recalled one time when he got on Miss Gysbertsen’s bad side. Since indoor plumbing did not exist at the school, there were outhouses out back, one for each gender. A vent hole in the outhouse made a fun target for the boys one day, who challenged each other to see who could get a snowball through it. Hawkins succeeded, but the structure was being occupied by Miss Gysbertsen. Though cheered by his classmates, he had one upset teacher on the case.
Determined to find the culprit, she badgered the students, until he confessed. He doesn’t remember the punishment, but had only words of praise for a woman Hawkins described as very nice. She was one teacher he and his wife Judy visited with until her death. Hawkins served as a pall bearer at her funeral.
Most years there were five students in his class, Hawkins recalled. Four boys and one girl. For a few years three more girls were in the class. One family moved into a tenant farm that had four girls. Two of the girls were twins along with their younger sister, who were all in the same grade.
Softball was the favorite sport before school and during recess. Special memories of ball games were when Elgin No. 1 would play a neighboring school. Boys and girls played on the same team as their weren’t enough students for two separate teams. Hawkins thinks the school had approximately 20 to 30 students each year.
He doesn’t remember too many special programs except for one time when a couple of schools put on a joint program in a church hall in Seney. He remembers being scared to death that night as he had to sing a solo. The song Bell Bottom Trousers “brought the house down,” Hawkins said, adding that he wishes he had a video of that night.
While in the class room, Hawkins said they were expected to be quiet. “Discipline was very good.” he said. “On the first day of school, the teacher would tell us the rules and we were expected to abide by them, no matter what. The teacher also expected us to learn our school work.”
They never had homework in the country school, he said, because all farm children had chores at night. But while in school, “we didn’t talk, but spent our time studying, unless it was our turn to recite,” Hawkins said. “Then we would go up to the recitation bench to answer our teacher’s questions or do problems on the blackboard.”
Hawkins walked to school until the last two years. His father had bought a Montgomery Ward garden tractor. A cart was made, so that Hawkins could bring his young niece to school. His older brother had married and lived in a second house on the farm with his family.
Before school began each day, students were expected to fetch water from a farm across the road and bring fuel for the stove. There were a cob house and coal house near the school.
Christine Peterson was the Plymouth County school superintendent. When she came to visit the students were on their best behavior.
All, that is, except Hawkins, who answered a question from his teacher with a “yup.” Peterson asked him if he could say, “yes?” he again answered “yup.” It wasn’t until she asked a third time that he answered, “yes.”
When asked about the quality of education he received at a country school, he would answer that also in affirmative, that it was very good. He told the fourth-graders that he enjoyed the years he spent attending a country school.
Contact Renae Vander Schaaf by e-mail at email@example.com.
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