Washington Evening Journal
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Neighbors Growing Together | May 25, 2017

Empty Nest: One Room Country-Schools Reunion

By Curt Swarm

The first thing I noticed about this group of elderly country-schoolers was that they were not obese.  Maybe it was because they grew up in a time when sugar was a rarity, used only for special occasions.  Or maybe it was because they drank from a common bucket and dipper at the one-room schools, or, because of outdoor toilets, didn’t wash their hands after using.  Whatever.  
I had been invited to attend a reunion of one-room country schools in Batavia.  There were 32 people in attendance, with at least one former teacher.  The average age of the group was around 80, and the potluck food was, of course, excellent (which was the real draw for me).
Country schools from two counties were represented—Jefferson and Wapello—with names such as Hickory Ridge, Centennial, No. 7, Cross Lanes No. 3, Polk 5 (Bogus), Hazeldell (Pot Lick), Locust Grove No. 3, Des Moines No. 2, Indiana No. 1, and Bumblebee.           
Of course, stories abounded, starting slowly at first, but then pouring forth like the clear, cold well water from their one-room country schools.
“I ran a trap line on the way to school.  One morning there was a civet cat in a trap.  I clubbed it so that I could pick it up on the way home.  When I got to school, the teacher sent me home again.  I guess I smelled pretty ripe!”
“My brother and I rode a Shetland pony to school.  My father built a shed beside the school to put the pony in.  One morning, I was sick, and my brother had to ride the pony alone.  The pony didn’t like that, and turned around and ran home.  The pony turned into the driveway, and my brother went straight.  My dad whipped the pony, put my brother back on, and sent them off to school again.”
“We had a pasture by the school.  We drove the cows to the pasture on the way to school, and then drove them home again after school.  Of course, we tried to ride them, but that didn’t work.”
“One boy put a baby garter snake in an ink well, and held his hand over it.  When he took his hand off, the snake rose up.  The teacher couldn’t figure out what we were screaming about.”
“Our teacher would take us home.  First the girls, then the boys.  We worked for 50 cents a day, doing chores, cleaning, ironing, and washing clothes.”
“The county superintendent would try to sneak out without us knowing she was coming.  She would put her ear up to the door and listen to what was going on.  We were to watch for her and let the teacher know if she was coming.”
“We went out at noon hour and gathered milkweed pods.  The silk was used in parachutes and life jackets for the war.”
“I started to school at four-years-old because my brother wouldn’t go to school without me.”     
“There was a Naval Air Station at Ottumwa.  One-half mile from school there was a 160-acre strip that the Navy used for aircraft-carrier training.  The steersmen would touch down, and then take off.  They flew under power lines and bridges, and buzzed the school.  One of the pilots was Richard Nixon.”
“Upon graduation from eighth grade, we had to take a test to see if we were smart enough to attend high school.  The town kids didn’t have to take that test.  But we were better educated because we heard what was going on in the other grades.”  
The one-room country schools reunion in Batavia may not last much longer.  The former students are aging.  But the memories live on, contained in scrapbooks, newspaper articles, and on the walls and foundations of the one-room schools that are left, some of them turned into farm buildings and homes, the backbone of American education embedded forever.

Have a good story?  Call of text Curt Swarm in Mt. Pleasant at 319-217-0526, email him at curtswarm@yahoo.com, or visit his website at www.empty-nest-words-photos-and-fra mes.com.  Curt also reads his columns on www.lostlakeradio.com