Tuesday, May 16, 2006

District 44 at Johnstown, Nebraska

All In The Family... Another Trip Down Memory Lane... Life in The Nebraska Sandhills...

From the time Daddy and Mama were married through the end of my first grade year, they lived out in the Sandhills of Brown County, Nebraska, south of the small village of Johnstown.

In the 1950's, the countryside was much more populated than it is now, but even then, it was a remote area without many human inhabitants. The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl had thinned out the homesteaders considerably, and every period of economic stress for ranchers since then has reduced the population even more.

We lived within School District 44. I don't know how many sections of land were in the district, but it was large. In recognition of that fact, the little schoolhouse was built on skids (large wooden sled runners) so that it could be moved to a convenient location for the school children. When I went to school there (1956-57), my brother and I were the only children in the district, so the schoolhouse was right across the road from our house.

My brother was in 4th grade at the time I started kindergarten. For some of his first years of school, he had been taught by a lady named Miss Ingerson. I don't know if there were any other children in school then, or not.

By the time I came along, Miss Ingerson had quit and my mother was our teacher. Mama didn't like that situation because she was afraid we would grow up warped from a lack of social contact. However, no other teacher could be found who was willing to come out to the middle of nowhere to work for next to nothing. I believe Mama earned $40 per month for teaching us.

Mama had taught school for several years before she was married, and she was a certified teacher. She was serious about our proper education. School was held for the required 7-1/2 hours per day for 175 days. We had lessons, assignments, art projects, music class, and recess just like all school children do. At lunch time, we walked across the road and went home to eat.

I remember that the little schoolhouse had a row of windows along its south side. There were several student desks and a teacher desk. We had a variety of textbooks, mostly old, that were kept on a bookcase and a set of small brownish encyclopedias that actually belonged to Mama. There were a few toys and puzzles and some modeling clay.

In that little schoolhouse, my mother taught me to read, using "My Little Red Storybook" and its successors from the Ginn Basic Readers series. Tom and Betty, their little sister Susan, and their dog Flip had many adventures mostly told by pictures. The vocabulary was limited to phrases like "See Tom run," and "See Flip jump."

Two items in the schoolhouse became quite dear to me. One was a little abacus with ten rows of colored beads that slid on wires. The other was a little phonograph that looked much like small suitcase when the lid was closed. It had a wind-up handle on the side of it, and with some cranking, it stored enough energy to play a record.

We had a dozen or so red 78-rpm children's records that were only a little larger in diameter than today's CD's. Each side of the little records held one song. My favorite one had Burl Ives singing, "Little White Duck."

There's a little white duck, sitting in the water,
A little white duck, doing what he oughter.
He took a bite of the lilypad,
Flapped his wings and he said, "I'm glad
I'm a little white duck sitting in the water!
Quack! Quack! Quack!"

And the plot thickens from there...

I remember one day Mama let us go outside and watch an airplane that was flying low overhead. That was a very unusual thing to see.

Once a year, the County Superintendent of Schools came to visit. Her name was Esther Miller, and she had once been a schoolteacher herself. Once, she had me sit beside her and read to her. She was wearing a bracelet of polished colored stones which she showed me. My mother told me later that Mrs. Miller tried hard to help the teachers in the little rural schools. My mother had a lot of respect for her.

I cannot tell you how it grieved my heart when my parents moved from that ranch and we left the little schoolhouse and its record player and abacus behind. (Mama said we couldn't take them!) I don't believe the little building was ever used again as a school, and I don't know what ever became of its contents.

Part of the reason that my parents moved was that they wanted us to grow up around other kids, and in the Duff Valley in Rock County, 30 miles south of Bassett, we did indeed attend rural school and country church with several other families. Those children became almost like siblings to us.

Several years back, I wrote about my memories of District 44 south of Johnstown, Nebraska, (described above) and Duff Valley District 4, a one-room school west of Rose, Nebraska, which I attended from second grade through eighth grade. I submitted these writings to the Brown County and Rock County sites in the Nebraska section of Rootsweb and for at least five years, they were available there to anyone who was interested.

To my surprise, those articles seem to have been removed. The Rock County site seems to have eliminated all the narratives it once contained and now provides only high school records, with no mention at all of the rural schools. I can't even find a site for Brown County. I guess they are trying to concentrate more on things that will provide names and dates to people researching geneology, and less on the actual history of the areas.

So this article replicates some of the things I related in one of the articles that has vanished, and I will update it when I stumble across my original article in my files. I will also rewrite my article about Duff Valley District 4 -- but not today. :)

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Christopher Newton said...

Thank you for this lovely little picture of what seems like a life lived long ago in a far away place. Yet it was in my own lifetime and I remember that same reader - with imitation Dick and Jane and Spot characters. I liked them anyway.

You have a direct connection to the world of Willa Cather and, before her, Laura Ingalls Wilder. How really special and wonderful.

Genevieve said...

Tom, Betty, and Flip were imitation Dick, Jane, and Spot characters? Surely not! :D

By the way, I read dozens of "Freddie the Pig" books from the library when I was a kid. I even owned one called Freddie's Perilous Adventure. The reason I owned it was that I left it outside in the rain.

After you leave Red Cloud, Nebraska, (Willa Cather's childhood home), you should take Highway 2 from Grand Island to Alliance. It is a beautiful, soul-refreshing drive through the southern side of the Nebraska Sandhills.

Many things from my childhood seem old-fashioned and quaint when I write about them. But I assure you that one-room schools in the Nebraska Sandhills with only a handful of students still exist, and ranch families still live out in the hills, miles from even a paved road. There are just fewer than there used to be.

When I took my kids to Nebraska a few years ago, we were driving through the hills north of Arthur where it is still beautiful open Sandhill prairie, and we saw a road sign that pointed to a ranch 20 miles off the highway, somewhere out in the hills. The kids said they had seen the sign that pointed to the middle of nowhere, even if they hadn't been there yet. :D

Christopher Newton said...

I'm so glad you are familiar with the exploits of our noble Freddy, greatest of the talking pigs. It's encouraging.

Patrushka and I have driven that Route 2 you mention out to Alliance. I agree that it is a beautiful and peaceful drive. However, this trip we plan to turn south after Red Cloud and head for Lincoln County Kansas to see if we can find Amy Babcock's grave.

Some busy geneologists posted online the entire 1885 census for Lincoln County, KS and I was able to find my ancestors and determine which township they lived in. Pretty cool. So we are going to have a looksee.

I really enjoy your stories.

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CONTENTMENT: Keep your heart free from hate, your mind from worry, live simply, expect little, give much, sing often, pray always, forget self, think of others and their feelings, fill your heart with love, scatter sunshine. These are the tried links in the golden chain of contentment.
(Author unknown)

IT IS STILL BEST to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasure; and to be cheerful and have courage when things go wrong.
(Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1867-1957)

Thanks for reading.