From a photograph by Solomon D. Butcher of four daughters of rancher Joseph M. Chrisman, at their sod house in Custer County, Nebraska. From left to right, Harriet, Elizabeth, Lucie, and Ruth. Photographed in 1886.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Riding Horseback to School

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



We had a small horsebarn at the little country school I attended, but I never rode horseback to school. In fact, in my seven years (1958-1965) at Duff Valley District 4, the Fowler kids rode horses one day-- just for fun, I think. They had to tie the horses to the barbed wire fence because the school barn wasn't usable, and they never rode horseback to school again. No one else ever did, either.

Barn in the Schoolyard

The barn behind the Duff Valley schoolhouse was a relic from the early days when ranch kids rode horseback if they lived too far away to walk to school. The barn had enough room for six or eight horses, and some of the kids probably rode two-to-a-horse.

Old-time deskSometime, Duff Valley School had changed from the old-time desks of the late 1800's to one-person desks that were still being used. The old-time desks were stored in the barn along with a few broken pieces of classroom furniture, some busted-up fruit crates, an old door, and some old lumber that still had nails in it.

Behind the barn, someone had nailed boards between two cottonwood trees that grew close by. We were strictly forbidden to climb that makeshift ladder to the roof, but the big boys sometimes hid on the roof when we played "Hide and Seek." When the person who was "it" went around the back of the barn, they'd slide down the front side of the roof, leap to the ground, and run "home." We little kids were in awe of their nerve, even while we were angry at their cheating.

Playing in the Old School Barn

We weren't supposed to hide in the barn or play in there at all because it was unsafe. But one year, we had only five girls in school -- me, my sister, and three of the Horner girls. We were such good kids that our teacher, Mrs. Schubert, probably couldn't believe her luck. That winter, she let us play in the barn with the strict rule that we had to stay out of the stall that had the lumber with nails in it.

Oh, the fun we had. We invented a little play about a wedding. (We were fascinated with weddings.) I was the groom, and Velda was the bride. Or maybe it was the other way around. I can't remember, but we stood up together. Carolyn was the preacher, and she arrived on stage by sliding down the old door we had propped against the hay manger. The two little girls were the ringbearer and the flower girl.

Mrs. Schubert let us use some of the school's Christmas program curtains and we strung them from the rafters. After much rehearsal, we invited her out, performed our drama (including several new verses to "Here Comes The Bride",) and then served cookies for the reception. She must have been amazed at our fertile little minds.

Duff Valley District 4The barn appears at far left in this summertime photograph of Duff Valley School, my alma mater. The school was still in use at the time of the photo, but it closed soon thereafter and the neighborhood children went to a new two-room consolidated school at Rose, a wide spot in the road about 30 miles south of Bassett, with a post office, a store, and a community hall.


Stories From My Parents' Childhoods

A generation or two earlier, it was a common thing for ranch children to ride horseback to school. Both my parents did so. My mother's round trip by horseback was probably six or eight miles. Mama told about taking a hot baked potato in her pocket in the morning. It kept one hand at a time warm on the way to school, and it was also her lunch. Grandpa Sees was a potato farmer, and it was the 1930's. They got by with what they had.

In 1940, when my mother graduated from high school and got her first job as a teacher in the Lavaca community of Cherry County, Nebraska, her contract included a horse to ride to school.

My father and his younger brother and sister made a ten-mile round trip by horseback. My Aunt Cleona wrote in a letter of memories, "All them good old days riding horseback to school facing that old northwest wind and so cold you could hear the screech of horsehooves on the snow."

My father was the oldest child, and when his little brother started school, he rode double behind my dad. One horrible day, his little brother had an accident of the worst sort in his pants at school and my dad had to take him home. Daddy had a vivid memory of the humiliation and then the long trip home. When he told us this story, we laughed but his face still showed a little of the pain of that day.

These stories sound "long ago and far away", but not even a century ago-- not even seventy-five years ago-- many children of the prairie rode horses to school. The communal memory of Midwestern country folks of my parents' age contained many stories of those horseback journeys, and this is my small contribution to the preservation of a few of those tales.

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5 comments:

Sammie said...

We often rode horses to our country school two miles from our home. Dad always made us take off their bridles and turn them lose and they'd go home. He wouldn't let us tie them to the wire fence for fear they'd get spooked and get cut on the barb wire. The bad thing about turning them lose was that it usually meant we had to walk home after school which we all didn't like. We would have loved to had a barn to put them in. There were five of us in our family going to our country school of 7 or 8. We would all start out together but my sister Cindy would always take off and beat us home. It used to really make me mad but she was as fast as a jack rabbit and "never" listened to her big sister bossing her around. One time I remember we were told by our teacher to wear our over shoes as there was still snow on the ground. My younger sister took hers off and somehow even though we were about a quarter mile away from the school the teacher knew and came real fast in her car. My sister put her overshoes on but they were on the wrong feet. Boy, did she get a whipping from the teacher. My little brother told my Dad that our teacher had come on "our" land. Of course if we got in trouble with the teacher, our parents figured we deserved it.

Genevieve said...

Thanks for adding your stories, Sammie. I remembered that you and your brothers and sisters used to ride to school, and I was hoping you'd share some memories.

Pondering Pig said...

I just found this sweet memory on December 30, thanks to your reposting the link. But you wrote it on October 8 - my Dad's birthday. He would have been 100 years old this year.
Dad loved to tell stories of his boyhood when the family homesteaded in the Peace River country of Canada along the British Columbia-Alberta line. One of his favorites was how he rode horseback to school every day and played tag with the other boys on horseback at lunchtime. Because all the kids came in on horseback. That would have been about 1916-1918. Thanks for the memory.

Genevieve said...

You know, Mr. Pig, the older I get, the more I realize that 100 years is not really very long at all. We are so close to all that I've written about here, yet we're far beyond it and we'll never go back.

Pondering Pig said...

That's why books are so great - they are windows into that rich past we can never retrieve until time travel is perfected. I'm reading a book right now by an Englishman who, at the age of 18, walked from Holland to Constantinople. As he tells the story (a memoir, not fiction) his whole world materializes in front of me and it's 1933 and the Nazis have been in power for only ten months, and no German city has yet been bombed to smithereens. And he's on foot in Swabia in a snowstorm. It's still the old Europe of the movie Foreign Correspondent. Only words can do that.
I feel sorry for so many kids today who are growing up never having that doorway into other worlds. I love movies too, but, compared to a well-written book - they just can't cut it. Our imaginations will always be far superior to technology - if it is trained through a childhood spent reading.

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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.