Early Education in Marion County

By Earl Berry

The location of the first public schools in Marion County was dependent primarily on the families involved. When a neighborhood contained enough children to warrant the establishment of a school, the parents would agree on a near central point, cooperate with their work and erect a building. These buildings were usually made of logs, chinked (or daubed) with mud. One opening was left for a door, one opening at one end for a fireplace, and a third opening for a window. If sash and glass could be obtained, a real window would be put in the opening. Otherwise, it would be covered with oiled paper. The floors were sometimes made of split logs but more often the floor was just a plain dirt floor. The furniture was made by splitting small logs then using a drawing knife to smooth the split side. The logs were put on legs by boring holes and driving strong pegs in them. Thoughtful parents would make the seats of different heights so little ones could be seated comfortably with their feet touching the floor. Others made the seats all the same height. The desk in the room was made of a wide board resting on pegs driven into one of the logs. There the pupils would take turns at their writing lessons.

These neighborhoods were sparsely settled and often meant that some of the children had to walk long distances to school. As the population increased, new districts were often formed by annexing land from two or more adjacent districts or by simply dividing a large district into two smaller ones.

When the new districts were created, the people improved the type of buildings by using hewed logs and puncheon floors. Cast iron stoves took the place of the fireplaces. As time went on some districts used lumber to make frame buildings. There was an increased number of windows but they were usually narrow. Along with the frame buildings came the homemade seats and double desks for pupils and a table for the teacher. These were still rather crude but what an improvement over the split log seats.

According to early history of the schools the pupils obtained and used whatever books they could acquire. About the only book with which the children were supplied was Webster's spelling book -- the old "blue-back" -- still remembered by the oldsters of the county. Other books were McGuffey's and Wilson's readers, Ray's series of Arithmetic, Olney's and Mitchell's geographies. Then by the early teens in 1900 such books as Barnes history, Silver-Burdett arithmetics, Young and Field's Literary readers were among those in use in the county. In 1917 legislation was enacted that authorized uniform elementary school textbooks.

The early teachers knew how to make quill pens from feathers and ink from oak balls (galls) or pokeberries. These, of course, had to have a preservative added to prevent fermentation. Writing paper was scarce -- once used it was gone. The slate is well-remembered by many. It was in use for several years and had it not been for the awareness of something called "sanitation" it would probably have been used longer. The slate could have been erased in a sanitary way. However, it seemed handier to spit on the slate and rub it off with the sleeve.

As the "spittin" on the slate era went out, more paper became available. Two of the most popular brands were Big Chief and Fifty-Fifty. Big Chief had longer sheets of paper and was the most economical. Most families bought it because of economic conditions. The Fifty-Fifty was a stronger, smoother paper. After it had served its purpose of preparation of lessons and they had been checked by the teacher, it made good sturdy spit balls for the mischief-makers. Red cedar penny pencils were the most popular for writing. The eraser was glued in at the top. The glue was not very strong and before long the erasing had to be done by holding the small eraser between the forefinger and thumb. The pencil had to last as long as possible.

Many parents and grandparents of today can vividly recall the mode of dress in the early school days. It certainly stands in sharp contrast to that of the present day. Little girls often had one basic dress for school. That dress, however, was supplemented with an apron or a pinafore which served at least two purposes. It kept the dress cleaner and its ruffles were attractive. The high-topped shoes were made of leather. When the leather soles wore out, the father or mother half-soled them with another piece of leather. Usually a little girl's hair was parted in the middle, pulled back and braided into two braids or pigtails. During the winter months long-legged knit underwear was worn. The long legs were stuffed down in long cotton stockings and a pair of dark colored flannelette bloomers (panties) that came to the knees were worn over the "long handles" as the underwear was called. During the three months of the summer term a cooler material for bloomers was substituted for the bulky ones. Cool gingham or calico dresses buttoned down the back, with two round collars and two pockets, to hold treasures, were worn.

The boys wore the usual overalls and homemade shirts. When their overalls were too soiled to wear to school, they wore their long, best, dress pants. These "Sunday pants" were held up by suspenders. The younger boys had knee pants for Sunday-best and sometimes wore them to school. In winter the boys wore "long handles", too. A heavy jacket and a cap with ear flaps was the outdoor style.

In summer the majority of the youngsters walked over the miles barefoot. Sore toes and stone bruises often caused high temperatures and much pain. Sometimes they would cause the child to have a few days absence from school, then he or she would fall behind in 'headmarks' in reading or spelling classes.

Early school days weren't all 'readin', 'ritin', and 'rithmetic. Although discipline was strict and well carried through in the 1890's and early 1900's enjoyment was part of the curriculum. The outdoor plumbing was no problem to the boys and girls. In many of the districts "girls went up the road" from the building, and "the boys went down the road." Often the younger children would get permission during study hours to leave the room. They would do some playing along the way when they were out of sight of the teacher. At recesses the boys would go "down the road", climb saplings to the top, bend them over and ride them. Whee! What was more fun than seeing who could ride the highest! Sometimes a youngster would falloff and get hurt. Then, the "fat was in the fire" with the teacher. The girls would "go up the road", and talk about their beaus (boy friends). Often a little sister to some beau would carry "love notes" from the big girls. They would very carefully hide them so "Teacher" wouldn't see them.

During summer terms of school the districts that were near enough to each other for children to walk, ride horses, or ride in a farm wagon would have school rallies. A school rally consisted of mental and physical scholastic competition.

Mental competition covered spelling, arithmetic and oral reading. The spelling contest was often in the form of a "spelling bee" or a "spelldown". It was presented in different manners. Sometimes it was oral with teams from each school represented. At other times the words would be written by the contestants. Next came the oral reading with the reader trying to read longer than his opponent without missing a word. Last, but not least, came the most exciting contest of all, the ciphering match (now called an arithmetic or math contest). The team with the most scores at the end of a given time won.

After the morning session of mental competition was completed, lunches (carried in tin pails to the rally) were eaten and physical games began. These games consisted of horseshoe pitching, foot races, high jump, sack races, pole vaulting and others.

During the winter months a "spelling bee" at night was a very popular mode of entertainment. It was educational as well as entertaining. People would attend from miles around. Pre-study would go on in the homes from one session until the next.

On the school grounds, practice went on every recess by pupils who hoped to excel at the next rally. The age range of the school children often ran from 5 or 6 to 18 or older. All of them were not interested in such challenging at rallies. These children found great joy in playing Wolf-over-the-River, dare base, New Orleans and others.

There was no lack of creativity in these Marion County children. Often the younger girls made playhouses, using rocks to outline the house and to partition the rooms. Thin flat rocks were used for furniture. They used their own creative ideas of building the furniture and, if someone was fortunate enough to have a piece of broken mirror, it served as a mirror for their dresser. Pieces of broken dishes, even small pieces, were treasures to take to school and use for dishes. They would pick wild flowers to make bouquets for their houses.

Each playhouse would have a 'pretend family' consisting of a mother, father, baby and several other children. These families would visit from house to house and the children would be sent to do 'pretend chores'. On(sic), what fun they had. Creativity was inspired by their love of playing.

The creators did not always find their playhouses intact when they got another play period. Pranksters often slipped around and disarranged them. The pranksters would hide until the little girls had gone into the house when recess was over and disarrange these places. But woe unto those boys when the girls found out who had done the job. They were chased, caught, scratched, and "screamed at". The teacher usually had to punish a few before the ordeal was ended.

Reprinted with permission from History of Marion County edited by Earl Berry, copyright 1977.