Memories of the One Room Schoolhouse

An old timer reminisces about lunch time, games, traveling, and student discipline in the days of the one room schoolhouse.

one room schoolhouse - class session

A typical one room schoolhouse session.

Farm Collector Magazine Staff

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In the days of the one room schoolhouse, lunch time was visitin' time. Every child carried his or her lunch, usually in a syrup pail, or, in rare cases, a store-bought lunch pail with compartment for pie and even a container built in for drink such as cocoa or lemonade. Kool Aid was still in the future. 'Course at recess most of the pupils had sampled their lunch to 'tide them over' until noon and then the trading started.

Waldo Catterton always had winter radishes that were prized by all who had none and we often traded our apples from the apple hole for some of his radishes and carrots. Then Joe Sumner usually could be counted on for trading his soda biscuits with cold grease gravy spread and marmalade for your home-cured ham on home-made bread. Arthur Vanatta used to bring chocolate pudding and my, how we yearned for some and often Mother would try to make some but rarely did the corn starch set up so we could spoon the pudding, but it was a good drink anyway.

Fried egg with a big slice of onion on home-made bread with thick butter isn't bad, nor is cold 'soup' beans with dill pickle and onion something to sneeze about; they are filling, to say the least. The only time we had oranges was at Christmas, and then only one per child. So we seldom saw one of them in the lunch bucket. The capacity of growing 12-year old boys is unknown. Mother would make enough sandwiches for recess, for lunch, plus maybe one to trade, and then one to eat on the way home. It was a two-mile walk each way, although once in a while, you could hitch a ride on a farm wagon coming from town with maybe a load of lime or coal.

In a rare treat someone would come by in one of those newfangled automobiles. The Lewis family had a Cole that was a huge red car with leather straps from the top of the windshield down to the fenders. It was right hand drive with the brake on the outside of the body and no front doors. Before that they had a Cadillac that was even bigger and noisier — 16 cylinders, I believe. John Van Gilder was the sport of the area with a Stutz Bearcat in which he would only use White Rose Gasoline that he hauled from Evansville in a Reo Speedwagon, a truck with wire sides like a chain link fence.

After lunch we played games at the school, the teacher usually getting them started and controlling them. Baseball games were popular, with some of the girls wielding more power at the bat than the boys. The homemade baseball was string around a center of a walnut to give it some body. This was called 'hard' ball and, if you were ever clobbered with one, you remember. We had few rules in the ballgame. Over the fence 'the bats' were out. Three strikes and you were out. No one had a ball glove as such, although a pretty good catcher's mitt could be made from one of Dad's horse-hide gloves with some sheep wool stuffed into the palm. The owner of the ball usually had the say on any question of rules. If we didn't agree with him, he would take the ball and we couldn't play. Simple.

Marbles was a popular game, especially with the boys, who would play 'keepers.' You made a circle in the dirt about two feet across and put three or more marbles in the center, one for each player, then the players took turns shooting in the attempt of knocking the marbles out of the ring if a player succeeded he got to keep it. Sometimes one boy would win all the marbles and that was the end of the game that day. Dad told me my Uncle Bruce was such a good player that one day he came home crying because he had no one to play with - he had won all the marbles and there were none left.

Run Sheep Run, Hide and Seek, Grab the Hat, were all common games then, and even today they haven't changed much. In winter, when the snow was on the ground, Fox and Goose was popular, and at mixed parties with boys and girls present, the swinging games like 'Farmer in the Dell' and 'Three Old Bums' were popular. Each of them had its song like "Three old bums a sliding west, sliding west, sliding west, three old bums a sliding west on a cold and frosty morning. The ice was thin and they fell in, they fell in, they fell in and the rest all ran away." At which time the 'bums' in the center picked a party and swung her or him around and then they in turn were the three old bums. In 'Farmer in the Dell,' the farmer was in the center of the ring and the group circled him singing: "The farmer in the dell, the farmer in the dell, hi ho the merrie-o, the farmer in the dell." The farmer takes a wife (and he picks a girl who joins him in the center) and then the wife picks the child, the child picks a dog, the dog a cat, the cat a mouse, the mouse picks the cheese, then the cheese becomes the farmer and the game starts all over again. One could get a few hugs this way and that was the point of the game (I think).

Most of the boys played Mumbley Peg. Since every boy carried a pocket knife, this game used that knife by the boys opening the blades and sticking it in the ground by dropping it from various positions in order, until it failed to stick and he lost his turn. There were some dozen or more positions in the routine, knuckles, over the shoulder, from the ear, etc.

The smaller girls, particularly, like to play Jacks. Little six-sided metal jacks were picked up between bounces of a small rubber ball. First one, then two, until all had been picked up in rotation without touching other than the ones to be picked up. Today it is hard to find the metal jacks and even a rubber ball. Once in a while one still sees children playing with them.

Another popular game was jumping over cracks in the walk, where there was a walk. 'Don't step on a crack, break your grandmother's back' was a saying I recall.

Bicycles were few and far between. In fact, in all of my eight years in grade school, I only knew of two, and neither of them were owned by school children. There was one owned by a young man in the neighborhood — which was very tempting to us as we walked by his home and saw it sitting on the porch. In fact, we were known to sneak a ride once in a while. I got a well deserved strapping one day because I rode it and when the owner called Dad, I said I had not ridden it. I got a whuppin' not for the riding, but for the lying about it.

Whippings? Well, it was common practice that if you got one in school you got another when you got home. Some teachers used the rod more than others. One lady used a strap and used it often and well. But the worst whipping ever was to have the teacher send you out to cut a switch so she could use it on you. Switches smarted around the legs, where the cardboard from tablets hid in the seat of the pants failed to cover. Some of the boys got so many whippings that they wore two or even three layers of pants, even when it was warm, 'just in case.' Some of the boys were bigger than the teacher and often it was a clash of wills that brought on a showdown, most often won by the teacher. I never knew a teacher who failed to give the promised punishment, and aside from the problems that one teacher had with the parents, in most cases the parent and teacher saw eye to eye and there was no problem. FC


The late Perry Piper was a newspaper columnist in Indiana and Illinois for more than 12 years. His columns, reprinted here from his memoirs, appear in Farm Collector with the permission of his family.