PRIMARY SCHOOL in the 1930’s
Written by Jerry Wilson
School days, school days, good old fashion rule days, reading, writing, and arithmetic was taught to the tune of a hickory stick. These words from a popular song of the 1890’s were applicable during my primary schooling in the 1930’s. Time out did not come into vogue until half a century later.
All of my primary education took place in one room schools. All teachers were women, ranging in age from those just out of college to one lady with school age children. Except for the first school, all the others buildings were similar in design with white wood clapboard building approximately 25X40 feet, with three windows on each side, and one in the rear. Some had a single front door, and others had two doors about 16 feet apart. Inside, a raised platform eight feet deep occupied the area between the two doors. This was the center of learning. In addition to being the location of the teacher’s desk, there was a large blackboard attached to the wall where we publicly displayed our mental agility. I still feel the embarrassment of standing before the entire student body, chalk in hand, struggling to solve a simple problem in arithmetic. My humiliation was in direct proportion to the number of little Einstein’s seated at their desks frantically waving their hands, and loudly whispering, “I can do it, I can do it.” I don’t know if the root of my dilemma was Dyslexia, a condition not recognized at that time, or plain stupid, the acceptable analysis. I prayed for something to happen which would divert everyone’s attention, but I had no such luck. In the middle of the room was a large cast iron pot belly stove. On the back wall were wooden pegs where we hung our coats and caps. Drinking water was kept in a five-gallon stoneware container. The balance of the room was occupied by approximately 30 + desks of various sizes. Seldom was there an equal match of student to desired desk size. Occasionally two students shared a desk until one was available. Once a year, the wooden floor was sprayed with oil to keep down the dust. Outside was a very small playing field, a building for the storage of coal, and two pit toilets; one for the girls and the other for the boys. Toilet tissue was a Sears & Roebuck catalog.
Teaching all subjects for grades one through eight, in a one-room school, to 30+ students must have been a staggering challenge. Not to mention giving comfort to the young and maintaining order with the unruly. Discipline was never a big problem. Teachers were authorized to spank a student’s bottom with a wooden paddle, or lash the back and legs with a switch. Most parents had a rule, if you were punished at school, it would be duplicated when you got home. I must confess, a few times I went home with a rosy bottom or welts on my back and legs. Was I punished when I got home? Sometimes, but generally, Mother agreed with my logic, it was better to stand up to a bully and fight, than slink away and forever be taunted and abused.
September 1931, my formal education began in an unpainted one room building, constructed out of rough lumber by the Birch Valley Lumber Company. Located at the junction of Powell’s Creek and a narrow deep hollow called Rich Fork, it was called the Rich Fork school. The parents of all students were employed, directly or indirectly, by the lumber company to extract timber from the surrounding area of Powell’s Mountain, in Nicholas County, West Virginia. The County School System paid the salary of the young teacher, Juanita Brown. Except for the warmth of a coal stove and an outhouse, there were few amenities of necessity or comfort. Student enrollment was around 20, including my sister Mary, and brothers Hank and Emery.
The school day began with the pledge of allegiance to the Flag, followed by singing “My Country, Tis of Thee, Sweet Land of Liberty, Of thee I sing, etc.” When I was older, it puzzled me as to why we didn’t sing the Star Spangled Banner. I believe the answer is one of two possibilities  The Star Spangled Banner was not designated the National Anthem by Congress until March 3 1931, and the teacher may not have been informed. Or  she was aware of the change, but did not want us to strain our young tender vocal cords, attempting to hit the high notes. After the opening exercise, Miss Brown inspected our hygiene habits. The Lifebuoy Soap Company had provided a chart to list the name of each pupil, followed by a number of columns, brush teeth, comb hair, clean finger nails, wash hands, face, and ears. Every function a student performed that morning was acknowledged with a gold star being placed in the proper column. To keep peer pressure on the wayward, the chart was posted for all to see. If a student had no missing stars at the end of the week, he or she was rewarded with a small cake of Lifebuoy soap. Red in color, it had a strong pungent odor of Lysol. The first grade reader was a book about Baby Ray, and his animals. He had a dog, a cat, and two cunning kitty-cats. Either silently or orally I read, “Baby Ray had a dog, the dog was little. Baby Ray loved the little dog, the little dog loved Bay Ray,” and so forth. Also, I remember a book about a little Black Bear called twinkly eyes. It was a cute cub that always got into mischief.
The route to school required walking on the railroad track a short distance, and through a pasture enclosed with a high split rail fence which confined a mean Billy Goat. During the summer, Emery and I would wait until he was a safe distance away, and then we would rush out onto the field, yell bah bah, shake our fist at the goat, and make a mad dash for the fence. The objective was to clear the top rail a second or two before the goat crashed head first into the bottom rail. We did not consider this to be teasing, but an exciting and spirited means of honing our racing skills. A couple of times the contest ended too close for comfort. On the way to or from school, if my safety appeared to be in jeopardy, I took the long route around the outside perimeter. One afternoon, taking the long way home, I saw in the distance a mouse running back and forth in a semi-circle. Quietly, I approached close enough to see a large black snake slowly crawling toward the mouse. Both were locked in eye contact. We had always been told not to look a snake in the eye or it would charm you. But no one ever explained what charmed meant. As the snake approached closer and closer, the semi-circle of the hypnotized mouse became smaller and smaller. Ultimately the mouse became the snake’s dinner. So take heed and never, never, look a snake in the eye.
The Rich Fork School existed only one year. For the children who moved to a new logging site, a railroad box car was converted into a school, affectionately referred to as The Box Car Special. Those of us who remained, attended either The Powell’s Mountain School, on the top of the mountain, or the Grogg Spring School, located on a small plot of flat land further down the valley. Or as the locals would say, “down the holler.” Both schools were located about two miles from Richfork. To give you some concept of the terrain, Powell’s Mountain tops out at 2400 feet above sea level. Powell’s Creek, the drainage basin for the surrounding area, empties into Birch River where the elevation is 1000 feet. The distance between these two points, by the steep winding highway, [U S route 19] is five miles. We lived on the banks of Powell’s Creek, halfway up the valley where the elevation is approximately 1700 feet. There was no school bus to ride, so the choice was ours, climb the steep mountain in the morning, or the afternoon. The latter was more appealing. September 1932, a few weeks past my seventh birthday, I enrolled in the second grade at the Grogg Spring School.
One-eyed Snakes and Other Such Tales
Recently  I was reading Angela’s Ashes, a book by Frank McCourt in which he told about his early life growing up in poverty in Ireland and the United States. In one story he used the word “Willie” as a euphemism for the male appendage. Immediately that word took me back 67 years to the second grade. Dressed in new Bib Overalls, Mother, a stickler for cleanliness, sent me off to school with firm instructions not to get my clothes dirty. Her oft repeated motto was, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” I didn’t know any of the 25-30 students, but quickly made friends with a boy my age. I have long forgotten his name, so I shall call him Lee Roy. At the beginning of the lunch hour on the second day of school, a few girls in the third and fourth grade approached Lee Roy and me. Pointing to a cleared plateau on the side of the mountain, they suggested we go up there to get away from the bigger aggressive kids. Upon reaching the pasture our view of the school, and playground was completely obstructed by tall shrubs, briers, and vines growing along the fence row. Logically, if we couldn’t see the other children, they couldn’t see us. Instantly, the girls encircled Lee Roy and me. Jumping up and down, they began to chant, “Show us your Willie, show us your Willie, show us your Willie.” Each crescendo became an octave higher and louder. I had no idea what they were talking about. The only thing in my pockets was a few marbles. Proudly showing them my prized Aggie, disgustingly they shouted. “NO, Show us your Willie.” Lee Roy quickly became the center of attention. With his little Willie standing erect, as a king reviewing his domain, the girls began to dance, squeal, and giggle. Moving in for a closer examination, first one, and then another finger would reach out, and instantly jerk back as though a snake was ready to strike. Shortly they turned to me. There were no zippers in pants and overalls in that era, and to unbutton stiff unwashed denim took time. I was on the verge of success, when suddenly out of the bushes came the older kids running, screaming, and laughing. Down the mountain I ran as fast as I could go. At the bottom was a swamp filled with stagnant rust colored water and black mud. Three leaps into it, and I fell flat on my stomach. Lying there, a horrifying thought overcame me. How am I going to explain this to Mother! Wading into the deepest part of Powell’s Creek, feverishly I worked to wash the mud and stains out of my clothes. When the bell rang I returned to school, and sat soaking wet at my desk all afternoon. Minta Bowen, the teacher, pretended nothing unusual had occurred. Mother was busy canning when I arrived home. Quickly I changed clothes before she saw me. Did she ever notice my soiled clothing? If so she never mentioned it. What a relief, the world was lifted off my shoulders, and all the excuses I had fabricated to explain what happened vanished in thin air.
The Boarding House
The boarding house of the Birch Valley Lumber Company consisted of three or four converted railroad box cars. One was the kitchen and dining area, another was a bunk house and two were living quarters for the operator. Mother had been running the boarding house for two or three years, so this was my home. The depth of the depression was growing. With 25% of the work force in the country out of work, the lumber industry was not spared. By the third week of September we were moved to a rail siding on Beaver Creek near Tioga. While there, everyone was talking about Hoover, Roosevelt, and the upcoming Presidential election. When we were established, Hank, Emery and I walked through the woods to the Beaver School. When cold weather set in, I did not have shoes and warm clothing to continue going to school. Bottom line, I missed an entire year. [I was not alone, many children, including my brother Emery could not attend school because of inadequate clothing or shoes] In December the Lumber Company moved us for the winter to a rail siding near the large saw mill in Tioga. In the spring of l933 they closed the boarding house and moved us into a house [tar paper shack] back on Powell’s Creek, near where we lived before. That fall I resumed the second grade at the Powell’s Mountain School. Again, for the lack of shoes I had to stay home when it started to snow. My teacher, Miss Bertha Bays went to the Red Cross in Summersville and obtained shoes for me. Her help and concern prevented me from being two year behind other students my age. For this I have been eternally grateful. In the fall of 1934, I returned to the Grogg Spring School for the third grade. This time the green pasture on the mountain side was physically and mentally off limits. The teacher was Ethel Frame. Only two events during the school year stand out in my mind. On the way to school one morning, Emery and I found some cigarettes and cigars alongside the road. Hiding them under overhanging rocks, we sneaked matches out of the house, and for a week or so enjoyed a few puffs on the way to and from school. I believe we chewed bark from the roots of the sassafras tree to assure no detectable tobacco odor was on our breath when we arrived home. Then there was the time a large caravan of Gypsies, traveling in horse drawn wagons, set up camp in a field beside the road. We had always heard that Gypsies were adept at two things. Stealing anything that was not nailed down, and kidnapping children. The thought of both terrified us. Fearful they may have seen us, we ran into the woods, and took a very long circuitous route home.
Returning to the Powell’s Mountain School in the fall of 1935, for the fourth grade, Miss Bays, again was my teacher. Before we moved in November to Harold hollow in Muddlety Valley, I received a penny pencil for reciting the multiplication table, from two through twelve, without a mistake. How is that for high stakes bribery?
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize when fresh cut lumber dries the boards shrink. To compensate for this, most of the houses built by the Birch Valley Lumber Company for their workmen were covered with roofing felt to make them half way habitable in cold weather. Thus the phrase, “tar paper shack” was appropriate. Unfortunately the old privately owned house we rented had no such barrier. The space between the boards on the outside walls often exceeded a quarter of an inch. One night the windblown snow covered the bed Hank and Emery were sleeping in. Hank developed pneumonia. Often delirious, he was ill for several weeks. He pulled through, but I feel sure it contributed to the need, ten years later, to remove half of his right lung. While there I saw my first movie, “Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry,” starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. Recently I rented it, but it didn’t bring back the memories I thought it would.
Little Creek School
Many students at the Harold School, taught by Mrs. McQueen, considered academic achievement secondary to physical confrontation. It was a great day in April 1936, when we moved to Little Creek, further up Muddlety Valley, to a house built on Grandmother’s farm by my brother Don. The name of the school-was Little Creek and the teacher, Mrs. Edna Groce. Academically and physically, three different schools in one school year were rough. A new kid in school is the answer to a bully’s dream, and I have battle scars today to prove it. A fight on the last day of school ended with the two of us sporting a black eye all summer. The irony was neither of us wanted to fight, but it was engineered and egged on by older boys who considered fighting a sport demonstrating manhood.
Located less than half a mile from home, I fondly remember my four years at the Little Creek School. Gone was the agony and fright of walking into a strange new school. [Grade 5/7 1936/39, Teacher, Miss Alma Groce— Grade 8 1939/40 Teacher, Miss Mary Louise Gawthrop.]
Skinny Dipping & Fishin’
Muddlety Creek from its headwaters until it empties into Gauley River below Summersville, is probably 18 miles long. By the time it reached the Little Creek School its rapid decline in elevation began to level off. As the slower flowing water made its way through the serpentine twists and turns of the river, numerous pools were created. Some reaching a depth of six or more feet. A pool, approximately 100 feet long, and four feet deep was located a short distance behind the school. Hidden from view by brush growing along the creek bank, and large trees whose branches frequently met in mid stream, it was an ideal place for fishing and swimming. A long standing ritual was to go swimming on the first day of March. Come lunch time, all the brave, and not necessary the smartest boys, headed for the swimming hole. No bathing suits, this was skinny dipping. I assure you the water in a mountain stream at this time of the year is extremely cold, but if you didn’t dive in you were considered a sissy, and no one wanted that distinction As we laughed, yelled, and splashed water on each other, a prankster would sneak around and hide our clothes. When the dastardly deed was discovered, you have never heard such yelling and screaming. We could only stay in the cold water a short period of time before we had to come out and hide behind the bushes, and weeds. Someone near the school would start yelling. “The girls are coming, the girls are coming.” No fate would be more humiliating than to be seen by the girls. After much pleading, begging, and bribing our clothes were returned, but not before the shirt sleeves and pants’ legs had been tied into hard knots.
A more enjoyable event took place later in the spring when a fish, we called a sucker came up river to spawn. Rafts were constructed by lashing together boards, railroad ties, and other floating objects we could confiscate. With a long piece of thin copper wire we made a snare. Slowly and carefully, drifting the raft over a school of fish eating off the river bottom, the wire loop was carefully worked around one’s head. This took time, patience, skill and a tremendous amount of luck, but at the crucial moment, with a quick firm pull of the wire you had snared a fish. While the number of fish caught may have been meager, and our studies and homework neglected, we certainly had a lot of innocent fun. In addition to fishing, the raft was also used to transport the more adventuresome students across the river to school.
The job of janitor was generally given to a boy in the 8th grade. For the school year 1939/40 I was given the coveted assignment. What were my duties as janitor? In the morning I filled the water cooler with fresh drinking water from a nearby home or spring, and put the flag up. In cold weather I always had the building nice and warm before the students and teacher arrived. To maintain the temperature at a constant level, periodically, throughout the day I added coal to the fire. After school I swept the floor, straighten the desks, washed the blackboard, dusted the erasers, and fixed the fire so that it would slowly burn all night, thus ensuring a hot bed of embers in the morning. If it should snow I kept all pathways shoveled. The pay was 20 cents a day. My first purchase was a green plaid wool jacket with my initials on the zipper. A flannel lined cotton jacket was all that I had ever owned, so you can imagine how much I enjoyed the warmth of wool.
All teachers were capable, understanding, supportive, and did many things to make our life pleasant. If we had done our homework, and gave the teacher no problem, they frequently rewarded us by reading a chapter or two from Huckleberry Finn, Call of the Wild, Uncle Remus or some other exciting story. Oh how we sat in our seats, tense, and frozen with fear as the main character faced impossible challenges. And, how thrilled and excited we became when they escaped, survived or whatever. There was always a Christmas tree decorated with ornaments made by the children. One year I spent hours walking up and down the mountains looking for a perfectly shaped tree. Suddenly there it was the top of a tall hemlock tree. It was so well received, that it became the standard by which future trees were measured. Looking back I think about how foolish I was to climb that tall tree alone. If I had fallen and killed myself, it is doubtful anyone would have found me, and today my bones would be buried under a mound of leaves and moss. Every student had a part in the Christmas program before Santa arrived to give each student a candy cane. Occasionally he may have given an orange or an apple. Our teachers were truly unsung heroes. In addition to giving us an education they were caring and concerned about their students. Out of their meager salary there was a Christmas gift under the tree for every student. For some it was the only gift they received that year.
Every school had a library. Well we called it that, but in reality it was a small book case that held 15 or 20 books. The School System periodically rotated books among the schools, and the teachers, if they wished could go to the Board of Education, and choose their own selection. Among the books Mary Louise Gawthrop chose, two stand out in my mind. Along by Admiral Richard D Byrd, who established Little America in the Antarctic in 1929, and spent the winter there along in 1934/5. Byrd was amazed that the food he left, from the previous expedition, was in the same condition as he left it. So any time you buy frozen food, you should thank Admiral Byrd. The second book was titled, Behave Yourself. This book thoroughly covered manners, etiquette, and social graces. Anyone who had read and absorbed its contents would not be intimidated, as to which fork or spoon, to use at a five course dinner. Or upon being introduced to a stranger, who should be the first to extend their hand. As any good teacher should do, she was helping to prepare us for the big world beyond Muddlety Valley.
Dreams of Travel in Books
I will always cherish the experience and education I received in the one room school. No way do I feel educationally deprived. As early as the first or second grade, I was fascinated when Geography was being discussed by students in the higher grades. Instead of concentrating on my own assignments, I would listen and dream of what it must be like to see The Great Wall of China, The Pyramids of Egypt, and The Taj Mahal of India. Or a city like Jerusalem, Paris, Rome, London and other fascinating places in the world. Most of those dreams have become a reality. Hopefully with good health more dreams will be fulfilled.
I started to school when the depression was at its peak and millions were living in poverty. Throughout my Primary and High School years, I never lived in a house that had electricity, running water, indoor plumbing, central heat etc. Homework was done on the kitchen table by the light of an oil lamp. My economic situation was not unusual. President Eisenhower perhaps expressed it best when he said he never felt economically deprived growing up because everyone around him was poor.