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The Country School



THE place which I have especially in mind in describing school conditions early in the last century, is a village among the hills of western Massachusetts; but the characteristics I shall mention were much the same in all the old schools of New England and the states neighboring.

One morning, if you could have looked into a certain hilltop farmhouse, you would have seen Mrs. Enoch Hale, birch-broom in hand, sweeping her kitchen floor. It was the first week of December, and a brisk fire was burning in the cavernous fireplace. The woman’s daughter was wiping off the table at the side of the room where she had been washing the breakfast dishes. She was a chubby little girl, rather small of her age, and stood on tiptoe while she gave the table a vigorous scouring.

“Isn’t it school-time, Betsey?” asked her mother.

The little girl hung the dishcloth in the back room and trotted into the hall where stood a solemn-faced, tall clock. She looked up at it earnestly a few moments, made some half-whispered calculations, and returned to the kitchen. “It’s twenty minutes past eight,” she said to her mother.

“Well,” responded the woman, “change your apron and run along. You won’t be much too soon. There’s your dinner basket by the door. I put up your dinner when I cleared away the breakfast things.”

Mrs. Hale swept the dust she had brushed together into the fireplace and went about her other housework. Betsey quickly made herself ready, and soon was running along the highway toward the schoolhouse. The morning was clear and cold. The sun, just above the southeastern horizon, was shining brightly, and made the brown, frosty fields sparkle in the light. Betsey lived more than a mile from the schoolhouse, and the road was a rough one. For a part of the way it led through the woods, but in the main it was bordered by open fields and shut in by stone walls. Betsey usually ran clown the hills, and was pretty sure to arrive at the schoolhouse quite out of breath.

Her clothing was very neat, but rude in pattern and extremely plain. It had all been woven, colored, and made up at home. She herself had done some of the knitting, and had spent tiresome hours at the quill wheel winding thread for the loom. Her dress was woollen, plain and straight, with no ruffles at neck or skirt, and it was considerably longer than would be worn by little girls of her age now. Hooks and eyes served instead of buttons to fasten it at the back. She wore a little blue and white checked cotton apron, tied at the waist. Her stout leather shoes were broad-soled and comfortable, but only ankle high. Stockings and mittens were striped blue and white. Over her short-cropped hair she wore a small white woollen blanket about a yard square. In her hand was the basket containing her lunch.


When she came trotting up to the schoolhouse she found a dozen of her mates on the sunny side of the building kicking their heels against the clapboards and waiting for the teacher. Betsey carried her dinner basket into the entry and then ran out and said, “Let’s play tag till the schoolmaster comes.”

The others agreed, and soon all were in motion, running, dodging, and shouting till the little yard and narrow roadway seemed full of flying figures.

The schoolhouse was a small, one-story building, brown with age. Behind, the woods came close up, while in front was a little open yard which merged into the highway that came over the hill eastward and then rambled west along the level. A little walk down the road was a house. No other was in sight, though at least half a dozen scattered homes lay on the farther side of the hill just beyond view. Opposite the schoolhouse was a pasture, and the children had worn a rough path through the grasses by the roadside on their way to and from the brook over the wall where they got water to drink.

This morning the smoke was curling up from the chimney straight into the frosty air. The big boys took turns in making the fire. To-day Jonas Brill, with his coat tightly buttoned and the collar up, cap pulled down over his ears, and hands in his pockets, had come stumping along the hard frozen road just after sun-up. There was no lock to the schoolhouse — few country people at that time thought of locking doors — and Jonas walked right into the little entry. The space on one side was half-filled with three-foot wood. On the other side were rows of pegs for the pupils’ hats.

An axe was handy, and the boy proceeded to split some kindlings. He carried an armful of these inside. Jonas poked among the ashes, found the coals still alive, and soon had a fine blaze in the big fireplace. He brought in more wood from the entry and some larger wood from the yard, where it had been left by the farmers of the district for the scholars to cut up. It was sled length as they left it, and it had to be cut two or three times before it was ready for the fireplace. Jonas chopped what he judged would be a day’s supply, then went in and sat in the master’s chair by the fire and made himself comfortable, awaiting the arrival of his schoolmates.

A little red schoolhouse.

The room was plain and bare — no pictures, no maps, not even a blackboard. The walls were sheathed with wooden panels, but the ceiling was plastered. On each side, to the north and south, was a window, and at the back two. The fireplace was on the fourth side, projecting somewhat into the room. To the right of it was the entrance, and to the left was a door opening into a dark little closet containing pegs for the girls to hang their things on, and a bench where they set their dinner baskets.

A single continuous line of desks ran around three sides of the room, leaving an open space next the wall along which the big scholars walked when they went to their places. The seat accompanying this long desk was also continuous, and the scholars were obliged to step over it before being seated. Both seat and desk were raised on a little platform a few inches above the level of the floor. On the front of the desk was another seat, low down, for the smaller children. These could use the desk for a back, but had no desk themselves, while the older ones had the desk, but no back. In the open space, in front, was the teacher’s table, and on it two or three books, an ink bottle and quills, a lot of copy books, and a ruler. Jonas was using the teacher’s chair, but he replaced it behind the teacher’s table when the other scholars began to arrive.

In the midst of the game of tag some one cried, “The schoolmaster’s coming,” and the uproar ceased.

The master was a quiet, rather stern-looking young man, the son of a farmer of a neighboring town. For several winters he had been teaching, but not with the idea of making that his calling. He had gone through the common schools with credit, and studied at an academy for a year or two. Summers he worked on the farm, and he intended to be a farmer; but in winter work was slack at home, and, as he could be spared, he took the oppor­tunity to gain ready money by teaching. There were many young men in the country towns doing likewise.

His pay was small, but he was at no expense for his living, as he “boarded round” — that is, he stayed with each family of the neighborhood for a length of time proportioned to the number of pupils it sent to the school. At the beginning of the term the teacher divided the num­ber of days by the number of pupils, and thus determined how long he should stay with each family. It sometimes happened that after staying all around the allotted time there were still a few days left to teach, and then, in order to have things come out even, the master would change his boarding place every night. When neighbor met neighbor it was always an interesting topic of inquiry where the teacher was stopping and where he was going next; and his having to “warm so many beds” was a standing joke.

Getting the teacher's help in a hard problem.

The teacher of this winter’s school was at present staying with the Holmans, and the four children of the family came down the hill with him, but ran on ahead when they approached the schoolhouse. All had dinner baskets, the master included. Just before he reached the schoolhouse the children went inside, and when he entered the door he found them all standing in their places. He removed his hat, bowed, and said “Good morning.”

In response the whole school “made their manners,” or, in other words, the boys bowed and the girls courtesied. At the same time they said “Good morning, sir.”

Then the older ones stepped over their seats, all sat down, and school began at once.

The daily sessions in the old-time schools were supposed to start at nine o’clock, but few teachers had watches, and they could not well be exact. Some would bring hourglasses, but the only timekeeper a school was sure to have was a noon mark on a southern window sill. Even this was useless on clouded days, and a good deal of guessing had to be done.

The first exercise in the morning was reading in the Testament. Each pupil who was able read two verses. In those times prayers were not said in school, and the reading completed the morning worship. The older scholars now turned their attention to studying, and the smallest children were called up to say their letters.

The winter term began the week after Thanksgiving, and continued twelve, fourteen, and even sixteen weeks. The cold weather, bad travelling, and distance prevented most of the younger children from coming; but the big boys and girls, who had been kept out at work dur­ing the summer,  came instead, and the school would number twenty-five or thirty pupils. The more mature scholars, though almost men and women in size, were none older than fourteen or fifteen. As a rule they left school for good at that age, but a few would attend an academy in a neighboring town, and now and then a boy would fit himself for college by studying with the minister. College education for girls was unthought of, and no institution existed where such education could be had for the daughters.

The youngest scholars had no books. When they recited they came up before the teacher, who pointed out the letters in the Speller with his quill. This book was the famous Webster’s Spelling Book, a blue-covered, homely little volume, containing, besides the alphabet and many long columns of words, the figures, Roman and Arabic, days of the week, months of the year, abbreviations, names of the States, and various other things. The speller also served as a reader. The first and simplest reading started with, “No man may put off the law of God.” Farther on were some little stories and fables, accompanied by a few rude pictures. Lastly came the Moral Catechism, starting with the question, “Is pride commendable?”

A visit from the school committee-man.

In spelling, the children began with word fragments of two letters. Elderly people sometimes speak of “learn­ing their a-b abs,” meaning by that the learning to spell syllables of two letters. They would spell thus: “A-b ab, e-b eb, i-b ib, o-b ob, u-b ub; b-a ba, b-e be, b-i bi, b-o bo, b-u bu, b-y by;” and so on right through the alphabet. By the time they possessed a Speller they would perhaps be able to spell cat and dog and other three-letter words. Besides spelling, they learned something of the sounds of the letters and to count a little. When the class finished reciting they were sent to their seats. The smallest children had neither slates nor books to amuse themselves with, and after reciting could only sit still and watch and listen to the others. Very tiresome they found this sometimes. If they became restless, so much the worse for them, for the teacher would then reprimand them, and tell them to fold their hands and be quiet, and perhaps threaten them with punishment.

The next older class were taking their first reading lessons from the Speller. Even the most advanced of the pupils used that book to spell from.

Another of the school books of the time was “The New England Primer.” It was a small, thin, blue-covered volume, that contained many little stories, proverbs, rhymes, and questions, and quaint woodcuts, and was quite religious in tone. In one place the alphabet was given with a picture and rhyme for each letter. Both pictures and rhymes were so rude that, in spite of the seriousness of the themes, they now seem to us decidedly humorous. Here are specimens of the jingles: —

“Noah did view
The Old World and New.”

“Zaccheus, he,

Did climb the tree His Lord to see.”

“Young Obadias, David, Josias,

All were pious.”

About the middle of the forenoon the scholars put aside other tasks, and wrote. At close of school, on the night before, the teacher had set their copies — that is, he had written a sentence across the top line of a page in each scholar’s “copy book.” The children made these copy books at home from large sheets of blank, unlined paper, which they folded and sewed into a cover of brown paper, or one made from an old newspaper. In school, each pupil had a ruler and plummet, and with these made the lines to write on. They had no lead pencils, but the plummet answered instead. Plum­mets were made at home by melting waste lead and running it in shallow grooves two or three inches long cut in a stick of wood. Sometimes the cracks in the kitchen floor were found to be convenient places to run the lead in. When the metal cooled a little, it was whittled and smoothed down and pointed, and perhaps, as a final touch, a hole was bored through the big end, that the owner might hang his plummet on a string about his neck.

Children just beginning to write made “hooks and trammels,” the “hooks” being curved lines, and the “trammels” straight ones. After practising on these a while they were advanced to letters, and later to words and sentences. Each pupil had a bottle of ink and a quill pen. Whenever the pen became worn or broken, the teacher was asked to “mend” it; or, if entirely used up, the scholar would bring a fresh quill to the teacher, and say, “Please, sir, will you make my pen for me?” and the teacher, with his jackknife, would comply. The mending was simply whittling it down and making a new point. There was quite a knack in doing this quickly and well.

Toward eleven o’clock the girls had their recess, but it was short, and gave them little time to play: At the end of five minutes the teacher came to the door and rapped sharply on the side of the building with his ruler, which was the signal for them to come in. Then the boys had their recess.

Of history, grammar, and geography the pupils learned very little. The Speller barely touched on these subjects, but the children had no separate text-books for the studies named. Yet a few such text-books had been printed and were being used to an increasing degree in the schools of the period.

Telling grandma about the day at school.

The children were taught to count on their fingers, and, in summer, when they came barefoot, toes, too, were made to do duty. Some progress, besides, was made in adding and subtracting. In learning to multiply they used little rhymes to help their memory, on the same plan as the counting ditty in Mother Goose, “One two, buckle my shoe,” etc. Finally, when they were in the highest class in school, they had a text-book called Root’s Arithmetic. Like all the smaller schoolbooks, it had a grayish blue cover of paper pasted over thin wood. If the book were roughly handled, or bent much, the wood cracked and splintered, and, with ten restless fingers handling it, the cover, fragment by fragment, soon disappeared. The arithmetic scholars had slates on which they did their sums. When the teacher pronounced the sums correct, these were neatly copied from the slate into blank books, made in the same manner as were the children’s writing books and known as “ciphering books.”

The forenoon wore away, and the sun shone in full at the southern windows. Just as the shadow of the middle frame crept into a little furrow cut in the wooden sill with a jackknife, school was dismissed. Before the shadow was out on the other side of the noon mark the girls had secured their dinner baskets and wraps from the little closet back of the chimney, and the boys had grabbed up theirs in the entry, and the whole school was in the yard. To-day they all climbed over to the sunny side of the stone wall back of the schoolhouse, and soon were busy eating.

Beneath the cloth in the square little baskets were bread and butter and doughnuts and gingerbread, and perhaps an apple or two. When they had finished eating they began to chatter more freely, and most of the scholars clambered back over the wall and ran down to the brook for a drink. Lyddy Mason had brought a bottle of sweetened water, and didn’t need to go to the brook. The sweetening was supplied by maple sugar, and the rest of the children looked on with envious eyes while Lyddy emptied her bottle.

In the wood back of the schoolhouse were frequent beech trees, now bare-limbed, but very handsome in their smooth, gray, mottled bark. Among the leaves on the ground were many of the brown nuts scattered there by autumn winds and frosts. The squirrels were busy harvesting them, and with noisy chatter raced about over the ground and up the tree trunks. The children came too, and with bits of brush poked about under the beeches, and ate, and filled their pockets. Then, perhaps, they would start a game of “hide and seek,” and when the child at the goal shouted “Coming!” there would be one of his companions behind every neighboring tree trunk and boulder.

Other games they often played were blindman’s-buff, tag, hull-gull, odd or even, and ball. The ball was a home-made affair of old stocking ravellings wound together and covered with sheepskin. The club was a round stick selected from the woodpile.

At about one o’clock the rapping of the teacher’s ruler on the clapboards of the schoolhouse brought the children in, and work was resumed. Spelling, reading, and writing were gone through with again. The only change was in the case of the older scholars, who read from the Testament in the morning, but in the afternoon used instead a book of prose and verse selections called “The Art of Reading.”

As the day wore on, the weather grew colder; the wind came up and rattled the loose clapboards, and whistled about the eaves and chimney-mouth, and made the branches of the trees back of the schoolhouse sway and shiver. Winter seemed to have pounced down on the region all at once, and the Indian summer, which had held on this year longer than usual, was brought to a sudden end. A good deal of air came in at the cracks of the little building, and the master found it necessary to pile the wood on the fire more and more frequently. Now and then one of the big boys would be sent out in the yard for a fresh armful of the three-foot sticks. He would set them up against the wall next the fireplace, in which the flames were dancing and making mad leaps up the chimney, as if anxious to join the tumult of the wind outside.

Just after recess one of the boys said all the cut wood in the yard was gone. Jonas Brill, whose duty it had been to furnish a supply for the day, had not calculated on such cold weather, and the master had to call on two of the big boys to go out and cut more. To be sure, there was a small store of wood ready cut in the entry, but that was reserved for an emergency. A little before school closed the master asked, “Who is going to make the fire in the morning?”

Willie Smith said it was his turn, but he had an errand to do, and he didn’t believe he could get there in time. Jonas Brill then said he would make it again. The question, who should chop the wood and build the fire for the next day, was one which had to be decided each afternoon.

When the school was ready to close, the teacher appointed one of the girls to get her mates’ things from the closet and pass them around. As soon as the girls had pinned the little blankets over their heads and put on their mittens, the whole school rose, and one by one, beginning with the smallest children, they were dismissed. Each paused at the door, and turning toward the teacher “made his or her manners.”

Once outdoors, the scholars separated, some to go up the road, some down, while three or four cut across lots home. Betsey had company about half way. Then the road divided, and she went on alone. The sky had grayed over, and the sun, dully glaring in the haze, was just sinking behind a western hilltop. The wind was blowing sharply, and the leaves were rustling along the frozen earth trying to find some quiet nook or hollow to hide in. The little girl bent her head and pushed on against the wind, even humming a little to herself, and seemed not at all to mind the roughness of the weather.

Getting his arithmetic lesson.

Nevertheless, she was glad to get home, and to stand and rub her hands before the fire snapping and blazing in the big fireplace.

Just before going to bed, Mr. Hale put his head out of the door to see what the weather prospects were. The wind had gone down a little, but it was snowing. “Waal,” he said, “I thought ‘twould snow before morning, but I didn’t s’pose ‘twould begin so quick. I declare, it’s coming down considerable thick, too.”

He withdrew his head, brushed a few white flakes from his hair, and stood some minutes by the fire warm ing himself. Then he shovelled the ashes over the coals and went to bed.

The storm proved an unusually heavy one. At daylight on the morrow the air was still full of the falling flakes, but the storm slackened presently, and by breakfast time it had stopped snowing. The brown fields had been deep buried in their winter mantle, and there were big drifts in the road.

Betsey went to school that day on an ox sled. She started directly after breakfast, as the sled was to collect all the other scholars who lived along the way, and there were drifts which must be shovelled out. Her father and three big brothers went too, and shouted at the oxen as they plodded along the roadway; but now and then there was a pause when they found the road blocked by a drift which required shovelling. They picked up other children, and presently had a sled full, some clinging to the stakes at the sides, others sitting on the bottom, all shouting, or stamping, or pelting the oxen, and having a great frolic.

Starting for school.

Some time before the ox sled party reached its destination Jonas Brill had ploughed his way through the snow to the schoolhouse. He wished Willie Smith had made his own fire that morning. However, there was no helping the matter. He stamped the snow from his boots on the door-sill and carried in the kindlings from the entry; but, to his dismay, he found no coals among the ashes — naught but a few sparks, which at once flashed out. Jonas felt that his life was a hard one. It was before the time of matches, and he must go to a neighbor’s and borrow some fire. He pulled off a broad strip of green hemlock bark from a log in the yard, and kicked along through the snow to the nearest house, where he was made welcome to all the coals he wanted. He wrapped several in the green bark, and returned.

When he had deposited the coals in the fireplace and piled the kindlings on top, he got down on his hands and knees, and, by blowing lustily, fanned the coals into a blaze; and when the fire was well started he went out and cleared a little space next the woodpile. There he was chopping when Betsey and the children with her arrived on the ox sled. Another sled-load soon came from the opposite direction, and the scholars were all there.

They tramped around in the snow till the ox teams left, and then went indoors and crowded about the fire.

Shortly afterward the master came, and school began. This day was much like the day before, except that they had a shorter nooning, because the deep snow had put a stop to most of their open-air sports, and school closed earlier. The short noonings and early closing were usual throughout the term.


Winter had now fairly begun. In spite of the cold and the bad travelling, the pupils were quite regular in attendance. They, for the most part, walked back and forth, rarely getting a ride, unless when, after a storm, the roads had to be broken out. The brook, these winter days, was frozen and snow-covered, and the children, when thirsty, would hold a snowball in their hands till it became water-soaked, and then suck it. They did not care to play out of doors much, though at times some of the older boys and girls would sally forth and snowball, or start a game of “fox and geese.” The girls were kept in more than the boys, because of their skirts, which easily became wet and frozen in the snow, and also on account of their shoes, which only came ankle high, and had a tendency to fill with snow at the sides. They had no leggings, but when the roads were worst would perhaps pull on a pair of old stockings over their shoes.

School kept every day in the week except Sunday, and there was no pause at Christmas, or New Year, or Washington’s Birthday, for none of these days was made much of at that time. If the teacher was sick, or for some other reason lost a day, he would make it up at the end of the term. Thus it happened that the “last day” varied from Monday to Saturday.

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