The one-room schoolhouse

By Stell Shevis | Jan 07, 2016

The one-room schoolhouse had neither plumbing nor electricity. There was a privy out in back.

On dark days, one of the older boys was sent to a neighboring house to borrow an oil lamp. Fire regulations did not allow such a convenience to be kept in the building..although the place was heated by a wood stove. The big pot-bellied stove sat in the center of one side wall, and the stove pipe ran up that wall and across the ceiling to the chimney on the other side. Piles of firewood were stacked in the entrance hall.

The teacher taught all eight grades, probably about 30 children. She was paid $600 a year.

Our oldest child, Jenifer, had started kindergarten when she was five, in New Jersey. She loved school and couldn't wait to start first grade when she turned six in August. The school bus that picked up children on the first day, was a black van with no windows. The kids had to climb in through the back door; I didn't like the look of it. A few days later, Jeni came home with reddish stains on the back of her dress. She said they came off the bench she sat on in the van. I learned from my nearest neighbor, that this was a meat wagon belonging to the local butcher who added to his sketchy income by hauling children. The rear door of the van had to be locked because the latch didn't work. Evidently he didn't bother to clean up between deliveries.

My neighbor agreed with me that this was not good, but she didn't want to make a fuss. Her two children, she told me, were foster kids. She got paid for boarding them, and had hoped they would do a few chores for her and help her husband with his three milk cows. They did not help, and were always getting into mischief. She didn't like them, but her husband said they needed the money!

So I decided it was up to me to talk to some of the other mothers about getting a proper school bus. There was no such thing as a telephone book there, although we did have a telephone. The kind that hung on the wall in a wooden box with a handle to be cranked when you wanted to make a call. If you knew the name of the person you wanted, you would crank one turn to get the operator, and she would either call the person for you or tell you how many rings. There were 22 families on our party line, we being the last on the list were given two long and two short rings. The bell rang in every house, and everyone would pick up the receiver to find out what was the latest gossip! It provided great entertainment, as well as speculation. What on earth are they talking about? It sounded like CODE! This strange couple from AWAY! Options, enlargements; registration marks; captions; color schemes; working drawing; specifications; transparencies! Very, very SUSPICIOUS!

I tell all this to explain why I was not about to telephone parents to complain about the VAN. I would drive around and visit. I took Jeni with me because she knew all the places where the van stopped. She sat in the car while I went to each house. I knew to always go to the back door, having learned that only strangers try the front door ... besides there were no steps at any front door. By leaving them off, the house was unfinished and therefore taxes were lower. Well, my visits were indeed very brief. All the women were so busy cleaning or cooking or ironing, that they obviously had no time for visiting. None seemed surprised to see me; my neighbor must have spread the word. But they all agreed with me that the meat wagon was not suitable as a school bus. Said I should call the health warden, which I finally did. Later I found out that everyone in town was related to the butcher. Indeed most were related to one another.

I was pleasantly surprised when two weeks later, a second-hand bus was purchased.

At Christmas, it was the custom for the school children to put on a nativity play, to which everyone was invited. Of course we went even though our Jeni was not in it. The room was packed. Some people had brought extra folding chairs and kindly shared them with us. There was no stage, but in one corner of the room a small shack had been built of old weathered boards. A door in its front had a sign over it crudely lettered INN... attached to the side was an open lean-to filled with hay. Extra oil lamps had been borrowed so the place was well lit. The teacher stepped to the front to welcome everyone.

"Thank you all for coming. The children have worked very hard to get ready for this. Please hold your applause until the end. Please enjoy the show. Thank you. Now let the music begin."

Recorded Christmas carols began with "Oh, Holy Night" and three small angels dressed in white nighties appeared singing. Then came three shepherds wearing brown bathrobes and carrying tall crooks. Then three Wise men dressed in blankets and wearing gold paper crowns. Finally came Joseph leading Mary who was bundled in a long blue gown which appeared to be hiding a pillow. Joseph knocked loudly on the Inn door, asking for a room. The door opened. The 10-year-old innkeeper peered out looking bewildered, an obviously had forgotten his lines, so he shouted "SCRAM!" and slammed the door. The audience broke up, howled with laughter and applauded for a longtime!

Comments (4)
Posted by: Ken Pride | Jan 12, 2016 21:19

I remember Stell from when she and her husband had the wonderful shop Stell and Shevis across from the now Reny's Plaza in what I think is now an inn.  What wonderful stories to share!  Has anyone been to the one room schoolhouses on Matinicus or Monhegan?  Not quite the same, but still pretty unique in 2016.

Thanks for sharing this delightful writing.  MaryBeth Pride, Rockland

Posted by: Francis Mazzeo, Jr. | Jan 09, 2016 13:36

In those times families took care of each other and it wasn't mandated for the schools to be parents. Could be why people of the one room schools had a better upbringing than the generations to follow. Seems like we have lost our way.

Posted by: Lionel W. Heal | Jan 09, 2016 13:13

I agree with Mary McKeever.  I started school in a one room K-8 school and had a wonderful teacher. Her name was Andrea Thorbjohnson and we all loved her  Later in life, she taught  grade 6 in Tenants Harbor,

Joyce Heal.

Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Jan 07, 2016 14:47

And the one room school had teachers devoted to the child and learning. Some students went on to higher learning. Taxes were affordable and a far cry from the school budgets of modern day.

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