Evansville-area residents fondly recall one-room schools

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Anna Marie Lux
Monday, April 7, 2014

EVANSVILLE--Even today, Don Bratzke speaks Mrs. Twist's name with respect.

“She ruled the roost,” he said about the one-room school teacher with a gravelly voice and stern gaze.  “All she had to do was look at you.”

The strict teacher also had a soft side.

When Bratzke graduated from eighth grade in 1957, Mrs. Twist took him and four other graduates of the former Forest Academy to the big city. Young Don saw the Ice Capades in Milwaukee and enjoyed his first steak dinner, courtesy of Mrs. Twist.

All these years later, 71-year old Bratzke still remembers the country school on Wilder Road. On Friday, he and about 20 mostly Evansville-area people came together to share memories of one-room schools.

Retired educator John Ehle and Evansville historian Ruth Ann Montgomery organized the roundtable discussion at Evansville's Creekside Place. As the former students talked, Montgomery transcribed the discussion, which will be printed in the Evansville newspaper.

“It is a privilege to hear these stories,” she said.

Ehle, who grew up in Evansville, gently guided the conversation.

“I believe in the oral tradition,” he said. “So many times, people pass away with these stories in their minds and in their hearts. That is why we encourage them to open up, so others in the community can hear them, too.”

Former students and one-room school teachers did not disappoint him. They shared poignant and funny tales from several of the dozen or so country schools that once surrounded Evansville before consolidation in 1962.

At that time, the small schools making up the backbone of rural education became part of larger districts.

Former students eloquently recalled the togetherness they felt in places such as Butts Corners, Pleasant Prairie and White Star schools, where children learned long division, cursive writing and how to read with the Dick and Jane series.

Retired farmer Harold Abey attended all eight grades at Pleasant Prairie. For a while, he also earned 30 cents a week hauling water to the school in a cart behind his bicycle from his farm's well.

“I felt like a big spender because I had 25 cents to see the movies in Evansville and another nickel for an ice cream cone,” Abey said.

The 85-year-old recalls studying by kerosene lamp light before his rural home in the town of Union got electricity. He marvels at the technology young people use today.

“Now, we have things that I never dreamed of,” he said. “I can't believe the changes I've seen in my lifetime.”

Most one-room school students had chores, which usually got harder as the students got older. Don Maas, who also attended Pleasant Prairie, stoked the coal in his school's basement furnace.

“Depending what was going on upstairs, it could take me a long time,” he said, smiling.

John Willoughby, an alumnus of Butts Corners School, said young students clapped the erasers to clean them, while older ones washed the blackboards and cleaned the outhouses.

Sharon George, who collects one-room school history from the Brooklyn area, shared a list of dos and don'ts for one-room school teachers. At one time, they were not allowed to marry until after their contracts ran out. They also were not allowed to ride in buggies with men who were not their fathers or brothers. In addition, they could not dress in bright colors or dye their hair.

In the days before special education, some people remember helping students who needed extra tutoring.

“I felt like I learned everything twice,” said Mary Abey.

One student with learning disabilities attended a one-room school until the district said he was too old.

“It was the saddest day when the teacher told him he could not come anymore,” Judy Bratzke recalled. “He enjoyed listening but never went past first grade.”

Rich Templeton recalls not being able to see the blackboard well because he needed glasses.

“I had to ask the first-graders what was on the blackboard,” he said. “When I got glasses, the world opened up to me. This was in the days before school physicals.”

Many fondly recalled their Christmas programs, an important part of the school year.

“We started practicing two months before Christmas,” Si Chapin of the former Tupper School recalled. “It was one of two big events each year. In addition to the Christmas program, the other one was Play Day.”

Play Day featured sports competitions between one-room schools in the spring.

When state law required the closing of one-room schools, many rural students mourned their passing.

“It was one of the best experiences of our lives to go to country schools,” Templeton said. “We were like one big family. It was terrible on us when they closed.”

Jean Chapin attended a one-room school for eight years.

“I felt safe and happy where I was,” she recalled. “I didn't want to go to school in town.”

Doug Batty called it “the shock of my life” when he attended school in the city.

He added: “Country school was by far the best experience I ever had.”

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.

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