My First Schooling
In 1924 I started school in the traditional one-room school house (they were all red or white) perched on a small hill from the top of which one could ride a sled down to, or into, the creek at the bottom of the incline. The school, designated "Tyrone District No. 6", was located at the intersection of two dirt roads, the Pre-emption and the Glen, three and one-half miles from Dundee, the nearest town. Here my mother had attended, and briefly, before my arrival into the world, had taught the usual six or seven grades using the same facilities that I found: one coal stove, one water bucket with one dipper, and two outhouses.
West of the outhouses in Farmer Dillistin's ancient apple orchard grew long-stemmed timothy grass over three feet high. We could not be seen from the school; the orchard sloped down to a little stream, and this made a wonderful place to sneak cigarettes or experiment with pre-puberty petting.
One evening a year the parents held their school meeting in the building by lantern light to deal with such matters as: election of trustees, election of a clerk to chair the meeting for the following year (all men took turns at this), decide who would provide kindling wood for the teacher to start the stove fire with, who would cut the school-yard grass before the start of the fall session, and most important, the selection of a teacher, if required. Or perhaps to settle whether the teacher's salary should be increased from say, twenty dollars per month to, perhaps, twenty-two.
Women and children were allowed to sit in "as long as they kept their mouths shut." They rarely attended. The women certainly could have voted in any election as the 19th amendment had been part of the Constitution some eight or nine years by this time. But in our back-country school district, almost totally populated by white Anglo-Saxon protestants sprinkled with a few descendants of the Huguenots, control by the men went unchallenged. Major decisions were subject to approval by the main board seated at Tyrone. Other school districts dotted the countryside at intervals of not more than a mile and a half, and all operated in a similar manner.
At District No. 6, two succeeding teachers greatly influenced my life: Jeanette Dean Pryor and Mame Paulding.
Jeanette Pryor was slender, frail, graying, and in her forties. She brought to my wandering mind the love of books and reading. She was a gentle lady, understanding and competent. She was a devoted naturalist and her field trips leading all of us to nearby woodlands to identify flora and fauna will never be forgotten. In the spring she found for us hepatica, trailing arbutus, trilium, bloodroot, the aracea, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, and the rare orchidacea, Lady's Slipper, that grew in the wet areas of the woods. She taught us how to identify birds by their appearance, their calls, and their nests and eggs.
We all knew that Mrs. Pryor grieved for her 21-year-old son who had drowned in Seneca Lake a short time before we started school. She was a Methodist and a supporter of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. She invited their speakers to our school. One of these, a Mrs. Spencer, coerced me into signing the pledge of abstinence that I held to for several years. A large woman with a heavy German accent, she hovered over me at my desk, pointed to the proper line on the pledge sheet, and commanded, "Du sign here—du must sign."
The eighteenth amendment, prohibiting the sale of alcoholic drink had been in effect since 1920, but Jeanette's adored husband Lewis was not an advocate. He was a heavy-bodied, amiable man with a pronounced limp in his right leg. Most of the year, he drove his wife to and from school in a beautiful black Buick touring car. He usually wore a linen duster, visored cap, and had a good-sized chew in his cheek. If, by chance, he found reason to stop at Uncle Ernest's farm, and he usually found a reason on the afternoon trip, the pungent odor of hard cider was on his breath. It was 1933 before the widely ignored amendment was repealed, and until then Lewis, like others with a thirst, had to depend on his own illegal resources.
Lewis Pryor was a friend to all, often providing free transportation for us children to some point of interest, such as the trip to Ithaca, that I got in on, to hear Eleanor Roosevelt speak. I believe she spoke as vice-president of the New York State League of Women Voters, but the public address system was so primitive, by today's standards, that I understood little of what she said. Such political activity by a woman was still unusual, but she drew a full house on that hot and humid day at the Cornell University football stadium.
The Pryors were caring, unselfish people and they were important to me.
Mame Paulding was in her forties, too, and had dark hair and adequate size and strength to handle the largest of the boys in her charge. She was a strict but fair teacher.
Upon her arrival, I discovered (a little late) that corporal punishment had not been banned from the schoolroom. She was a strong woman who could draw blood after throwing you around the cloakroom for awhile, as I found out after I was caught trying to have a tryst with one of the girls in the apple orchard behind the schoolhouse. One case arose when I was "indicted" for writing obscene verse on the boy's privy wall.
The poetry incident ended in a startling roadside scene. Mame's note had brought my mother trotting toward the school, furious at my being falsely (?) accused. There was blood in mother's eye. Mame spotted her coming, and anticipating trouble, strode out to meet her on the bridge which spanned the creek separating our house from the school, hoping to spare her pupils the unpleasantness.
As the two women came face to face, a screaming, hair-pulling, clothes-ripping fight ensued. All my classmates' eyes were glued to the windows. In a few moments, the battle ended in a draw with the two women weeping on each other's shoulders, which made me quite uncomfortable. Although I had had little experience to guide me, my intuition told me that I was far from exonerated. I was right. When I came home that night, I was whipped and sent to my upstairs bedroom.
At any rate, Mame was a good teacher and became fond enough of me to invite me to accompany her on a trip to Rochester. It was my first train ride. In Rochester I stayed with my Uncle Newton, father's brother, while she attended a conference. The only problem I gave her on that trip was wandering into the smoking car, where I became enthralled by an inebriated man singing some bawdy songs. Mame had to come and get me.
I remember the market crash of 1929 because Mame cried most of the day. When her husband, John, came for her that afternoon, he was crying, too. All their savings had been in the stock market, mostly, I believe, in New York Central Railroad stock. John worked as a freight agent for that railroad.
My father's comment on the crash was, "It can't hurt us because we haven't got anything anyway, but I feel sorry for the wealthy, though." Little did he perceive that the worsening economy was to affect the lives of all.
At first the Great Depression seemed to be a thing happening to someone else, perhaps just the wealthy, at some other place. We in the country turned to a subsistence style of farming which meant food was not much of a problem. And wood for fuel could be wrested from our twenty-acre woodlot. But clothing, shoes, and cash for any purpose, was another matter.
I fared better than my three younger brothers, due to a slightly older boy, named Frank, the only child at a neighboring farm, whose outgrown shoes and some clothes came my way. These items were not in the best of shape by the time I handed them down to my brothers, Elbert, Lauren, and John. The same was true of my Saturday night bathwater. John still seethes when he thinks about how cold and putrid it was.
In 1929 I was in a music appreciation competition for boys, under the eighth grade, through a program called "Durland Trips to Junior Field Days." The instructor, a Robert O. Dale, came to the school each week of the program with a portable wind-up phonograph with about a dozen 78 rpm records of excerpts from the classics which he would play for us, after he had read program notes to us. I was delighted with such an easy assignment that required me to simply listen to the recordings, identify the music, the composer, and write my impressions. Competition finals determined me to be the winner of District, Town, County, and to be second in the State finals held in Ithaca. My cousin Doris Florance, also won the girl's division at Watkins Glen and went to the Ithaca finals. Memory fails me as to her final standings.
Perhaps the Welsh genes of the Prices had given me perfect pitch and a love for all music, as it had my father and all his brothers. Uncle Alfred had the most beautiful tenor voice of any I have heard. My brothers, save John, all played instruments early in life. Lauren played the harmonica in public at age five. Called on to play a couple of hymns at the Dundee Baptist Church on one "Children's Day," he delighted most of the congregation and shocked the rest when he quickly followed with irreverent renditions of "Turkey in the Straw," "Golden Slippers," and Frankie and Johnny," before his red-faced teacher dragged him from the stage. Lauren later became a fine baritone horn player.
Parlor concerts were part of my early life. With mother at the Ebersole piano, Dad playing his violin, a neighbor on a flute or banjo, Elbert on an Alto horn, myself with guitar and voice, and Lauren with his harmonica, we made a strange mix of sound that we seemed to enjoy. As a young girl mother had studied piano for seven years and could read music well, but with "no ear" she had little aptitude for interpretations. By age ten I played piano by ear, and mother tried to teach me with a rather brittle approach that left us both too frustrated to continue. I tired of frequent bashings of my fingers into the keyboard and became a little stubborn.
Naturally I remember the good times with greater clarity than the bad. But I cannot forget the spells of cumulative helplessness as the depression ground on for ten long years. It took a "Good War" war to break it up. Small wonder that for awhile, we could almost exult in the new prosperity that it brought. And that is a sad thing to remember. I wish Studs Terkel had not reminded me.
© 1990, Edwin N. Harris