Now that school has begun in modern buildings, with movable desks and an ample supply of books and study materials. I thought it might be fun to share some stories about education in the 19th century.
Rachel Wragg was born in 1848. She grew up in the Clifton area in a house built by General Benjamin Whiteman. At one time, it had been used as a “roadhouse” built to accommodate those who were traveling by stagecoach or horseback.
The General moved out of that original building and then built another structure, this one of stone, which still stands on North River Road near the village of Clifton. Rachel remembered that house as well as her own, because at one time there had been a bear hide nailed to the outside south wall to be tanned. She was about three, so that bear made an impression on her.
Her father carried the mail on horseback from their home each day. She stated that her father would get the outgoing mail from the Postmaster no later than 9 o’clock, and then bring it home in saddle bags, placing the bags under the bed for safekeeping. Early the next morning, the horse was brought to the door, mail bags were fastened securely and father was off to Cedarville, about three miles away. The mail was delivered no matter what the weather.
Her father believed in early education, so began to teach her to read and write, count a figure as soon as she was able to learn. Then she started school at the age of five. By that time, she was able to read from McGuffey’s Third Reader.
The copy-books were made by hand at home, and the teacher made the student’s pens by sharpening goose quills with his pocket knife.
She attended school in a small frame school house the first year which she said looked very nice from the outside.
Inside there were three strong heavy desks which were fastened to the wall. The desks extended the full length of the room on three sides. Long benches with no backs were movable with one long bench placed in front of each of the three desks.
A box-stove was placed in the center of the room with low seats near it for the younger children.
On the fourth side of the room, one would find a door, a window and a high bench which held a water bucket and tin cups. There were shelves provided for student’s dinner pails, caps, bonnets and shawls.
Rachel, like most kids, loved the games they would play. She mentioned Hill-Dill, I Spy and London Bridge among others. Marbles were always popular, especially during the summer months. Ante Over was a big hit with the kids because they stood on each side of the school house, and tossed the ball over the building to the team on the other side. At least, they hoped to get it over the roof.
After her first year in school, a new building was constructed of brick, painted white, so she remembered well that lovely old brick school building she attended for many years.
When she was not in school, one of her responsibilities was to rock the babies. This was done with an “old green settee”. She would sit on one end of the rocker, with the babies tucked in securely with pillows. She began this task when she was quite young. She was quite good at rocking and singing to the babies so they would fall asleep easily.
She loved this task, except for one time when she got a little too enthusiastic and the settee fell forward with she and the two babies were tossed out. The pillows had easily protected the babies, but she got a bump on her head. She was never again quite so enthusiastic with her chore.
When she was a little older, her studies took a great deal of time, and in order to get her chores done and study as well, she would iron the clothes and study her spelling lessons at the same time.
As the only girl in the family, she delighted in making “cornstalk fiddles” and sailing ships for her little brothers. She made these in early fall while the cornstalks were ripening and pliable.
She learned to knit at the age of eight, and recalled when the first lighting in the house was from a grease lamp. This was a tin dish filled with grease. It had a spout with a cotton flannel rag drawn through. Later the family made candles, usually in molds.
When coal oil lamps came into being, she purchased one of the first ones in the village. She was attending a subscription night school which was taught by the pastor in the white brick school from which she had graduated. She was preparing, at the age of 15 to take the examination to become a teacher.
When she was still young, she could read very well, and this talent was encouraged. Her father had a friend who loved to bring his own newspaper to their home, he would ask her to read the paper to him, which she did. He always complimented her on her ability to read well, and she always felt that her abilities were greatly enhanced through this opportunity,
Although leaning techniques in a one-room school were quite different than today’s educational opportunities, the children learned “‘readin,’ writin’ and ‘rithmatic” very well.
Joan Baxter is a Greene County resident and a long-time historical writer.