Previously,“One Small School Room in the Country 1955”
Most of the kids at Oak Lawn country school in rural Sun Prairie WI came out of small, working family farms. Agriculture was consolidating even in the 1950s. Even then, 80-acre farms provided a living, with maybe a part time job at Oscar Mayer or driving school bus. The average Wisconsin dairy herd numbered 211 cows in 2017 — up from 18 in 1955 (using two different sources).
We still had some old milk cans around the farm I grew up on, although (before my memory) father had torn the milking stanchions out of the little red barn that he bought from Carl Weisensel in 1947, adjacent to father’s home farm. I’m thinking there were 12 stanchions, total.
We had no real farm chores that young but brother Mike, a year younger, was already following Wayne the hired man (who lived with us) around the farm, silently absorbing, imprinting. Mike farmed for many years thereafter.
Back in the mid-1950s, the older classmates at Oak Lawn were assigned chores, one of which was to fill the bubbler from the hand-operated water pump outside. In winter, they left the bucket inside and pumped enough water to create an outdoor ice-skating rink.
After a mid-winter thaw-and-freeze cycle, the snow cover hardened. The older boys drew their American Flyer sled through the culvert underneath the road to a promising vein on the other side, carved out blocks of the crusty white stuff, and ported it back to the school like ancient Egyptians. They constructed a fort incorporating the back wall of the boy’s outhouse. Somehow, they fashioned a roof. Entry was on hands and knees through an opening covered by a gunny sack.
The girls and us little boys (one of their duties was to look after us) constructed their own fort behind the girls’ outhouse. It was a poor affair. Wouldn’t have passed inspection in Bangladesh. The very first ice ball fired from the boys’ stronghold crashed the enterprise down our necks for a freezing shower. Thereupon, the big boys invited us little guys to tour their works. No girls allowed.
It was likely a ritual hallowed through the generations: the older student leveraged the newbie on the high end of the teeter-totter, then jumped off so that the initiate would crash down to the ground. Girls worked the swings to heights above the top bar. We played games that Grandpa must have played on the same white clover and bluegrass in the 1890s: pom pom pull away was one. (How did it go?)
An older student threw a red dodge ball over the schoolhouse to the other side yelling, “Annie, Annie over.” The object was to catch the ball as it came over the roof, wherever that may be. We would have played hide and seek but there was no place to hide.
A secret place
Well, there were two places. On the first day of second grade, I got to act as big brother to brother Mike, who was one year (less a day) younger. (Because his birthday came the day before mine he thought he should be older.) Still don’t know why I lost my nerve but we holed up (for that is the word) in the stinky outhouse.
Mrs. Taylor rang her hand bell to begin class and yet we stayed hidden. Quiet. Then a voice trilled: “Where, oh where are the Blaska boys?”
“We’re in here,” the oldest piped up from behind the wooden door. “Come out, come out!” she commanded and we followed Mrs. Taylor into school, no questions asked, no explanations given.
Alma Taylor taught 8 grades
Alma Dolan Taylor, I learned only a few years ago, was the mother of Marcella Chase, wife of Ted Chase of Chase Lumber. Mrs. Chase a few years later would be my den mother for Cub Scouts. Later, Mr. Chase was elected mayor and his son Ted Jr. still lives in their grand house on Bristol Street in Sun Prairie.
(Sun Prairie’s first mayor was an honest-to-god hammer-and-anvil blacksmith, Tony Thomas. Father seemed to find any excuse to take a damaged implement for Mr. Thomas to heat up and then pound upon. Turns out my great-great grandfather, the immigrant, was likely a blacksmith as well as a small farmer.)
Mrs. Taylor, then well into her 70s, regaled her charges with stories from her own childhood in northeast Dane County: real-life Indians traveling along the creek to beg from the white interlopers. With colored chalk she drew highly detailed seasonal scenes — Thanksgiving with its pumpkins, turkeys, and Pilgrims, for instance. A traveling teacher came by maybe once a week to teach music. Us little kids banged wooden blocks together. We were not taught science.
Oak Lawn reinforced the work ethic that we were absorbing at home. Children did not have to speculate; they could see their parents at work.