The Berryhill school-house was built in 1816, and was like all the old log houses in early times.

 

It cost nothing except the labor expended in the cutting of the logs and putting them together after the fashion of a pig-pen, only that the corners were cut in notches that would fit together.

 

They were finished then with chinking-split stuff to stop up the apertures between the logs, and mortar plastered over to keep out the wind and the worst of the rain and snow.

 

The windows in those early times were the merest substitutes. On each side of the house a log was left out, and the places were covered with oiled paper, which let in a dim, subdued light.

 

 

Rosella’s

other

stories

Our Schools, School-Houses

and Schoolmasters of Long Ago — No. 1

 

The following story appeared in an 1887 issue of Arthur’s Home Magazine

It had an immense fireplace occupying nearly one end of the house — no mantel, no jambs or side pieces, and the daylight that came down the low, wide chimney was as bountiful as from a bay-window.

 

The chimney was made of split sticks and mortar, laid up after the manner of little children's cob-houses.

 

The floor was heavy plank or puncheon, as it was called in those days, and was split or rived out of large logs and roughly dressed, the big splinters toned down modestly. The seats were puncheons and saplings squared, and stood on four sprawling legs. The writing desks were the first slabs off sycamore logs and placed against the wall and secured on pins that were driven into the walls.

 

The large scholars at these desks sat with their backs toward the teacher, swinging their feet. None of the seats were made intending the children to rest their feet on the floor.

 

The door was made of rived boards, hung on creaking wooden hinges, and the rude wooden latch was large and clattering, and had the traditionary leather latch string. Doors were locked in those days by leaving the string on the inside. The roof was rows of clap boards, split out, and each row secured in place by heavy weight poles laid on.

A row of wooden pins driven into the logs at the end of the house was the place to hang the shawls and bonnets, and a shelf above it was for the boys' hats. A little bench in one corner was for the dinner baskets that held the homely but sweet lunch of cold cornbread, with whatever accompaniment the mother could contrive from her meager store. Every autumn the log school-house was well banked up with fresh dirt and newly daubed with clay mortar, both inside and out.

 

The old Berryhill school-house was used every summer and winter from 1816 to 1835, and then, almost on its site, was built the first frame school-house. It was large and clean and roomy, and had nine windows, with sash and real glass, a good door with real latch and hinges, comfortable seats, and in the middle of the floor stood a Franklin stove that sent out abundant and grateful warmth.

 

The last day of school in the old log house was memorable. The "master" treated. He was a poor young man, a widower, lately from the State of Maryland, had fallen in love with the shoemaker's only daughter, and married her the following summer. Every person said Philemon and Charlotte would make a "queer match;" he was thirty-two and "Tot" was only seventeen; but the gossips were mistaken; it was a good match; they prospered, had an intelligent family, and Philemon served two terms in the Legislature very acceptably, lived to good old age, and died universally lamented.

 

When he treated "the last day" the girls had theirs in the house, apples and raisins, but the boys were invited out-doors on that cold, stormy, snowy day in March, sat in a row on the high fence of Uncle Jonathan's meadow, and were treated to the social beverage of those early days, whisky, which was passed round from one to another, each boy taking a good drink from the jug.

 

The tin dipper, which the teacher had bought, he presented to Charlotte with a polite bow.

 

In all these years schools were subscription schools; the fathers paid for the one, two, three, or four scholars, whichever they had signed on the paper. Poor men invariably had large families. They generally signed three scholars if they had five or six children old enough to go to school, and then divided the time round among them, each one getting the benefit of a half term. It was hard, but sometimes it was the best they could do. It cost about four dollars a year to school each child. Very frequently the heavy end of a poor man's school bill was lifted off and added to the bill of a man who was able and willing to help "bear one another's burdens." Or, the poor debtor would work at clearing, grubbing, breaking flax, plowing new land, or something for the man who had helped pay his school bill.

 

What a trial it was to the poor parents of large families when the teacher's subscription paper lay opened out before them!

They would confer and sometimes put down only a half-scholar, or one and a half, and then the "smartest ones" would get to attend school. Too often the father would say, bitterly, when trying to compromise between poverty and duty: "Oh! I got along without learnin'; they can do as I've done; they're no better nor the'r daddy;" and the conciliating, sweet voice of the loyal wife and mother would gently interfere — "Oh! come now, father, it's about all we can leave to the poor children; I'll pay for one, somehow; come now; don't be harsh, dear; I think this will be a good year for ginsing and columbo roots, and we'll all turn out and dig and gather like all possessed.

 

In those days, if a child was taught reading, writing, and arithmetic, as far as the rule of three, it was about the amount of the tolerable education.

 

What remorseful twinges of conscience did come with the last day of each term!

 

Thoughtful children were all troubled then for fear they had not applied themselves studiously to their books; they were afraid that golden opportunities had not been improved. And the clincher to their heartaches came when the teacher gave to each child a little slip of paper to carry home to poor papa, something like this:

 

"Mr. john Smith, you owe me won dolar and seventy sents for Marthy Ann's scoolin. "Miss Ellex Jay, teacher."

Or: "Widow Mulroony, you owe me to dolars for Jonathan henry's scoolin. "Adaline Judkixs, teacher."

 

It was a glad day for the State of Ohio in the winter of 1838, when a new school law was enacted. The Berryhill legislator, "Uncle John," as every one called him, hurried and wrote a letter home to the little nephews and nieces, telling them the joyful tidings. And then they all skipped and said, "Goody! goody! now we'll not have to live so saving any more; schools will be free and our papas will not have such hard work to pay school bills, and we won't have to save our shoes; we can kick frozen clods, and we can play shinny and black man Anthony over, and crack the whip, and, best of all, we can slide on the ice freely cross the creek at one run!"

 

And in less than forty-eight hours after the good news about free schools, the more valiant of the irrepressibles had poured water down a smooth bank below the school-house, and the very next morning they celebrated the delightful event by a glorious slide, completely ignoring the value of shoe leather. The same now as it was then, very few persons can stand prosperity.

 

School books cost a great deal more then than they do now. The United States Spellers, with worthless wooden backs that would split into kindlings the first time an urchin was cuffed with one, cost forty cents each at the nearest store, fifteen miles distant . There were classes in the English Reader, Testament, History of the United States and Life of Captain William Riley. It was not uncommon to see such a medley of books in school as: Fox's Book of Martyrs, Harvey's Meditations, Columbian Orator, History of the Revolution, Poetry for Schools, History of the Late War (1812), and Parnell's Poems.

 

The school examiners were the directors, the doctor, the landlord of Epluribus Unum Tavern, and the farmer who was "high larnt." The examinations were original and uncommonly interesting, and the Board had some rare fun among themselves.

 

In those quiet long-ago times, in other days, the advent of the new "master" was a wonderful event in the lives of the boys and girls. It was important. No one knew who was coming.

 

The school directors would post notices about, on the store door, at the blacksmith shop, and on the big tree at the crossroads, saying, at such a date and such a place, a meeting would be held for the purpose of employing a teacher for the winter term of four or five months.

 

Then, when the evening appointed would arrive, after an early supper, the district dignitary would take his bellcrowned hat down off its peg, and settle it on his head with a few dexterous shakes, take his cane from its moorings, and start.

And the eager voices of the boys and girls would follow him down the door-yard path, and past the stumps, and past the foot-bridge, with: "Say, papa, hire a good man; don't get anybody we ever saw or heard tell of."

"Come, father," another would say, "get a good fellow who knows lots of stories, and one who is not cross, and one who likes boys and girls."

 

And the older ones would say in a hungry, half-starved way: "I hope he'll be real smart outside of school books, handsome and polite and clever and gallant — a man who will help us and help the whole neighborhood."

Not an eye would close in sleep or a little head go nid-nodding before the return of the august school director.

And when he came, how slow of speech he seemed. How important his office made him. How he delighted to take his own time in framing cautious, tantalizing replies.

 

Sometimes the "new master" was an old man, the " highest larnt in the deestrict," a lame man, sickly, in debt, or a man with a large family, who had appealed to the kindness of his humane neighbors, or more probably he was a man who would teach cheaper than any other applicant.

 

This was not uncommon.

 

Sometimes the patient waiting was rewarded by hearing that the new master was a stranger, fine appearing, sometimes an Irishman, a Yankee, a Virginian, a Marylander, or a young student desiring to prosecute the study of divinity, law, or medicine, and took this way to earn a little money. Sure enough, it was but a little.

 

So the article of agreement would be drawn before the new school-law of 1838, Or when there was an insufficiency of public funds, and the poor fellow would be bound up as snug as a broken leg.

 

He was to receive ten dollars a month, and teach every consecutive Saturday, full hours in a day, good order in time of school, use no partiality, punish when necessary, and he was to "board round" among the scholars, which meant a week in a place.

 

For convenience he would take wheat to be delivered at specified mills. Manners', Coper's or Shrimplin's were mentioned in the article of agreement between the parties. Wheat was quite as good as money — was considered as good, as —  "wheat in the mill."

 

In most homes it was a gala week when the master came. He was doubly welcome; he was the honored guest, and as welcome to their hospitality as was the "Methody preacher," whom they all loved and revered.

 

Even if the family were poor they always found room for the "master." One time the little boys in a family coaxed the new teacher to go home with them and stay all night. He went, an unexpected visitor. While sitting, waiting until the cornmeal pudding was done, he overheard a sixteen years old girl say to the mother out in the lean-to, where the wheels and reels are kept, "Mommy, where will the master sleep to-night? Ther isnt any place for him, is ther?"

 

"Never you mind, sis," said the wide-awake, contriving little mother, "I'll manage; he can do as the Methody preacher does; I'll sleep in with you and Nate and Tom and Susy, and he can have my place in with daddy and Ike and Henry and the twins."

 

A schoolmaster had good lodgings, and he could sleep like a dried herring if he had no more than two boys in bed with him. He fared well. The old-time hospitality was royal. It was given without grudging. We wonder now with our many rooms, and our convenient ranges and comfortable appliances, how it could have been. The kitchen was parlor, sitting-room, bed-room, dining-room, and pantry, and all in one.

 

There was a low chamber overhead called a loft which was reached by a ladder, either out-doors or in one corner. The cooking was done in the fireplace by hanging pots and kettles on the swinging iron crane, to which was attached trammels and hooks. In lieu of chairs solid wooden benches were used. Instead of pictures on the walls for ornament, hung strings of dried fruit, rows of herbs, sacks of seeds, gourds, tallow candles, stockings, almanacs, home-made hats, and the old Revolutionary shot pouch, while over the mantel reposed the trusty rifle.

 

The few smoky and well-read books lay on a swinging shelf out of the reach of the hands of the investigating babies.

In such humble but happy homes the old-time schoolmaster was always welcome. He generally adapted himself to the family habits in a short time. He could jump up and dress while the women were milking or cutting meat out in the lean-to. He could "go wash in the run," forty rods away, at the base of the hill, as nimbly as one of the girls, and wipe on the raking, rasping tow-linen towel like the rest of them did.

 

And when they surrounded the kettle of mush and ate out of it in easy abandonment, like common folks, not quality, he could do the same. If they all sat in a semicircle round the ample stone hearth, and cracked and ate a peck of walnuts, as a prelude to retiring, he joined them cheerfully. If, instead, it was a heaping panful of doughnuts, bursting their twisted sides with lightness, and accompanied with cider foaming from the red-hot iron thrust into it, he was the very laddie to go in.

 

If it was to drive the Deacon's bay team in the cutter over the hills and valleys to a country singing-school, sitting on the laps of the Deacon's rosy daughters, he was their most obedient cavalier.

 

The schoolmaster was expected to know everything. Encyclopoedias were not known then in the new country. When old Rover Coulter bit Jerry Conine on the hand, he hied off to Asa Brown, the Yankee schoolmaster, to know what would cure the wound. And Asa, wise Asa, drew his sandy brows and said, "Cut off some of old Rover's hair and bind on the place and that will cure it in nine days."

 

And when Ann Bolinger asked him what would drive away the witches from troubling Mary Maria's baby, he said for her to sleep with a Bible under her pillow and let it wear a strip of something round its neck that grand'ther Hoskins, the wizard, had worn, or had about him. The baby got well. Got real smart, and pearter than ever, the grateful old grandmother told, with her own mouth.

 

The school girls in other days wore home-made dresses. In the winter they were made of linsey-woolsey, flax, or cotton warp with wool filling woven on the looms at home by the mothers or elder sisters. It was the quality that repellant, or waterproof is now, only that it was very rough and uneven, and harsh to the feel, but good and warm and sensible.

 

The school boys wore linsey trousers and tow shirts; later they wore trousers of homemade cloth and shirts of half-sleyed flannel, and later yet they aspired to nice, good, stylish "London brown."

 

It was made this way: the mothers wove the flannel, white and fine, and of even thread, sent it to the fulling mill, where it was fulled, thickened, dyed the pretty reddish brown color, and pressed smooth and shiny. In the then prevailing, sixty years ago, Western vernacular, it was called "Lunnen brown." A young man in a first new suit of this stylish goods was at the height of his ambition. When it could be afforded, it was "the weddin' suit."

 

One of the first of the schoolmaster's excellencies in the long ago was "strength." He must be cross. He must be the boss. He must know how to handle the gad, and lay it on in sturdy blows, thick and long and fast. He must have the attainment that Ole Bull's fiddler had. One time this distinguished violinist was strolling along, seeing the sights at Donnybrook Fair, when he was attracted by the sound of a very loud violin in a tent near by. Amused, he entered and said to the player, "My good friend, do you play by note?"

 

"The divil a note, sir."

"You play by ear, then?"

"Divil an ear, yer honor."

"How do you play then, my good sir?"

"By main strength, be jabbers!"

 

Oh! how often did the poor boys in their loose wamusses, and the girls in their scant homespun apparel, writhe under the great, heavy, green rods in the strong hands of the long-ago log-cabin schoolmasters, ignorant men who governed solely by main strength!

© 2011 Peggy Mershon                                                                                     Contact at marwelmer@aol.com