You will start to school to-morrow morning; you are five years old now, and you know all your letters, from A to Izzard, 'eeptin' K and Q an' some o' the unimportant ones," said a mother to her little boy, more than fifty years ago.


The child looked up and said: "I'd ruther not go, mammy; I'm 'fraid o' bears."


"No bears 'tween hire and the school-housen; don't think o' such a thing," was her reply, looking down at the sweet-faced little fellow who sat astride of a roughly-hewn short bench. He had a tow string tied to one end of it, which he used for a bridle.


"Wish I could make my hoss go, I'd ride to school, then, wouldn't I, mammy?"


“I wish you’d keep your nose clean,” was her answer, as she took up the wrong side of her new linen apron and gave the dear little offending snub-nose a tweak and a twist that brought with it prolonged “ow-w-wh!” I hope Asa Brown will teach you. Among other things, to keep a clean nose and lift you feet when you walk. Boys who drag their feet, and stub their toes, and shamble along, like you do, never amount to much – there’s not much grit in them,” and the bustling little mother rolled down her sleeves, stuck her horn comb tighter into the close, little twist of coiled hair on the top of her head, pinned her handkerchief snugger across her bosom, and  precisely between her shoulders, and telling the boy Billy not to 'wake the baby, she climbed up into the loft by way of the ladder that stood in the corner.

They were very poor. The cabin stood in the woods on a knoll overlooking the country toward the south. The husband, Aaron Crosby, was, among Yankees, styled a "handy man"—that means a man who knows a little of everything —  one who can repair a watch as well as make an ox yoke; one who is never at a loss because of his ingenuity and his inventive genius.


On this cold November day of which we write, Aaron was in the woods getting out timber to work up in the winter. He was laying in a store of hickory saplings of which to make splint brooms, willow and black ash to make baskets, and white wood, or poplar, to make butter bowls and bread trays. He was invaluable in the new neighborhood, this handy man was.


Before it was time to get dinner, Blly tipped his horse over on one end of the sugar-trough, in which the baby lay asleep, and the little cherub ame rolling out very suddenly. He enlivened the occasion by the usual demonstrations, and the mother came down the ladder, two rungs at a time. Billy was soundly cuffed, the bridle broken off his horse, the horse banished into the bleakest corner and the baby soothed by the restorative common in such cases.

“ I hope Ase Brown will take the kinks out of you, my lad," said the mother, as she gently wiped the tears off the baby's face on the wrong side of the linen apron.


“Maybe I'll take a notion not to go to school," said the boy, as he stood with his back up against the stone jamb beside the ample fire-place.


“William Crosby! William Crosby! Do you dare! If I had this child in the trough, if I wouldn't warm your good-for-nothing jacket, you little vagabond, you! You'll go to school, sir —  and you'll be a man, sir, some time, an' you'll be a good scholar, an' if you're not it'll be your own fault. You shall have good enough learnin' that you can be a 'squire some day, an' keep book instid o' havin' a notched stick like some poor, miserable creeturs have. Lord helpin' me, none o' my children shall ever be obleeged to make their mark instid o' writin' out the name o' Crosby, fair an' square," and the mother, poor, little, excited body that she was, jerked her head with sundry jerks that meant business.


The little boy leaned on his elbow the next morning at the breakfast-table, first toying with the brown linen table-cloth of his mother's own making, then with the bit of coarse corn-cake which his little teeth had daintily nibbled on one side. He was thinking. He leaned his head back and looked up, and then said aloud: "'Fraid I can't get up on the pole when I go to school; will any body help me up on the pole, mammy?"

“For the land's sake! Aaron, what does the young’un mean?" asked the mother.

"Don't they all set on poles, in rows, like chickens, say?" said William, as he twisted the corner of the scant table-cloth vigorously.


“No, they sit on benches," replied his father, laughing; "the little ones on low benches and the big scholars on high ones."


"Does the master sit on a pole?" was the next inquiry.


"No, he walks about, and carries a cudgel, and does his duty," said the father.


"Must I do my duty, too?"




"Maybe I won't know how," was the puzzled rejoinder.


"Well, he'll show you, If you don't; trust Asa Brown for that, any time," replied his father.


William rubbed his hand on his forehead and sighed.


After breakfast, the child's face was washed the second time, and his hair combed into the fashion which, fifty years ago, was called "the wig." It was little matter how it looked behind, or about the ears, so the wig was there — a heaped up standing peak above the forehead. If the hair was coarse and wiry, it was easily made into one.


William's wig was so successfully made that morning that his mother could hardly bear to spoil her handiwork by putting on his cap. The cap was made somewhat in the shape of a funnel, of woollen yarn, knit, of various colors, in rings that went round and round. On the very point of it was a little tuft of fringy yarn imitating a gay rosette. The cap was drawn on over the head.


Nearly all the boys and men in those early days wore these unsightly and ugly things on their heads; they had the merit, however, of being very warm and comfortable, though they gave the wearers the appearance of wild savages.

The child's dinner consisted of little corn-cakes split open and spread with a thick, brown butter, made of pumpkin, stewed down in the extracted juice of this abundant fruit. These were wrapped up and put into a calico work-pocket with a string in it, which he slipped upon his arm. Children were rarely permitted to have primers or spelling books until they were old enough to take care of them, and not tear them or make  "dog's ears" of the corners of the leaves. Instead of a book, the child was furnished with what was called a paddle. It was a piece of a clap-board of the usual width about a foot long, whittled into the shape of a wide paddle with a broad handle to it. On the smoothest side of this was pasted the alphabet, both the capitals and the smaller letters, and the pupil used this instead of a book.

We will describe this school and school-house because one is a duplicate of all the others in the far West in those early days.


In the early settlement of the country there was no law providing for common schools, no tax levied or other funds provided for the payment of teachers. Hence, all buildings for the use of common schools consisted of some old evacuated dwelling, or, if built for that purpose, had to be done by voluntary contribution of citizens immediately interested. If a new school-house was built, it was usually about sixteen by twenty feet, from seven to eight feet high, and built of round logs in perfect log-cabin style. It was covered with boards split out of large oak trees, about four feet long, from eight to twelve inches wide, and about one and a half inches thick. These were laid on without nailing, but confined to their places by small logs laid on each course of boards. To stop the crevices between the logs, pieces of wood were driven in, called chinking, and on this a thick clay mortar was put, which was called daubing; this was generally done inside and out. If they wanted to make the house a little nice, they would hew off the logs on the inside after the building was put up. The floors were laid with timbers called puncheon, which were usually from eight to ten feet long, split out of large oak trees, made as broad as the logs would admit, and about four inches thick. The door was also made of these same puncheons, only not so thick; it was hung on squeaking wooden hinges, and fastened with a clumsy, clattering latch made of strong hickory. A leather string was fastened to the latch on the inside, and thrust through a hole in the door; by pulling on this string from the outside the rude latch was raised. The windows were made by cutting out one log on each side, nearly the whole length of the building, and then closing by putting in small upright sticks in the form of sash, and pasting greased paper over them to cause it to admit the light more readily.


As stoves were unknown in those days, a fireplace was used instead. These were made by cutting out a hole in one end of the building, in some cases large enough to admit a two-horse wagon to pass through the cavity. On the outside of the house, and connected with this, the chimney was built of sticks and mortar, sometimes lined on the inside with stone and mortar immediately adjoining the fireplace. In front of the fireplace was a large space left in the floor called the hearth, which was usually covered with flat stones, and hence the old phrase, "hearthstone."

Seats were made of split timber, with legs In them so long that none but long-legged men could touch the floor with their feet. This had one advantage at least — the pupils could make no noise with their feet; but whatever good was attained by this was counteracted by the far greater evil of causing the scholars to sit in this unpleasant posture during the hours of school. The larger and more advanced pupils sat on very high seats that extended the length of the house on both sides; they sat with their backs toward the teacher, and leaned their elbows and laid their books and slates on wide puncheon shelves that were intended for writing-desks. These were fastened against the walls by timbers at the ends. They wrote with pens made out of the quills of geese and turkeys, and used ink made from soft maple bark and copperas. Sometimes a little maple sugar was put into the ink to make it "give a gloss" to the writing.

Ink made with good whisky instead of water never froze in the coldest weather. The first families always made their own ink, and they always put in sugar and number one whisky, and strained it through a linen cloth. A young man who could make good ink generally carried his head very high, and was the envy and admiration of the whole school.

The building of the fire during the winter term was no small item. Every evening a young man was appointed by the teacher to make the fire early the following morning. A huge back-log was rolled into the school-house, and by the aid of handspikes was rolled, and shoved, and worked along, sometimes with great difficulty, up to the hearth. Then a nice bed was made in the ashes, and the great log, trundled over into it, settled down in its place — the cold ashes snugly filled into the space between it and the wall behind it pressed closely in front of it, and that part of the mystery of making a good woodfire was finished. Two good-sized stones served as andirons, and the fore-stick was laid on them, then kindlings placed between the logs, then chips, small sticks, large ones, chunks and knots, and the remaining odds and ends of the yesterday's fire, and it was ready to start. There was no match to touch to it, as of now-a-days; and if no living coal could lbe found, the builder hurried off to the nearest house and brought a brand between two sticks. Generally, however, the remains of yesterday's back-log had been nicely buried in the hot ashes, and the fire had kept all night, and came out in the morning a bed of glowing coals.


But how much of the heat of such a fire must have gone up that wide chimney with the roaring red blazes! And such blazes! How they leaped, and cheered, and crackled! How they flamed, and danced, and glowed! How the little blazes that burned blue and steady, glowered because the ranting, prancing one in the centre was so mighty and so magnificent, and drew all others into his charmed power!


The teacher, or the "master," as he was called in those days, was generally a man of the neighborhood —the best scholar they had among thern — one who could "read, write and cipher," keep good order in time of school, handle the rod with dexterity, and one who didn't "feel above his business." He boarded round with his patrons, a week in a place; attended all the singing-schools, corn-huskings, pumpkin-paring-bees, often went with the boys coon-hunting at nights, showed them how to make "dead-tails" and traps to catch wolves, how to make turkey-pens, how to imitate the call of a turkey, how to tan deer-skins, how to make caps, and mittens, and leggings, how to mend shoes, to make ax-handles, bend the bows for ox-yokes, train calves, break colts, make hand-sleds, write back-hand, and running-hand, and German text, to play cards, a new grip in wrestling —a nd, in short, the master was the "master of the situation."


Sometimes a cousin or uncle would come from the East to visit his relatives in the far West, and in a case of this kind he was the man to "keep school," and he was soon persuaded into writing his article of agreement, which was carried from house to house until the requisite number of scholars was obtained.


I have in reach of my hand one of those old articles, written fifty years ago. It is too lengthy to give here. I read that the poor young man pledged himself to teach so many hours a day, and so many days for a month, to keep strict order during school hours, and to receive for compensation ten dollars a month, and be boarded among the scholars. He was to take his pay in wheat at fifty cents a bushel, oats at twenty, and corn at twenty five, to be delivered by or before the first day of the following May, at two mills, many miles apart, which were designated in the article. At the end of three months, his employers were so well pleased that they hired him another month, and increased his wages to eleven dollars.


Young men of now-a-days would derisively whoop over such an incident.


The poor young man died, lamented and beloved, thirty-five years afterward, worth over a hundred thousand dollars.

Oh, these lowly cabin school-houses in the wild backwoods have sent out from under their mossy old roofs the men who have been, and are yet, the very bone and sinew of our nation! Our best and noblest men budded and blossomed, and grew strong physically and intellectually, under these lowly roofs. The dignity of their manhood waxed noble and great under the difficulties that bore down upon them and seemed to hedge them in. It makes the sparkle steal into my eyes when these homely but trite lines come sweeping up to me:


"For many a lad,
Born to rough work and ways,
Strips off his ragged coat, and makes
Men clothe him with their praise."


I have no doubt but the best men whom the world knows, men who live in ease and luxury now, see in their dreams very often the old cabin school-house, with its dingy walls, the green playground, the beautiful purling spring, the black swamp, in which grew the flags and the peppermint, the swing-tree, the alders and willows, and the pretty hazel thickets in which the trusty birds builded their nests, but never hatched their young.


No wonder that Billy Crosby, new pupil, five years of age, pulled back when his father stepped inside the door of the school-house, and looking down with pride upon his little son, took hold of the knit cap by the tasselled peak and drew it off. It was no little thing to stand there the target for so many staring eyes. William's first inclination was to bawl right out; he was astounded, nothing looked as he had imagined it would. He twisted his head, and thought of his mother, and very indefinitely it came to him that he must be a great and a good man, and that this was the beginning, so he swallowed the uprising sob and caught his breath, and, baby as he was, he began to feel brave.


The master came and patted him on the shoulder and straightened up the pretty brown wig that had laid down to accommodate the knit cap, and said: " Glad to see you, William, you' re going to be a man, some day, and now sit here and study your paddle, and don't look up at all."


Upon the high seat was the little midget swung like a bundle of dry-goods, and down went his steady gaze upon the familiar alphabet before him. Some one tried to softly open and close the wooden-hinged door, but its creak was like the squall of a catamount, yet William dared not look up, although his sinking heart felt that his father had just gone out, and he was left there among strangers. No, not among strangers, for the big boy behind him on the high seat, studying fractions, was none other than one of Broady's boys, that one who gave him a handful of red thorn berries, one time. While the master was punching the fire, William sneaked up a hurried glance, and sure enough the boy was Reason Broady.


"Ho!" he thought, " I' m not afraid! Reas will take care of me!"


Reas. smiled and looked approvingly at the boy and his wig, and slipping his hand into the pocket in his linsey trousers, drew out and gave him a whole handful of nice pumpkin seeds to eat "on the sly."


In describing one of the schools of fifty and sixty years ago, in the West, we give a general description of all.


The teacher walked about nearly all the time with a stout cudgel or heavy switch in his hand, saying: "Too much noise!" "Better order!" "Less whispering!" "Tend to your books!" "Come, come!" "This won't do!" and, sometimes, especially if he had been out on a spree the night before, and was ill-natured from loss of sleep, then he was very apt to get out of patience and go the whole rounds with his rod, whipping indiscriminately all who occupied the front seats. This was done with a hearty good will, and quite after the manner that a man would whip a team of balky horses. This was the way Ase Brown did, and he meant it to act as a tonic.



A series of articles that appeared

in 1875 in Arthur’s Home Magazine

© 2011 Peggy Mershon                                                                         Contact at

No. 3 … First Day of School Page 1