Snakes in the School Bathroom Help Bring Alive Wisconsin History
by Helen Zhang, age 13 and Lucy Ji, age 14
Simpson Street Free Press reporters love road trips. They’re fun, educational, and we often come back with great stories for our newspaper. One of our recent road trips brought us to another remarkable place. When we got there, we found ourselves up-close and personal with a slice of Wisconsin’s past.
We started our day heading west on Highway 14 toward Cross Plains. The hills got steeper and the land became more rural as we entered western Dane County and Wisconsin’s beautiful driftless area. The Driftless area is a geographic region so named because the glaciers from thousands of years ago never scraped the land flat, as they did in most parts of North America. We always recommend road trips to this part of our state. The Driftless area offers great beauty and plenty of cool historical sites and museums to visit.
Before long, we reached our destination. We had an appointment to visit the Old Halfway Prairie School House. We knew right away we had made a good choice.
* * * *
To us, the most fascinating part of this trip was the people we met. Cleo Brockman was a former teacher in this school. She is now one of the caretakers of the school. Darlene Grover, once a student of Cleo’s, also met us. Both of these wonderful women hosted our visit and led us on a tour around the school. They met us outside as we pulled into the driveway. We gave them our business cards and explained why we thought this was an important story for our newspaper to tell.
Then they took us through the doors and we entered history.
The first thing we noticed when we walked into the schoolhouse was how it looked. Had we walked onto a movie set? It looked so different from classrooms today. The schoolhouse was built in 1848 and closed in 1961, making it 163 years old this year.
Surprisingly, the school taught children from first grade through eighth grade; all eight levels in the same room, and all at the same time. Often, the students would be in the same school as their siblings for years. According to Cleo, many students were unhappy about this situation. If they misbehaved or earned a bad grade, their sibling could go home and tattle on them! There were usually just a few children in each grade level and an average of 20 to 25 students each year. Thirty-two pupils were the most Cleo had at any one time, which is about how many students are in a single class today. In 1940, long before the school completely closed down, there were a mere four students.
If a student misbehaved, there was always a punishment. When a student had a time-out, he or she had to go sit in the corner with the dunce hat on. More severe punishments included staying in for recess or even getting hit with the wooden ruler. Darlene, Cleo’s former student, had to write, “I will not talk in school” 500 times on the blackboard when she was caught talking during class. Every desk had a little pencil holder carved into its surface; if a student’s pencil fell out of it three times, that student would have to stay in for recess.
Penmanship was considered at the time one of the most valuable skills a person could have. At the schoolhouse, there were classes that specifically focused on improving this skill. According to Cleo, penmanship showed character. Handwritten thank-you notes were also very important.
If Cleo was sick, school would be canceled that day, because there were no substitute teachers. Cleo lived just across from the school, so it was easy for her to get there. All the students and teachers had to walk. Some students might have to walk as far as four miles every single day. The schools were strategically built about every four miles, so no student had to walk farther than that distance.
The schoolhouse had no modern heating. A wood stove provided winter heat. The school has no air conditioning, plumbing, electricity, or water fountains. The same dipper was used by all of the students to drink out of one pail. They used oil burning lamps or bracket lamps fueled with kerosene. There were two outhouses behind the schoolhouse, one for each gender. In the winter, there would always be furry animals hibernating in the outhouse. And in the spring, there were snakes. Often, when a girl asked to use the outhouse, screams closely followed.
“The outhouse always seemed too far in the winter [due to the cold], but too close in the summer [due to the smell],” said Darlene.
We couldn’t help but smile at the stories the two women told us. Like the outhouse story, each one felt authentic. We talked and asked questions for hours. The whole experience was really interesting.
Teachers were paid about $20 to $30 per month in the earliest days. But by the mid-1900s, as the school neared its end, Cleo was paid $128 each month.
* * * *
This was an extremely rewarding trip for us. It was, seriously, just like going back in time. It was also a great learning experience for all of us.
The four reporters who went on this trip were new to our road trip planning team. Now we cannot wait to explore further Wisconsin’s intriguing history.
If you ever get the chance, you should go check out the Old Halfway Prairie School House. And if you run into Cleo and Darlene during your visit, tell them we say hello.
The School House is located at 9770 State Highway 19 in Waunakee, WI. It is open every Sunday starting with the Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day Weekend from 1pm until 4:30 pm. The school is also open on the 4th of July from 1pm to 4:30 pm. Make plans to visit, you’ll be glad you did.