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Going to school in 1920

Posted Wednesday, October 31, 2012, at 1:33 PM

I did not have to walk very far, when I started school back in 1920. The Stepp School, where I attended, was just across the Cato Slough, about 300 yards from where I lived in south Bollinger County. This school was the typical one-room building, about 20 feet wide and 40 feet long, with two rows of desks down either side and a wide isle down the middle. The girls were seated on one side of the isle and the boys on the other.

The building was painted white, one of the very few buildings in the community that was painted. It had four windows on each side, which could be opened for ventilation, and it was heated with a wood-burning box stove. There were no windows on either end of the building. The only door was in the front center. On each side of this door, there was a shelf for lunch pails. Under this shelf, large nails were driven in the wall, where the pupils could hang their coats and caps, the boys on one side of the door and the girls on the other. The blackboard covered the other end of the building.

At opposite sides of the schoolyard, there were two outhouses, one for the boys and one for the girls. There was no lunchroom, so during fair weather the pupils would take their lunch pails outside and eat their lunch under the shade trees. In bad weather they ate their lunch at their desk.

The outlying area around the school was the typical of "Swamp East" Missouri. Quite often, some of the students had to wear rubber boots to get to school, and rather than having to wear these rubber boots all day, they would tie their shoelaces together and hang their shoes around their neck until they got to school. There, they would take off the boots, stand them on the floor under the coat rack and put on their shoes for the day.

When I started school in 1920, there were about twenty-five students, ranging in ages from six to sixteen. There was one teacher for all grades, from the first grade through the eighth grade. I have the Stepp School record books, dating back to 1916, and these records show that my first teacher, Mr. Lloyd Ferguson, was paid $50.00 per month for an eight month term. Mr. Ferguson only had an eighth grade education, and I well remember that Mr. Ferguson's teaching was strictly the "The three R's." Any deviation from this was forbidden. Even the first graders were not allowed to have crayons in school and were not allowed to "waste their time" drawing pictures. One student, Orville Bagby, who was in the third grade, liked to draw pictures. He was very good at it, and, with proper training, might have become an artist or an architect. However, one day he was caught drawing and coloring a beautiful horse. He was given a severe whipping with the ever-present hickory switch.

By 1922 the enrollment had increased to about 40 students, so a partition was put in the building and another teacher was hired. As it turned out, there were only two applications for this extra teaching position. One was Margaret Hendricks, whose father was one of the school directors, and the other applicant was my Aunt Edna Corbin. Her brother Grover was also a director, so each applicant had a close relative on the school board. The director was a neighbor and close friend to both applicants, so this made a rather delicate situation.

To solve this problem and take the pressure off the board members, it was decided to elect the teacher by secret ballot of all voters present at the regular annual school meeting. The records show that Edna got 16 votes and Margaret got 15, so my third grade teacher was my Aunt Edna.

In 1927, the Stepp School was completely destroyed by fire. With an enrollment of about 60 students, something had to be done and done quickly. This tragedy brought the entire community together. At a special meeting on May 21, 1927, it was decided that a three-room school would be built and that two years of high school would be taught.

Up to this time, I had never given any thought of going to high school, because the nearest high school was 51 1/2 miles away at Zalma, and there was no bus transportation, but when two years of high school was added at Stepp School, I decided to get the two years there, and I would walk the 5 1/2 miles to Zalma for the other two years.

The necessity of making room for ensuing classes may have been a factor in my promotion, but anyway, I did graduate from the tenth grade and it was "goodbye" to Stepp School, where I had attended for ten years without missing a day of school.

The one room country school was not just a place of learning; it was the activity center, where people could gather to discuss community problems. It was the social center, where pie suppers, spelling matches, family reunions, and church services were held.

The one room schools are all gone now, but they will always remain a very interesting and important part of our heritage. As an institution of learning, they laid the foundation for our modern educational system. There are people today in important government and educational positions who started their education in a one room schools.

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Teachers weren't allowed to be married back in 1920, either!

-- Posted by goat lady on Thu, Nov 1, 2012, at 2:04 PM

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Paul Corbin
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Paul Corbin is a 100-year-old historian, humorist, and amateur archaeologist from Advance, Mo. He grew up in the Greenbrier area west of Advance, where he attended Stepp School on the banks of Cato Slough and the Castor River, important waterways throughout his life. In an age when many area residents did not go to high school, the young Corbin made the decision to walk the five miles to Zalma, graduating in 1933. Throughout his life, he was an enterprising businessman, selling Watkins products from house to house throughout a large area - and later opening a variety store in Advance. He and his wife Geneva traveled throughout the United States, even following the route that the Lewis and Clark expedition traveled. His knowledge of Native American culture is extensive, and he has donated a sizeable collection of his artifacts to the Cape Girardeau Conservation Nature Center and the Bollinger County Museum of Natural History in Marble Hill. Throughout the years, he has submitted articles to TBY, the North Stoddard Countian, the Ozark Mountaineer, and several other Missouri publications. He has also written two books - "Reflections in Missouri Mud," and "Fragments of my Feeble Mind." The first one is out of print.
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