A number of Coldwater people will remember Will J. Steele, who made a visit in this city last fall with his sister, Mrs. R. C. Korff, and family. Mr. Steele is now living in or near Portland, Ore. In a letter which the Star received last week from him he says:
Editors, Western Star: By the kindness of someone, I was enabled to read your Christmas Number. I read with much interest the senior editor's reminiscences of 40 years ago. They are similar to my own experiences in northwestern Kansas of about the same period. I am taking the liberty of relating a few of them to you.
My father came with his rather numerous family to Smith-co., Kansas in the fall of 1873, where he homesteaded a quarter section of land on Middle Cedar creek. In the spring of 1874 a number of settlers who had families got together and decided that a school district should be established. So, after the usual formalities, district No. 53 was formed, but no building was built. In June of that year Western Kansas had a pest of grasshoppers, and many settlers fled to their wives folks for the winter. Father's folks were among the number, although, in this case, he didn't go to his wife's folks.
By the autumn of 1876 a sufficient number of people had returned to require a school, but the difficulty was how to secure a building. Finally, a German who had a large family of children said, "I'll tell, by golly, you can have mine hen house." The offer was gladly accepted and the men of the district proceeded in a body and removed the said hen house to a central location in the district and re-laid the logs, cut out a window, put in a door, covered it over with brush, coarse hay and dirt, and our school house was completed. You will observe that I said nothing about the floor, but Mother Earth constituted that part of the building. Our sweeping was done largely with a scoop shovel.
My first teacher was a Hoosier who had taught a term of school in his native state in the remote past. By the way, he was a homesteader and one of the first school officers and had children in the school. For text books, each pupil brought those he had used in his former home, and, as each family represented a different state, you will readily see that we were not very well organized and that we lacked greatly in the matter of uniformity of school books. Nevertheless, we had some fine times, both in school and at the spelling schools and literary societies. Our neighborhood had a radius of not less than ten miles. The best spellers in the district were well known and very popular. Many love affairs originated in the little dirt floored "seminary," which resulted in happy marriages, and the descendants of those alliances are still residents of the vicinity, although a half century has elapsed.
In contrast to present day salaries, I might mention the remuneration some of these early pedagogues received. I have in mind an Englishman who was not very able bodied, but who thought that he was competent to teach our school. He was paid $10 per month and allowed to "board around." This teacher required each pupil to "speak a piece" on each Friday afternoon. One pupil delivered himself as follows:
"Oh, Lord of love,
Look down from above
And pity us wretched scholars;
We've got a fool
To teach our school
And pay him ten dollars."
During the winter of 1878 and '79, the writer tried his hand at teaching. He received $54 for a three months' term, and all of that amount in one lump sum, too. He then went to town and purchased a box or celluloid collars and a necktie and took the remainder of the money home and put it in the family pocketbook. A few years after my term, my sister, Mrs. R. C. Korff, of your city, taught what was probably the most successful term of school ever taught in that district. Many years ago the old building gave place to a neat frame, but today there are not as many pupils in that district as attended in the old log school house. Many go to the town school, and besides, children are not now "fashionable" as they were in those days. After all, we enjoyed those early days, despite the fact that we never rode in an auto, never talked over a telephone or listened to a radio or phonograph or visited a movie show. When we went to the fair or to the 4th of July celebration, our father would give us 25 cents and tell us to have a good time, and we had it, too, and if we had two or more quarters of our own, we sure did "have a time." We treated our girls to weak lemonade at 5 cents a glass, took her on the circle swing and went "twenty-five times around the world" for five cents apiece.
Soon, we, who were the boys and girls of those former days, will have passed from the scene of action, and our descendants will take our places in this busy world. Our sincere wish for them is that their advancement, intellectuality and good citizenship may be commensurate with the rapid strides in the inventive world.
W. J. STEELE
Thanks to Shirley Brier for finding, transcribing and contributing the above news article to this web site!
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