One-Room Country Schools

Recently I wrote a short “memory” piece about my one-room country school at Sand Springs, MT, for an author friend who is putting together a book on the subject. It was a fun trip down memory lane.

Heidi 2nd grade

When I was almost six years old, there were no kids of school age in the area and no school closer than twenty or thirty miles away. I was so eager to learn to read and write that my parents consulted the county superintendent of schools who recommended teaching me to read from the “Mac and Muff” pre-primer series. I was in seventh heaven! Now I could read and write my own books!

 

By that next summer of 1956 the Joe Dutton family moved to Sand Springs and bought the general store. They had four children, three of school age, so the neighbors got together, formed a school board, and hired a teacher, Susie Huston from the Brusett, MT area. There had been a school at Sand Springs in the past, and the parents pitched in to clean and fix up the schoolhouse, which was in the middle of a field about a quarter mile from the store. A coatroom was converted into a “teacherage”—living quarters for the teacher with a bed, dresser, and a stove. Later the schoolhouse was moved across the highway when a new store building was built, and a small two-room building was constructed next to the school for the teacher to live in.

I started school with one boy with me in the first grade, one in the third, and a girl in the fourth. For several years, we four were the only students. The largest school population was during my brother’s time in the early ‘60s, with twelve students.

I have fond memories of “Huston,” as she preferred to be called, teaching us in innovative ways—board games for math, “Go-Fish” type card games for vocabulary words, and pictures she cut out from magazines as writing prompts. Listening to the upper grade students also piqued my interest and spurred my quest for learning. When I reached upper grades, I helped the younger kids with their studies. Huston taught there for three years.

Sand Springs School 1

Photo courtesy The Missoulian

Apparently the school population has come full circle, according to Sandy Gibson, Postmistress and owner of the Sand Springs Store, once again with four students, who have a male teacher and attend four days a week. Innovation teaching is still the “norm” with “lots of hands-on” projects, such as planting and caring for trees and a bow-and-arrow class.

North-Central Arizona, where I live now, also has a still-operating one-room school at Crown King—celebrating 100 years of teaching K-8 this year. Only one other such school in Arizona is located at Apache near Douglas. Crown King has 11 students, with one teacher, and was featured in the August/September issue of Prescott Woman Magazine. http://prescottwomanmagazine.com/aug-sept2017/

 

Published in: on September 30, 2017 at 6:17 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Childhood Memories, Adult Discoveries

I remember the house–a big two-story white clapboard, with a large wrap-around porch, and the stairway inside that my parents had to block so I wouldn’t try to climb up with my stubby two-year-old legs and fall back down. I remember the scent of tea, the warmth of the coal-burning stove in the corner of the living room, the hardwood floor covered with a bright rug and horse blanket throws on the sofa. Granparents house Ingomar

This is the ranch–known then as “the McCollum Place”–my grandparents moved to in the early 1940s after years of moving around, following the grass for their horses. This was the place they lived the longest, “retiring” in the early 1960s. This was my first home that my parents shared with Grandma and Grandpa for about three years after my mother emigrated from Germany, striking out on a journey of unknowns to the promise of a new and better life.

I hadn’t been back since I was a teenager, but when I visited Montana recently I drove to Ingomar, the “town” nearby. Ingomar is one of those places that you have to WANT to go to–you’re not going to happen upon it while traveling the regular Montana routes. Once the sheep shearing and shipping capitol of Montana in the early 1900s, it then boasted 46 businesses including three banks, railroad station, two elevators, two general stores, two hotels, two lumber yards, plus rooming houses, saloons, cafes, a drugstore, blacksmith shop, claims office, doctor, dentist and maternity home. Now the population is 14 and the main business is the Jersey Lilly Saloon and Cafe.Jersey Lilly

I had a vague recollection of the direction of the ranch from Ingomar, but I asked for directions, and I’m glad I did. Boots, the proprietor of the Jersey Lilly, glanced out the window at my car. “Good, you have all-wheel drive,” he said. I gulped. He explained they’d had some rain recently and the low-lying spots might still be muddy. Since my car was new to me, I dug out the owner’s manual to make sure I knew how to put it in four-wheel mode, just in case.

We (my sister-in-law, Marylou, & I ) followed Boots’ hand-drawn map: turn right after the cattle guard, keep going past the stock tank and you’ll have to open and close the gate… for eight miles over the rough one-track road. Fortunately, no mud remained, and I didn’t have to test out my vehicle and my memory of Montana mud-driving.

We found the house, which is still inhabited by Lance & Connie Moreland, very nice, hospitable people who are leasing the ranch. I had to smile at my memory of this “big” house. It’s two-story, all right, but it’s not large. How cramped the quarters must have seemed to my mother! The porch was not wrap-around as I had recalled, but still was a good-sized one on the front. I remember a photo of mini me at the rail with a chicken egg next to several large hailstones.  The staircase is still there, and the hardwood floors. The Morelands told me that unfortunately the owner doesn’t want to spend any money to fix up the house, so it is a bit on the dilapidated side.

But I’m glad it’s still lived-in and not falling down. Heidi with egg & hail

Published in: on November 7, 2014 at 6:19 am  Comments (1)  
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Celebrating a Cowboy’s Birthday

Dad, Grandma & Grandpa

Dad, Grandma & Grandpa

My dad, Don Neil Gasser, was born November 9, 1924. He would’ve been 89 today.

He grew up in the Cut Bank/Sunburst area in Montana (often known nationally as the coldest spot in the nation in the winter). His mother, my grandmother, was the rodeo-riding cowgirl I’ve written about in my novels Cowgirl Dreams, Follow the Dream, and the newest, Dare to Dream, scheduled to be released May 6, 2014.

Dad was an only child and the little family moved many times over the years, following the grass for their Percheron crossbred herd. He was six years old when they trailed 100 head of horses from Cut Bank to Salmon Idaho in the early 1930s to find grass, after drought and grasshoppers left Montana tabletop bare. He remembered that adventure vividly and that became one of the pivotal events in Follow the Dream.

I remember my 6’4″ dad as a quiet, soft-spoken man, an avid reader and student, although he

Dad & I in his rebuilt Model T

Dad & I in his rebuilt Model T

never attended college. He taught himself to read at least three languages, memorized passages of the Bible while driving tractor, and passed on the love of books and music to me and my brother Mark. Dad was, out of necessity, an inventor, a mechanic, a veterinarian for his own and neighbors’ cows. Anything that needed done, my dad could do. And he was a real cowboy–when he was astride his horse, he rode so smoothly you could hardly tell where the man ended and the horse began.

Dad passed away in 2003,  much-loved and well-respected by all who knew him. Happy Birthday, Dad!

Think it’ll rain?

It struck me the other day as I heard this conversational question several times from different people…I haven’t heard that since I lived in eastern Montana!

The past 17 years, while I lived in Mount Vernon, WA, the question was more likely to be “Think we’ll have a summer this year?” Rain and clouds were plenty—300 days of them—with averages of 30-40 inches annually. Sunshine, not so much.

I grew up in the semi-arid high plains in Montana where drought was common. Rainfall might average 10-13 inches a year, depending on the area. I remember watching the clouds with my dad and wondering if it was going to rain…or hail…or just dry lightning.

Now I am again living in the semi-arid high plains desert of north-central Arizona, where ranchers look at the gathering clouds and ask, “Think it’ll rain?”

Afternoon storm

Following is an excerpt from my book Follow the Dream, when Jake and Nettie are watching the sky, hoping and praying for life-giving rain.

Sunday, July 14, 1929

Spring rains never came this year. The little bit of grass that came up is nearly gone. Used up rest of the hay already. Jake’s not himself. I’m really worried.

When they watched the skies now, it was with a tingling sense of hope and dread. The clouds built up over the rims, dark and angry, then dispersed as the hot winds blew them to nothing.

In June, Jake had only shrugged when the thunderheads passed over and splattered just a few hard raindrops like bullets into the dust. There was always a chance that the next storm would dump its load and the grass would come back, resurrected from its hardpan grave.

Each time the sky grew dark, Nettie ran to gather clothes from the line, shut the windows in the house and bring four-year-old Neil in from riding his stick horse. While their son played cowboy on a saddle in the kitchen, she and Jake prepared themselves, anticipating the long, drowsy afternoons of gentle rain when they could rest without guilt, and just be together as the earth replenished itself. But disappointment always followed one brief, hopeful interlude after another.

As summer wore on, the clouds produced nothing more than a frightening display of heat lightning, the air so charged with electricity that the hair on Nettie’s arms stood up. She thirsted for a view of something green, the smell of new grass. A silent vigilance overtook their lives.

She watched the tension pull at Jake, his hopeful expectation as the sky darkened, the half-smile when he heard the first clap of thunder, and then the slump of his shoulders when the storm again passed them by. Her heart ached for him, and fear built inside like the thunderheads on the hills.

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Memories in a Coffee Pot

This small, forlorn coffee pot holds a barrel of memories for me.

My parents had a coffee ritual. Most days, unless my dad was out working in a far-off field, he would come in around 4 p.m. for coffee and a snack. It might be fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies, or warm whole wheat bread with butter and chokecherry jelly, “wonderberry” (wild berries similar to blueberries) pie, or vanilla ice cream smothered in fresh sliced peaches.

Mom placed a generous scoop of coffee grounds in the pot and poured boiling water on top, letting it “steep”, like tea. After a few minutes, she or Dad would blow into the spout to settle the grounds, and pour the strong, aromatic brew into their cups. Strangely enough, they never seemed to have to deal with grounds floating on top.

Even when we were working outside together in the heat of the summer, stacking bales, a thermos of coffee marked afternoon break-time in the shade of a growing hay stack.

An extra special occasion, Mom and Dad’s wedding anniversary on Christmas Eve, began with that coffee. As the lavender shadows of dusk gathered, Mom would dress in her holiday outfit, bring out the Christmas goodies, and brew the coffee.

Although I didn’t like coffee and didn’t start drinking it until I was in my 30s, this “coffee time” was a hugely important part of my life, growing up on a ranch in eastern Montana. It wasn’t just a time to stave off hunger pangs until supper, it was a time of togetherness, an important family ritual.

Even after my mother died, my dad continued the afternoon coffee observance.

I am downsizing in anticipation of a move in the near future, and I had to make a painful decision to discard this coffee pot. But the memories will live on.

Published in: on September 5, 2012 at 6:00 am  Comments (10)  
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Bursting into Spring

Spring literally blossoms with metaphors about rebirth, new life, and new beginnings. It is my favorite season and is especially meaningful to me.

One reason is because I grew up on a ranch in eastern Montana and celebrated the release of snowbound winters with warm sunshine, hills rolling with green grass and quilted with wildflowers, and I witnessed the birth of new calves.

Another reason is one I discovered when I moved to Missoula in the western part of the state. Missoula is located in the bottom of a mountain valley and in the winter, it experiences the same type of weather inversions as the LA basin. Because of this, although winters there are more temperate than eastern Montana, it is often cloudy for weeks on end. That is when I discovered that I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.)

Now I live in the Pacific Northwest, where it is more often cloudy and rainy all winter than not. In spring, I feel like the tulip that flourishes here, reawakening after a long winter’s hibernation.

Like a Tulip

Like a tulip, I awaken

Reaching up toward the warmth

Straightening my curled-in body

Pushing away the heaviness of the winter soil

Like a tulip, I awaken

Stretching my arms to the sun

My eyes open as the petals

Squinting at first, then opening wide

Like a tulip, I awaken

Hearing the buzzing of the bees

Sensing the grass grow

Feeling the earthworms move

I am the tulip, as I awaken

Reveling in the sunshine

Embracing its glow, its warmth

I am the tulip, as I blossom in the spring

Merry Catmas

My Jellicle Cat under the Christmas tree.

Celebrating the birth of Jesus. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah to our Jewish Friends and Happy Holidays to all!

Published in: on December 24, 2011 at 11:09 pm  Comments (4)  
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How to Say It Like It Is

I was saddened recently to learn that one of my favorite University of Montana journalism professors, Robert C. McGiffert, had died last December at age 88. He wrote the textbook, The Art of Editing the News, received UM’s Distinguished Teaching Award in 1982, and received the Montana Free Press Award from the UM schools of journalism and law. He was a stickler for factual reporting, and I remember my classes with him fondly.

As one former student, Ginny Merriam, put it so well in a tribute: “We are the Journalistic Children of Bob McGiffert….From the beginning, we knew he’d be tough. At the end, we loved him….”

And from my fellow classmate, Carol VanValkenburg: “…I, like so many others I have talked to over the years, decided to become a journalist because of him….”

The following is a poem by McGiffert, published in Editor & Publisher and the Montana Journalism Review. It is so titled because E&P paid him $2 for it.

$2 Poem

As any reader knows, a source can

charge, declare, affirm, relate,

recall, aver, reiterate,

allege, conclude, explain, point out,

answer, note, retort or shout,

rejoin, demand, repeat, reply,

ask, expostulate or sigh,

blurt. suggest, report or mumble,

add, shoot back, burst out or grumble,

whisper, call, assert or state,

vouchsafe, cry, asseverate,

snort, recount, harrumph, opine,

whimper, simper, wheedle, whine,

mutter, murmur, bellow, bray,

whinny or … let’s see now

… SAY!

Thanks, Bob! You taught me well. I don’t need to add another thing.

Sergeant Reckless: A Warhorse Hero

Here is a bit of history I’ll bet you’ve never known. I hadn’t heard of Reckless, the war hero horse. She was a little Mongolian sorrel purchased by an American Lieutenant for $250, and she proved her worth many times over. LIFE Magazine even included her in a write-up about the top heroes of all time.

View the video about Sergeant Reckless.

Published in: on August 9, 2011 at 6:00 am  Comments (6)  
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Celebrating Our Flag on Independence Day

Does the familiar sight of the red, white, and blue unfurling in the breeze still bring tears to your eyes? Does it make you stop and think about what it means, or have we all become so jaded we don’t even place our hand over our hearts when the National Anthem is played?

No one knows with absolute certainty who designed the first stars and stripes or who made it. The story I grew up with is that Betsy Ross, a Philadelphia seamstress who was acquainted with George Washington, made the first one, but its design is also attributed to Congressman Francis Hopkinson.

On June 14, 1777, to establish an official flag for the new nation, the Continental Congress passed the first Flag Act: “Resolved, That the flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation.”

Flags dating before June 24, 1912 sometimes show unusual arrangements of the stars and odd proportions. On this date an Executive Order designated the official design of our flag.

Flag etiquette includes this rule, which I see violated many times:  “It is generally not desirable to fly the flag outdoors when the weather is particularly inclement because exposure to severe winds and rain may damage the flag or the pole on which it is displayed.”

I remember putting up and taking down the flag at my one-room country grade school, and we all had to learn the proper way to fold it and to hoist it.

We also said the Pledge of Allegiance in school at a time when “God” was not considered a “four-letter word.”

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Published in: on July 4, 2011 at 1:26 am  Comments (2)  
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