Memories from teaching in Meade County in the 1930s

It was hard to believe that it was time for school to start this year. With the cool and wet start to the “summer,” it seemed way too soon for the “back to school” shelves to be prominently featured in stores and to see school buses rolling out for the first day for area schools. I do love seeing children in backpacks, excited to see their schoolmates and teachers again after the summer, and I also love “first day of school photos.” With technology today, people can digitally add the date, school year, teacher, and any other piece of information that I typically have to find on the back of a printed-out photo from a photo album when looking back through my and my siblings’ first days of school. Things have changed in so many ways through the years! I recently came across memories of a first-time teacher in Meade County in the 1930s, which captures some of those changes in a delightful memoir. Marjorie Frybarger Larson wrote the article, “Experiences as a Fox Ridge Teacher 1932-1935,” for the compilation, “Central Meade County Prairie Schools: 1889-1969.”

Larson, of Huron, describes that during the local fair in 1932, she was a college graduate without a job. Anywhere she had applied had asked for prior teaching experience, and since she had none, more experienced candidates had filled the positions. Serendipitously, the Meade County superintendent of schools traveled to Huron to bring the county’s spelling winners to the state contest, and he ended up staying with the parents of Larson’s close friend. The superintendent, Bernard Linn, asked the friend’s mother if she knew any college graduate in need of a job, as he needed some such person to ensure the high school was accredited. Larson’s name was brought up, and Linn arranged for an interview with her. “He even had me play the piano for him as he said that community was interested in cultural things,” Larson writes. “When I finished he said, ‘Well, if they could hear you play they would no doubt want you.’” Two days later, Larson had a job as teacher of the Fox Ridge school — 85 miles outside of Sturgis — in Fox Ridge District #38.

Larson describes that she spent a day “packing everything I could into a trunk and suitcase to stay perhaps a whole nine months in some unknown spot which I could not reach by train.” She left Huron at night, arriving by train the next morning in Sturgis, spending the day in Linn’s office reading the courses of study for fifth- and eighth-grades. The deputy superintendent, Ervin Peregrine, then drove Larson the 85 miles to Fox Ridge.

Larson vividly remembered the trip to her new home: “The farther we drove the stranger it seemed to me. No towns — not even many farms that could be seen from the road. I asked where the people lived and learned this was the sparsest county in the state with many people having large land areas for sheep in place of small farms as in my part of the state. I saw some sheep and a sheep wagon, but we drove many miles between post offices. I was used to driving to Huron to Cavour in nine miles, or Huron to Wolsey in fifteen miles, and seeing many small farms along the way. It seemed a strange new world and very far from home.” She remembers not being able to see much of a town as they passed Mud Butte and Cedar Canyon and was told that Maurine had the closest grocery store, though Fox Ridge did have a post office: “the only sod post office in the state,” she writes.

Larson was to live with the Haines family at the Roy Haines ranch during her teaching, and the travelers arrived at the ranch about suppertime, so plates were set for Larson and Peregrine when they arrived. “I still remember how good the soup and the chocolate cake tasted and also how all eyes seemed to be on me every time I glanced up from my food,” Larson writes. “Three of my four pupils were at that table - Lillian and Willard Haines and James Kolousek who was working for Mr. and Mrs. Haines, my new parents. I suppose they were all wondering what the new teacher would be like.”

Larson shared a room with Lillian, who was in fifth-grade, and she describes how Lillian “became like the little sister I had always wanted. She watched with pleasure as I unpacked and hung up my dresses that first night.” She attended church the next day with the family at Prairie Home Church, meeting various neighbors, and Larson would begin playing the piano for church and Sunday school and also teach a class for the young people. That evening, Larson had supper with the Haines at the Sheldon Ward home to meet her fourth student, eighth-grader Betty Ward. “I concluded I could not have four nicer pupils than Betty and the three I was to live with seemed to be,” Larson describes of her first impressions of her students.

The next day was the first day of school. “With lunch pails in hand Lilian and I started for the little schoolhouse on the other side of the ridge — one mile away I was told. I was used to walking a mile in town on sidewalks, but I wasn’t prepared for this mile over hills, down into gullies around buttes and such,” Larson writes. “It was the longest mile I had EVER walked! I was ready for my lunch long before the clock indicated it was noon. I learned to eat big breakfasts (even fried chicken at times), pack my box full, and was always ready for a big supper after the walk home.”

There would be lots to learn that first day, and first year — the same for students and teachers each year when they return to classrooms. We’ll pick back up with Larson’s memories next week — stay tuned! And to all of the students and teachers and school staff members, here’s to a happy school year!

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