Memories of a Rural School Teacher


by Mariana E. Goodwin
(May Norton was interviewed at her rural home by Ross Melgaard in 1987. She now lives at May Creek Lodge in Walker.)


Mary's family moved to this area near Cyphers in 1912 when Mary was 3 years old. Because of the lack of roads, most children attended small rural schools. Mary started school in Cyphers with other children from Turtle Lake township and some from the Walker school district. There were about 10 students, enough to hire a teacher. (Seven was the minimum.) At one time Cass County had 200 schools in the unorganized school district. The school board consisted of the elected school superintendent, the county treasurer and the chairman of the county board. They were required by law to visit each school twice a year.

When Mary finished eighth grade she went to high school at St. Benedicts near St. Cloud as a boarder. She finished high school in 1927 and then went to Walker for one year of normal training. She boarded with a lady in Walker during the winter months and in the spring and fall drove a Model T. At that time grade school teachers were required to have four years of high school and one year of normal training, which was provided in Walker and in Pine River. With that they received a teaching certificate good for seven years. They could renew the certificate by going back to school for six weeks.

Mary's first job was in a school near Boy River. The custom for boarding of teachers was to look around the community for the poorest family who most needed the extra money. The community also set up rules for the teachers who had to be single and couldn't smoke, drink or dance. Teachers also had extra duties including building a fire in a wood-burning stove each morning before the students arrived. Cass County schools all had "Smith System" stoves, with a cast iron center and a jacket for circulating heat.

At one time Mary taught at the Onigum School which had two teachers, one for the lower grades and one for the upper grades. Mary taught 47 children in the lower grades, plus doing the janitor work and preparing lunch for the children.

Teachers in rural schools were expected to teach as much to all the eight grades in eight months as teachers in town did to one grade in nine months. At the end of eighth grade, students took a state test which determined whether or not they were eligible to go on to high school. The teachers visited families quite often to urge the parents to support their children's learning. Many parents did not have an eighth grade education themselves. In those days most teachers did not stay in one school more than two years. This was so they got to meet different people and didn't get bored.

At one time there was a school on the southwest corner of Ten Mile Lake. The teacher was Helene Montgomery. That school had a small teacherage where she lived during the week. One day near Christmas Mary's oldest brother took Helene home to Portage Lake. After visiting for a while, he headed home, skating across the lake. There was still some open water and he fell in and drowned. His cap was found on the ice. He was 23 years old.

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