THE LOG SCHOOL-HOUSE OF BOYHOOD DAYS
It must have been shortly after my seventh birthday that I started to my first school. A neighbor boy came by for me. We went by a blazed path through the woods, crossing the South River on a fallen tree, and climbed a long hill to the schoolhouse, two miles from my home. Many of the pupils had to go a much greater distance. The schoolhouse was situated at least a mile from any residence and on a level piece of land on the summit of a long ridge.
A little further on was a log church belonging to the Baptists, and the place was known as "Pleasant Hill." The school-house was built of logs, with a "puncheon" floor. A puncheon floor is made from some kind of soft wood, generally a linn tree, which is cut down and split into slabs about a foot or more wide and three or four inches thick. One side was dressed off with an adz until it was fairly smooth, and the under side was notched where they lay over the floor joists, until the top was level. This made a durable and very solid floor.
A log was cut out of the wall on one side at about four or five feet from the floor and extending along one side of the building. Just below this opening a board was fixed which was called the writing-board. There were no desks with backs and all the comforts of today. The seats were made by cutting down a tree ten or twelve inches in diameter, splitting it in halves and smoothing off the surface on the split side. Then two holes were bored near each end with a large auger, in the round side and at the proper angle. Next legs were split out about two inches in diameter, and from two to three feet long. One end of these legs was shaved down to the proper size and driven into the holes already bored. Turn it with the legs down and your bench is ready to climb on, and would accommodate a half dozen boys. Imagine a seven-year-old boy shinning up one of the legs and carefully hitching along the bench until he reached his place. Then imagine him sitting there with his feet dangling a foot or two from the floor, with no back to lean against, from eight o'clock in the morning until five or six in the evening, except the two hours at noon.
Teachers were supposed to open school as early as they could after breakfast and close only in time for the children to get home before dark. The length of the school day depended entirely on the season of the year. There was always a "play time" from twelve to two. I am not sure, however, that we always had the two hours. There was a mark cut in the floor which always showed when twelve o'clock came, if the sun was shining, but of course the two o'clock had to be guessed at, as it could not be regulated by a mark as the noon hour was, and no teacher or pupil ever had a watch, and of course a clock in a schoolhouse was absurd. So I expect our play time depended largely on the state of the teacher's liver or, in the long summer days, on how soundly he slept the hours away.
The girls were required to sweep the floor and to clean up generally. The boys were required to bring the water from the spring, a quarter of a mile away. They also gathered in the down timber from the forest, cut it into lengths for the enormous fire-place, and in the winter carry it in and keep the fire going.
The teaching was the old A, B, C way, and a child just starting in would sit on one of these benches eight hours a day, with a primer in which he did not know a letter, only to be called "off his perch" about four times a day, to go up to the teacher and try to tell him the names of the characters. It seems to me now that it was inhuman and barbarous, and I wonder why everyone did not have curvature of the spine.
I think I had picked up the alphabet somehow before starting to school. In fact, I cannot remember a time when I could not pick out words in the weekly newspaper which came to our house. On the other hand I have known children to go regularly for a whole quarter, which was twelve weeks, before mastering the alphabet. I do not mean that I was brighter than others, but I always wanted to know why, and no labor was too great for me and no difficulties that I would not endeavor to surmount.
I do not recall anything worth mentioning for the next two or three years. I went to school when I could, shook with chills and fever for two or three months every fall, commenced being useful in various ways, doing chores, taking the horses to water, "tending the gap," etc. I have no doubt the reader will ask, "What is tending the gaps" The fields at this time were enclosed by a "worm fence," that is, a fence made of split rails ten feet long, and laid on top of one another at a sufficient angle to make a solid fence, the ends of each panel interlocking with the next.
There were no gates to these fields, and when the season for harvesting the crop had arrived the rails on two interlocking panels were opened so that the wagons could go in and out. As it took some time to open a gap, instead of closing it every time the wagon went in or out, a small boy was stationed there to keep the horses, hogs, cows and other animals from going through. It was a lazy enough job. I recall one day in the fall of 1843 that I was engaged in this task and, though not yet eight years of age, the circumstance comes back to me as though it were only yesterday.
For more than a year the Millerites, a sect preaching that the end of the world was at hand, had been busy formulating their doctrine and creating great excitement throughout all the country. Hundreds had embraced their teachings, and finally the leaders of the movement announced that they had proven from the Scriptures that at twelve o'clock on the day fixed the end of the world would surely come. Many people gave away all they possessed and were busy for days and weeks ahead preparing their ascension robes.
On the morning set, clothed in their white robes, they gathered on the summits of the hills, or in the open fields, where there was a good place to soar from on their, as yet unfledged, wings, and awaited the end.
Some way we must not have given it much attention, and, though I must have taken it all in, I was so much of a Missourian even then that they would have to “show me.”
The appointed day must have been in September or October, and I was out by the fence minding the gap. My younger brother came wandering down to where I was. He evidently had not heard what a momentous day it was, and as I saw him coming I concluded there was a chance for some fun.
When he came near I said I thought he was home with mother, and added that it was then eleven o'clock, that at exactly twelve the wise men had declared the world would come to an end, that all the good were going straight to heaven, and that the bad were to go the other way.
He looked at me for a moment and turning around he lit out for home. The farther he got the faster he ran, and every time he hit the ground he would let out a terrible and heart-rending yell. I sat there at my gap and laughed until I cried. Later on, when I went home, my mother gave me a good spanking. This time I cried without laughing. Looking back after all these years, I really feel no regrets, and think the fun was worth all I had to pay.
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