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Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2008 09:31 pm

School days

Memories of the Decatur area’s one-room schoolhouses

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Untitled Document White. Magee. Kirby. Miller. Renshaw. Columbia. Zion. Fairview. Bethel. Flood. Pleasant Grove. Oreana. Progress. Hickory Point. These are the names of 14 of the 12,000 one-room schoolhouses that once graced Illinois. We are fortunate to have a book containing just about everything from the students who attended these Decatur-area schools. The title refers to the schoolhouse bench, where those of a particular class or subject would gather to recite, separated from the others at their desks. My father went to such a school in Wisconsin, and he often told us how important he felt when the teacher would ask the first grade to stand, and he, the only first grader, would march to the recitation bench to spell or read. In 2005, when Carol Chenoweth McCartney and Linda Manuel Allen were looking toward the 50th reunion of their graduation from Argenta High School, they realized that they were perhaps the last students who had attended all eight grades at White School. They sent queries to their childhood classmates: “What years did you attend?” “Do you remember Mrs. Beadleston’s hot lunches?” “Did your parents take you to the store with rationing stamps for new school shoes?” “Did you look out the big west windows at the steam locomotive chugging down the track with its black smoke belching?” “What did you learn at White School that still affects your life today?”
Responses poured in — some brief, some long, many including stories of home and community life in addition to school memories. Photographs, newspaper clippings, a White School lunch recipe (spicy wieners), records of attendance, a 1922 teacher’s handwritten report to her successor, carefully drawn area maps. The queries were passed around, and soon material was arriving not only from White students but also from those who’d attended surrounding schools. Many wanted to tell rather than write their stories, so Allen conducted interviews, sometimes individually, sometimes in groups in which the participants bounced memories off each other. McCartney transcribed and edited 32 90-minute tapes to find the focus of each story. The book was then assembled and edited, and a display copy was readied for the reunion. It was a gargantuan effort, a labor of love. The result is a thing of beauty. “We grew up in such a transition time,” McCartney says. “The war was going on when we started first grade, and our parents and grandparents had been through Prohibition and the Depression. Everybody was sacrificing, yet I never heard complaints. Country schools were being consolidated; smaller schools sent their students to White School, and we built an addition. There were new inventions following the war — ballpoint pens, detergent, bubble gum, TV.”
White School started in a log building about 1873, was added onto and covered with white siding, and then replaced in 1936 with a one-room brick school. In 1949 a two-room addition was built, and the building was used continually until the 1990s. It is the stories that make this book so fascinating, that make it both local and universal. Area residents will recognize places, names, and families. Yet readers of any age or place will be able to see themselves, their parents, grandparents, even great-grandparents, wherever in this country they were growing up. They’ll note how our society has changed from largely rural to largely urban. And they’ll mull the changes in the values of work, entertainment, and family activities. The writers themselves are not slow to give their interpretations of change, and where things are now both better and worse. The book’s topics (“jump rope,” “kindergarten,” “hoboes,” “poor farm”) and names (“Progress School”; “Querry Brothers”; “Lewis: Hazel, Howard, Randal, Ted”) are meticulously indexed. About 100 copies of The Last Recitation Bench are still available from Allen. Since the book’s distribution, McCartney says, people from all over have sent them almost enough material for another volume. Let’s hope for a companion treasure.
To obtain copies, call or write Linda Allen, 132 N. Short St., Argenta, IL 62501; 217-795-2081.
 
Jacqueline Jackson, books and poetry editor of
Illinois Times, is a professor emerita of English at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
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