Prairie Teacher

“Oh, what a work we teachers have in the molding of the lives of those little ones,” wrote Andrea Nelson in her diary on an autumn evening in 1918.1 At the age of twenty-one, she had just begun her third term as a teacher in southeastern South Dakota.2 She took great delight in her fourteen students, who, she noted, were “in general a bright talkative set.”3 This was her first term at Prairie School District 9, located in Mission Hill, a rural community near the town of Yankton.4

Andrea Mathilda Nelson was born on 31 December 1896, the daughter of Danish immigrants Fred and Christina (Schmidt) Nelson.5 Raised on a farm just west of Yankton, Andrea was the fourth child of nine.6 After completing her grammar school education at a one-room schoolhouse, Andrea, along with her sisters, succeeded in receiving teaching certification from the Southern State Normal School located in nearby Springfield, South Dakota.7 Andrea taught first in Turkey Valley, then at the Dewey School near Lesterville, and finally in Mission Hill, where she was conveniently able to board with her elder sister, Anna, and her husband, Jim.8

With the freedom provided by a small class size and a rural school district, Andrea enjoyed and recorded many memorable moments with her students: she took them on noontime walks to the nearby molasses mill, joined in on games at recess (“Pump Pump Pull Away” and “Ruth and Jacob”), and received invitations to visit them at their homes.9 One evening, she wrote, “Shortly before recess I excused Tim and Royal in order that they might go chase Ficke’s cows out of the nearby cornfield. They came back at recess with two watermelons which Royal brought from home and which we feasted on together.”10

Andrea Nelson at a schoolhouse with her students, Yankton County, South Dakota, ca. 1916-1918; digital image 2012, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2018.

Fond of the outdoors herself, she also recognized its importance to children, even offering an early dismissal one “very fine day.”11 On another occasion, she wrote, “A very beautiful calm autumnal day. But nine at school. We had our drawing lesson outside. At recess the children earnestly requested me to permit them to recite and study outside the remaining hour and fifteen minutes. I consented after which they gleefully clapped their hands. The shade of one tree served as study room while that of another nearby took the place of recitation room. The children did not abuse their privilege. As a result we all fully enjoyed school in the fine October out of doors.”12

The next day, still taking advantage of the autumn weather, she wrote, “After school I hied me to the open. There I helped Jim pick potatoes for about half an hour. He said that I broke a schoolmam’s reputation in taking up such work after a day at school. I replied that he could count on me for doing things out of the ordinary for those in our profession.”13

In late September, Andrea wrote, “Think Spanish Influenza is going about the neighborhood. Only eleven at school.”14 Before long, the number of students in her class dwindled still further as the influenza continued to spread. In early October, just a month into the school year, Andrea recorded in her diary, “Only six at school again. […] I hardly feel that I’m earning my $4.25 per day these days.”15

Tragically, it would be only a matter of time before Andrea was struck with influenza herself, and the final pages of her diary are left blank. Exactly one month after the unexpected death of her father, Andrea died on 28 November 1918 while a patient at St. Bernard’s Hospital in Council Bluffs, Pottawattamie County, Iowa.16 Her younger sister, Helena, a student at Springfield Normal School, took over her teaching position at Prairie School District 9 and completed the sorrow-filled school term with Andrea’s students.17

Copyright © 2018 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.


1 Andrea Nelson, “Diary” (MS, Yankton County, South Dakota, 1918), unpaginated; privately held by Melanie Frick, 2018.
2 “Death of Andrea Nelson,” undated clipping, ca. December 1918, from unidentified newspaper; Adam Family, privately held by Melanie Frick.
3 Nelson, “Diary,” unpaginated.
4 Nelson, “Diary,” unpaginated.
5 “Death of Andrea Nelson,” undated clipping.
6 “Funeral Services for Andrea Nelson,” undated clipping, ca. December 1918, from unidentified newspaper; Adam Family, privately held by Melanie Frick.
7 “Funeral Services for Andrea Nelson,” undated clipping.
8 “Funeral Services for Andrea Nelson,” undated clipping, and Nelson, “Diary,” unpaginated.
9 Nelson, “Diary,” unpaginated.
10 Nelson, “Diary,” unpaginated.
11 Nelson, “Diary,” unpaginated.
12 Nelson, “Diary,” unpaginated.
13 Nelson, “Diary,” unpaginated.
14 Nelson, “Diary,” unpaginated.
15 Nelson, “Diary,” unpaginated.
16 “Death Certificates, Pottawattamie County, 1904-1920,” in “Iowa, Death Certificates, 1904-1960,” digital images, ( : accessed 30 September 2018), entry for Andrea Nielsel [Andrea Nielsen], 28 November 1918, Council Bluffs, Pottawattamie County, Iowa; citing Iowa Department of Health and the State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines, and “Andrea Nielsen,” Nonpareil [Council Bluffs, Iowa], 29 November 1918. Note: While Andrea’s death certificate notes her cause of death as cerebral thrombosis, newspaper clippings suggest that she died of complications from influenza and a nervous breakdown.
17 “Funeral Services for Andrea Nelson,” undated clipping.

7 thoughts on “Prairie Teacher

  1. Jennie

    Thank you for sharing this, Melanie! I find it hard to imagine this young, vibrant woman who seems to have had such energy for life could have it cut short so quickly. I am grateful she kept a journal and that your family has stayed connected to her through it over the years. I wish everyone’s spirit could be kept alive in this way.

  2. Jeanette Borich

    Awesome research! I love the photo! Thanks for sharing this, Melanie :-) The Diary made this woman come alive.

  3. Pingback: One of Dakota’s Pioneer Mothers | Homestead Genealogy

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