Tag Archives: school

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.
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…and a Happy New Year!

George Fenton Thoma, the son of George Hiram and Anna Leota (Fenton) Thoma, was eight years old when he scrawled these holiday greetings to his cousin, Glen Hoffman.1 Glen, the son of Joseph and Minnie Bell (Fenton) Hoffman, was one year Fenton’s senior.2 Whether the boys – Fenton in Nebraska, Glen in Iowa – had actually met or were merely pen pals at their mothers’ urging is unknown, as the sentiments expressed on the postcard are not of a particularly personal nature:

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George Fenton Thoma school postcard, Decatur, Nebraska, 1911; digital image 2014, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2014. Collection courtesy of David Adam.

This postcard is another piece of the puzzle of the Thoma family. A decade prior, Fenton’s father, George Hiram Thoma, had married under the alias of George A. Neilson, and he proceeded to use the Neilson surname along with his wife and children at least until 1909. The family moved frequently throughout Iowa and Nebraska; according to the postmark here, they may have resided in or near Decatur, Burt, Nebraska, as of late 1911. It is also possible that they were guests in the home of Leota’s mother during the holiday season and in fact lived elsewhere.3 Unfortunately, Fenton did not sign his full name – so it is up for debate whether he was a Neilson or a Thoma at the time!

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George Fenton Thoma school postcard, Decatur, Nebraska, 1911; digital image 2014, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2014. Collection courtesy of David Adam.

The reverse of this postcard shows a school photograph. Fenton can be spotted in the first row of students, third from left, in a collared striped shirt and dark trousers. The gathering of students is casual – there are untucked shirts, fidgeting hands, smiles and scowls. Fenton, his expression eager, has his eyes directly on the camera and seems to edge forward as his head partially obscures that of the boy behind him.

While I have in my collection many postcard-style photographs, this may be the only one that was actually addressed and mailed as a postcard. At some point thereafter, it was apparently returned to the Thoma family, as it was found in the collection of Fenton’s younger sister. Perhaps it was returned after Fenton’s unexpected death at the age of forty-four, as it is likely one of only a few photographs of him as a child.4 The cost of the one cent postage was likely well worth it to Fenton in exchange for the chance to show off his class picture and his painstaking penmanship as he wrote to his cousin, “I wish you a Merry Xmas and happy new years.”

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A Slumber Party at “The Bee Hive”

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    The Bee Hive, Yankton County, South Dakota, ca. 1918; digital image 2014, privately held by [personal information withheld].

The Bee Hive, Yankton County, South Dakota, ca. 1918; digital image 2014, privately held by [personal information withheld].

Slumber parties, as it turns out, have a long history among teenage girls. The caption, “They look happy don’t they? No wonder for they are just going home from a slumber party at ‘The Bee Hive,'” is penned on the back of this South Dakota snapshot, dated circa 1918.

In the photograph, a gaggle of girls crowds together on the porch of a clapboard building, located in or near Yankton County, South Dakota. All are dressed informally in simple cotton dresses. Several wear sailor-style neckerchiefs, a nod to the ongoing war abroad, and one dons a cap. Their short sleeves suggest warm weather; in southeastern South Dakota, this may have been anytime from May through September. Two squirming kittens can be spotted on the girls’ laps as they all lean together, their eyes on the camera.

From left to right sit Helena Nelson, Marguerite Miller, Andrea Nelson, Louise Nelson, Edith Nelson, and Mary Nelson. Helena, Andrea, Louise, and Mary were sisters; Edith was their cousin, and Marguerite was a close friend and neighbor in Township 93, near present-day Tabor. At some point, all attended the Southern State Normal School in nearby Springfield, where they gained the credentials needed to teach at the local country schools.1

What, exactly, was the Bee Hive? In September 1918, Andrea Nelson wrote in her diary that, following a barn dance held in honor of a local soldier home on furlough, “Jim, Anne, little ones, Helena, Mary, and I stayed at the Beehive from three till morning.” Although Andrea’s guest list indicated that all present in the photograph were guests at this particular dance, it must not have been the same occasion, as, “About five Jim took Helena on to town, as she was to start by car with Kecks at six for the fair at Huron. The rest of us had a late breakfast. Then went to church.”2

She made one more mention of the Bee Hive in her diary when, several weeks later, she wrote, “Julia called up from Yankton after school. She said that a lady would be at the Beehive tomorrow night to demonstrate the preparation of sugar beets. She wanted us to come up.”3 This suggests to me that the Bee Hive may not merely have been a clever nickname for a friend’s home, but may actually have been a sort of social club or church-based organization – a place where one might stay the night but also take part in educational programs. I wonder if any locals still recall the name.

This photograph most likely dates to the summer of 1918. Mary, the youngest of the girls, pictured at far right, was fourteen that summer,4 and although her skirts still seem a tad shorter than those of the others, her hair is in the same style of twist as that of her seventeen-year-old sister, Helena.5 Andrea, the eldest at twenty-one, died unexpectedly late that year.6 This photograph was likely tucked away as a memento of a happy time when all were together for a lighthearted slumber party.

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‘Round the Maypole

Helen Nelson was a student at the rural Southern State Normal School in Springfield, Bon Homme County, South Dakota, or perhaps a recent graduate, when she pasted this series of photographs in her scrapbook.1 A group of young girls dance ’round a Maypole twined with ribbons, certainly in celebration of the first of May. They were likely students at a local one-room schoolhouse, perhaps from a teaching assignment near Helen’s home in Yankton County, South Dakota, or from the “practice school” near Springfield.2

Raising a Maypole for a May Day celebration seems just the type of thing that an enthusiastic young teacher would have arranged to brighten a typical school day. Andrea Nelson, Helen’s elder sister, wrote in her diary of spontaneous recess games such as “Pump Pump Pull Away,” as well as moving class outdoors in good weather.3 This Maypole must have been a planned affair; the ten or so girls, ranging in age from perhaps six to twelve, seem to be dressed in their best summer dresses, with most in white or pastels. Several wear bows in their hair as well as sashes at their waists. In the final photograph, they bow to each other as their dance concludes.

Although this celebration took place near 1920, Maypoles were certainly nothing new. The American Girls Handy Book, originally published in 1887, mentions the ancient origins of the day and gives the following instructions for a Maypole dance:

“An even number of persons are required for this dance; half the number take the end of a ribbon in the right hand and half in the left; they then stand facing alternately right and left. When the dance commences, each dancer facing the right passes under the ribbon held by the one opposite facing the left; she then allows the next person going to the left to pass under her ribbon, and so, tripping in and out, under and over, the ribbons are woven around the pole.”4

The dance goes on, including variations to weave the ribbons together, and all the while, according to the Handybook, “An appropriate song, with words set to a dancing air, should be sung by those taking part in the May-pole dance.”5

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An Iowa Teacher’s Report to Parents, 1925

The first of June 1925 was an important day for Frances Marie Noehl of Deerfield, Chickasaw County, Iowa. She completed the eighth grade in District No. 11 with flying colors, even rallying over the course of the year to bring up her lagging grade in conduct.1 However, although she was a successful student, with high average marks equivalent to straight A’s, she would not go on to graduate from high school.2

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Frances Noehl, Teacher’s Report to Parents, 1925, Deerfield, Iowa; digital image 2003, privately held by V. P. [personal information withheld], 2014.

Frances was the eighth of nine children born to Matthias and Elizabeth (Hoffman) Noehl, German immigrants who farmed in northeastern Iowa.3 Once her schooling was completed, Frances was needed at home, although her father did prize education. In his memoirs, he wrote of his schooldays in Germany, “I entered into the arena, and took it up not only with the alphabet, but with all my classmates. As at that time there was no special talent in our school of eighty-four pupils, I succeeded in taking the first place among all the boys.”4 His education concluded at the age of fourteen, but he was pleased to be allowed to keep his books, writing tablet, slate, and pencil.5 Perhaps he had once dreamed that his children would be fortunate enough to further their educations, but, at least in the case of his youngest daughter, that dream was unfulfilled.

During the course of her eighth grade year, Frances was instructed by Miss Beatrice Joebgen, a local teacher who was still a teenager herself.6 Frances was graded in Reading, Writing, Spelling, Arithmetic, Grammar, U.S. History, Music, Civics, Drawing, and Conduct, with all of her marks falling between 90 and 100 and her averages between 93 and 98. Her father’s signature was recorded on her report card at the end of each term.7

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Frances Noehl, Teacher’s Report to Parents, 1925, Deerfield, Iowa; digital image 2003, privately held by V. P. [personal information withheld], 2014.

Attendance rules for the time indicate that Frances would not have been required to complete additional schooling, as she had fulfilled the educational qualifications of an eighth grade pupil. Other reasons for exemption from public schooling included being mentally or physically unfit, living more than two miles from the school house by the nearest traveled road, or attending a private or parochial school, receiving instruction from a competent teacher, court order, religious instruction, or regular employment for one over the age of fourteen.8

Although Frances may have liked very much to have had the opportunity to graduate from high school, duty to her family, it seems, kept her at home.

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Friendship Clubs and Funny Quotes: Finding Family in Yearbooks

Several years before they would meet and marry, teenagers Fern and Jerry were unsuspecting students at Central High School in Sioux City, Woodbury County, Iowa.1 They were not in the same grade, and this was a large school; Fern moved to Sioux City only in time for her senior year, and as Jerry graduated two years later, it’s possible that they never crossed paths during their brief overlap as students at the imposing sandstone building dubbed “The Castle on the Hill.”2

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The Maroon and White, Vol. XXI (Sioux City, Iowa: Central High School, 1925), 67; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 24 March 2014).

Fern Lavonne Thoma graduated from Central High School in 1925. In her yearbook photo, she wore a long necklace and, true to the times, styled her hair in a fashionable, chin-length bob. The only club that Fern had joined was the “Friendship Club,” which, apparently, was mandatory for all female students.3 From what I remember her telling me, she enjoyed her time at this school, especially a banquet for the upperclassmen during which the school gymnasium was decorated like a boat. She thought this event was “just wonderful!”4

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The Maroon and White, Vol. XXIII (Sioux City, Iowa: Central High School, 1927), 34; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 24 March 2014).

Gerald “Jerry” Joseph Adam graduated from Central High School in 1927. According to the yearbook, he was in the general course of study and had been involved in Civics, no surprise given his penchant for writing to politicians later in his life, as well as the Spanish Club. His handsome photo was paired with the quote, “Who shows you your place when you go to the Princess?”5 As a teenager, Jerry earned money as an usher at the Princess Theatre in downtown Sioux City, surely a popular place among his movie-going peers.6

In fact, Fern and Jerry reportedly met while on their way to the movies. Fern and her friend Florence were walking downtown when two young men, who were known to Florence, drove up in their rental car and offered the girls a ride. Fern approached the front to sit next to the driver, when Jerry suggested that she sit in the back with him. Fern later claimed that Florence had set her up, while Jerry liked to say that when he first laid eyes on Fern, he proclaimed, “That’s the girl I’m going to marry!”7

If you would like to find yearbook photos of your ancestors (or even yourself), check out the yearbook collections on Ancestry.com. In my experience, yearbooks don’t always appear as strong “shaky leaf” matches, so I have found it helpful to search specifically within the category “Schools, Directories & Church Histories” in order to bring all relevant results to the top.

Also consider searching the yearbooks individually as your ancestor’s full name may not have been given for every appearance, particularly if he or she was an underclassman or appeared in additional club or athletic photographs. As a bonus, see if you can find his or her autograph scrawled in the back of the book. You never know what you might learn about the glory days of your ancestor’s youth!

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