Thistles Cut, Ironing Done


On a visit to my childhood home in Wisconsin in 1983, Howard and I were surprised and pleased to see that County Line School was still standing. The deserted building is south of highway AW in Dodge County.

In my fourth year of school my father traded his farm north of Markesan, Wisconsin for a larger one twelve miles south, on what is now named East Mackford Road. When we moved we left an area where we had been surrounded by my father's relatives. Now, although we were still living in Green Lake County we were going to school in Dodge County. How strange!

As I look back I can see that we were outsiders in the school district. We felt as if we were somehow different. Until now this area was a far away place because we had seldom or never driven these roads. "A place is far away if you never go there." Our new home seemed in a "far away" place. The other families at school knew each other well. Some had lived in the community for a long time or even for generations. Many of them were related to each other and nearly all of them attended a Lutheran Church in the same community. We still went back to Markesan to church.

Sheldon and Zona in 1926         

Sheldon, Eleanor and Wilbur Mielke, Eleanor Schley, and Zona

Sheldon and I walked to school. It was easy to cover the three-quarter mile distance before nine o'clock when classes began. There was no bother of waiting for a school bus or to be loaded and seat-belted into a car. We had freedom to develop responsibility to get there on our own initiative. For variation on our walks we sometimes looked ahead and challenged each other, "Let's run as far as that tree." Or, "I'll race you to the next hill." A big snowfall added excitement. It was exhilarating to walk on top of the big frozen banks created by the powerful winds of a blizzard. The snow was left interesting shapes, swirls like ocean waves with caves under them. We explored and slid on the steep, hard slopes.

We wore layers of warm clothing. Long cotton underwear completely covered our bodies under woolen clothes and a sweater. Over all we wore a coat. High buckled overshoes protected our feet. Both of us had long, red knitted scarves tied over our heads and around our necks. When it was extremely cold we pulled the scarves down over our foreheads and up over our chins, leaving a very small part of our face exposed. Only the very lowest temperatures could keep us from enjoying the snow.

The schoolhouse had two front doors. Girls entered at the right. Just inside was the coat room where each child was assigned a hook for hanging outdoor clothes. Overshoes were placed just underneath along with our lunchbox. Lockers hadn't been invented - at least not for rural schools.

All of us, teacher and children, brought our lunches of sandwiches, fruit and a piece of cake, pie or a few cookies. Occasionally we included a hard-boiled egg. Sheldon and I had the latest in lunch pails, gray granite buckets with tin lids. It was easy to tell which bucket was Sheldon's by the many dents in the lid.

None of us was aware of nutritional deprivation but sometime during the years after 1923 health authorities were convinced that we must have hot lunches. Like so many government programs we have seen since that year no exceptions were made to regulations. All of us country children had hot meals, morning and evening in our homes where food was plentiful from our gardens and farms. But we must comply even though we had no real way to provide a hot lunch. In order to obey the rules, each of us brought a jar of food which could be set on a ledge of the big wood-burning stove which heated the room. As we did our late morning classes the food warmed. Canned peas, vegetable soup or chocolate were common choices. If the jars with loosened lids got too hot before lunch time, they boiled over onto the stove. I can still smell the odor of burnt chocolate or peas that pervaded the room the rest of the day.

The classes I liked best were reading and geography. No effort was made to help us understand that the climate and terrain of a country had an effect on its customs and history. I enjoyed simply memorizing facts. In bad weather, one of the games we played at noon or recess gave me practice in locating cities or countries on the map. We pulled down the roller wall map of the World, Europe, United States or others. One person called out the name of a place to be located. The rest of us vied with each other to find it first on the map.

Art appreciation was a study I didn't comprehend in those young years, but I liked being able to give the correct name of the picture and its artist on review days. I remember very well sitting on the little chairs for recitation at the front of the room. I can still see "Feeding Her Birds" as it was held up for us to identify. The pictures were on seven by five sheets supplied to each pupil. The story about it and its artist was on the back side. As the years pass I appreciate this early introduction to Raphael, Bonheur, Millet and others. My parents and those of the other children may not have had an interest in these great artists, but curriculum planners must have had dreams of adding to our culture. I believe none of my own children met these pictures in their early school days.

Each spring we had a contest. Each pupil's name was listed on a chart posted in the schoolroom. When I saw my first robin, song sparrow, flicker, meadowlark, or other birds the date was marked on the chart. My interest in "bird-watching" began with these contests. As we walked to and from school on the country road we had time to notice the birds in the fields around us. Our quiet steps did not frighten the song sparrow as he sounded his lovely notes from a fence post. Nor were the larks, bobolinks and red-winged blackbirds in the grass along the road banks disturbed. In those years each box of Arm and Hammer Soda had a bird card enclosed. I still have a stack of them within easy reach.

The grassy yard surrounding the schoolhouse was for our use. There was no area set aside for parking cars. If the teacher had a car he parked it close to the building out of the way. Neither was a decorative front yard necessary. We did not need protection from numerous cars bringing children to school. Only in extremely bad weather did parents feel it necessary to take their children to school. In that case they used a team of horses on the buggy or sled.

The pupils were of all ages from first to eighth grade. All of us played a number of games together, such as pom-pom pull away or red-light. In springtime boys brought their baseball bats and balls from home. There was room on the front schoolyard to have a non-regulation game.

We played an outdoor game we called cricket. It was no relation to the English game. A small triangular hole was dug in the ground. A stick twelve or fifteen inches long was laid with one end in the hole. With a longer stick a player hit the top end of the first stick sending it flying end over end in the air. Sending the sick the greatest possible distance increased your score. Sheldon and I liked this game so well we fixed a hole in our own yard so that we could play at home. What could be simpler equipment than two ordinary sticks?

In 1983 I stood near the school house and looked down the road where I had walked many years ago. The small hills had been flattened when a wide asphalt road replaced the narrow dusty one. Trees and shrubs had been cleared away and the fences and posts were gone. But the meadowlark's songs from the fields still cheered my heart.

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Copyright 1991, 2004 by Zona S. Justiss. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise noted, text and photos on this page are property of the author and may not be reproduced, posted, distributed, or used for any commercial purpose without prior permission.