Dear Old Golden Rule Days

Dear Old Golden Rule Days

By Elton Camp


(A continuing series of short writes about life in the rural South during the early 20th Century.)

            On the worst days, rural Alabama children had quite a task reaching school. When they arrived, they faced primitive conditions.

            “Do we half t’ go t’ school t’day, Paw?” Howard whined.

            Heavy clouds made the day dark and gloomy. Rain rocketed to the earth. Trees bent in response to the strong south wind. The roadbed was ankle-deep in soft, slick mud. Ditches overflowed to leave only a narrow path in places. Low spots in the road were knee deep in murky, brown water. A rain of “forty days and forty nights” seemed possible to the younger children.

            “Git on ’n’ don’t b’ late,” he responded.

            Leamon had begun to make a determined effort to avoid use of the country words and expressions of his upbringing. The southern mountain dialect had its roots in the Elizabethan period in England. The Anglo-Saxon background of many people in North Alabama meant that their use of words and pronunciation possibly represented a more “pure” version of English; yet, it wasn’t “standard” English. Leamon meant to rise above his origins. As they matured, all in the family slowly abandoned much of the dialect.

            Heavy snow didn’t fall frequently in Alabama, but when it did, schoolchildren faced a challenge. Rural schools never dismissed because of weather. Slipping and sliding, off went Milas’ brood to school.

            “Hey, Leamon, look here,” Howard called out mischievously. His older brother turned just in time to receive a wet snowball in his face.

            “Wait ‘til I get my hands on you. I’ll make you sorry.”

            “I ain’t afeared o’ you.” 

            The younger boy ran ahead to stay out of range of his stronger brother. He saw no reason to invite retaliation by making himself too easily available.

            Birdie was usually exempt from any roughhousing. She might tell on them and then there’d be the devil to pay. They didn’t want to face Belle’s wrath.

            The schoolhouse had four classrooms. The floors were plank and oiled rather than painted. Each room had a cloakroom at the back with an entrance at each end. In the past, boys had used one door and girls the other. That custom had fallen into disuse. The small room was where the children stored coats not needed on a particular day, as well as their syrup buckets that served as dinner pails. Nails driven into the cloakroom wall substituted for hooks. A shelf above the nails was for storage of the dinner pails. A blackboard, with chalk tray, ran across the front of the room. Two outhouses stood well into the woods behind the school. One was for boys and the other for girls. Both reeked of excrement.

            Water was obtained from a hand-dug well in front of the school. It had a frame with a hinged top covering it. A roof provided additional protection. A windlass with rope was used to lower and raise a bucket. As one of the older boys, Leamon often drew the water.

            A pot-bellied wood stove stood in the center of each classroom. Firing them was the duty of each of the teachers. Neither janitor nor principal were provided. Instructors arrived early enough to have a roaring fire going by the time the children appeared. With total lack of insulation and drafty windows, the heat was ineffective beyond about ten feet all around the stove. Children sitting too close to the stove burned up; those too far away froze. On really cold days, the water might freeze in the water bucket. The older boys kept wood brought in throughout the day. Whatever winter garments the children had, they often wore all day. After several hours, the stoves would glow red, but it was too late to do much good.

            Of the four teachers, Miss Gunnels was, by far, the most capable. Nevertheless, as we’ll see, she had a particularly bad experience.

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Life in the rural South during the early 20th Century.