These Happy Golden Years, Chapter 2: First Day of School

Guest post by Karen

First Day of School, Laura wakes up in the unpleasant Brewster house instead of home, and plunges out of her couch bed into a cold morning. Mr. Brewster sets off to start a fire in the schoolhouse, which was nice for Laura as apparently that would have been her job in some schools. Maybe if she’d been a male teacher? (Teaching timeline: http://www.pbs.org/onlyateacher/timeline.html and one-room schoolhouses:http://hoover.nara.gov/LIW/DeSmet/desmet_oneroomschool.html)

Another “delicious” meal of fried salt pork and potatoes for breakfast. (Wikipedia: Salt pork or white bacon is salt-cured pork. It is prepared from one of three primal cuts: pork side, pork belly, or fatback. Long used as a shipboard ration, salt pork now finds use in traditional American cuisine, particularly Boston baked beans, pork and beans, and to add its flavor to vegetables cooked in water, or with greens as in soul food.) Laura tries to make small talk with Mrs. Brewster and be helpful, but the woman is just unhappy and unfriendly. Clinical depression? Seasonal affective disorder? Living a hard life of isolation on the prairie when she wants to return home (as we learn later); I pity both her and her husband and neglected child.

Caught between the rock and hard place of the unpleasant Brewster home and the frightening prospect of teaching school, Laura soldiers ahead and arrives at the drafty, small one-room schoolhouse. Five students, three of whom are older than Laura, face her at her teachers’ table. She takes their names and ages once the clock strikes nine. They have meager resources, just some shared books and a chalkboard at the front of the room. Once they get through the logistics of who is at what place in their studies, it’s time for a fifteen-minute recess. The “kids” go out to “play in the snow” while Laura uses the time to plan the rest of the day.

The students take turns reading aloud until it’s time for the hour-long noon lunch break. (My modern, efficient side wonders why they didn’t use just half an hour for lunch to get finished with the day earlier, but in thinking about it the children probably enjoyed this rare opportunity to socialize with each other.)  Laura eats her lunch of bread and butter alone while the students talk and eat and the boys run races outside.

The fire is fueled by coal here on the largely woodless prairie, and more needs to be added after lunch. We get the sense that Clarence is quick-witted and impish while Charles is a bit slow and Martha, his sister, is sweet-tempered and quicker on the uptake. In an era of physical punishment, Laura wonders how she will discipline Clarence if it needs to happen, since he is a “chunky, husky boy, bigger than she was, and older.”

Even with just five students, Laura has them come to the front to recite, just as in the town school. She has to punish the two older boys for not knowing their lessons well, and sends them to the board to write the words they missed. Clarence says the board’s too small, but Laura sweetly tells him to erase his words and write smaller.

The day ends at four o’clock. They bundle up for their 1/2 or 1 mile walks home. Laura worries that she won’t see a blizzard coming given the school’s layout, but finishes her tidying up and heads to the Brewsters’. “Her first day as a teacher was over. She was thankful for that.”

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13 comments on “These Happy Golden Years, Chapter 2: First Day of School
  1. Daniel0107 says:

    My, a 1 to 5 teacher/student ration! But don’t forget she was teaching several different levels and subjects at once. The challenges of the one room schoolhouse are very interesting to note as the book goes on. But it seems the highest challenge is boarding with the Brewsters! Can Laura handle it? For the answers to these and other questions, stay tuned!

  2. naomi says:

    One of the interesting things about one room schoolhouses at that time (and outside of urban areas, 99% of schools WERE one room) was that, no matter what the size of the school, there was always only one teacher. So Laura was lucky to have 5 students. (And later, at the Perry School, she has only 3.) She obviously had plenty of time to study her own books. The teachers in the town school (like Miss Wilder) probably had 20 or 30, and classes of 40 or 50 weren’t unheard of. 40 students, all at radically different levels. Must’ve been interesting.
    (One thing that always made me nuts about the tv version was that the writers had NO clue how 19th century one room schools actually functioned. Written spelling tests, students ‘reciting’ for the whole room…)

    Salt pork — people at that time must’ve had a much higher tolerance for salt than we do. I occasionally use salt pork in a pot of bean soup. If I use too much or don’t blanch it 3-4 times before using it, it makes the whole pot of soup inedibly salty. I can’t imagine eating it by the slice. (And I don’t remember if it’s this chapter or later, where Laura ‘salts and peppers’ the fried potatoes … potatoes that were probably already fried in salt-pork fat.)

  3. Tracy Sapp says:

    Sometimes in the Little House Books it is mentioned that the salt pork was parboiled before Ma rolled the slices in flour & fried them. See “On the Shores of Silver Lake”, the chapter titled “The Night Before Christmas”. Laura put slices of salt pork in the frying pan to parboil. Then Ma drained the pork, dipped the slices in flour and set them to fry. Later in the same book in the chapter “On the Pilgrim Way”, Ma tells Rev. Stuart how to cook salt pork. She says to cut the slices thin, and set them to parboil in cold water. When the water boils, pour it off. Maybe this parboiling reduced the saltiness of the salt pork. People worked physically harder than we do so the calories from such a fatty meal were quickly used up & there was no insulation in buildings in those days. Their bodies needed the fat for fuel to stay warm. Personally, I am glad to not have to eat salt pork. I agree with Naomi about the TV show not being realistic.

    Laura was a gutsy gal to teach at that school & live in that house with that crazy woman. That is just one of the reasons I admire Laura so:-)

  4. Daniel0107 says:

    For those interested in the historical part of the Brewsters, there are some pretty interesting postings on the liwfrontiergirl.com site. The postings are older, but interesting. It seems Mrs. Brewster (real name was Bouchie) was the 2nd wife of Lew Brewster (Louis Bouchie) and Johnny was from 1st marriage. Also there were more children, but Laura kept it simplified.

    We wonder why Mr. Boast would recommend this situation, he said he knew Lew Brewster out east, but maybe that was before he married this lady, who clearly had problems.

    • LauriOH says:

      I’ve always wondered if the Brewster/Bouchies thought that the problem was being without the company she was used to having back East. A solution might be to introduce her to a new person to entertain/distract her. Laura was considered a responsible person and was called upon. It just didn’t work out like they had hoped since they didn’t understand some of the causes of depression that we have now.

  5. Thanks, Daniel for that info. Additional information I came across: Clarence was, in real life, Mr. Brewster (Bouchie)’s younger brother. His name was Isaac, and his younger half-brother–Laura named him Tommy Brewster in THGY–was really named Clarence. Not long after Laura taught there, “Tommy” (Clarence) threw a bone at his brother “Clarence” (Isaac), causing an injury that tragically led to his death and a trial.

    • Naomi says:

      That must’ve been SOME bone. I don’t think there were any mammoths or dinosaurs on the prairie. (I wonder if it wasn’t a ‘stone’ that got mis-read or mis-transcribed somehwere along the way.)

      • Tracy Sapp says:

        It was indeed a bone that felled “Clarence” (Isaac). It cut his face & he contracted tetanus. It was called Lockjaw in those days. Two doctors tended to the wound & a piece of the bone was extracted from the cut, but poor “Clarence” (Isaac), died 12 days after the bone throwing incident. Before the bone was thrown, Elizabeth Bouchie threatened Isaac with a oxen yoke & a pitchfork. When that didn’t work she told “Tommy”, the real Clarence, to pick up something & knock Isaac’s head off. “Tommy” (Clarence) & his mother (Elizabeth Bouchie) went to trial & were convicted of second degree manslaughter. Elizabeth Bouchie was pregnant & the judge didn’t want to send her to prison so he fined her $400.00. “Tommy” (Clarence) was sentenced to 6 months in jail but the sentence was suspended for good behavior. Elizabeth Bouchie was Isaac’s step-mother but she was Clarence’s mother. She is not to be confused with Olive (Lib) Bouchie, who is the mentally ill woman that Laura boarded with when she taught the Bouchie school.

  6. Dr. Laura says:

    I was going to save this comment for the Knife in the Dark chapter but here goes. I think the prairie wind and heat in the summer and the prairie wind and cold in the winter would drive anyone to depression. The wind can be ceaseless and ferocious on the plains. The noise alone could drive one batty. I call windy days here in Kansas “Mrs. Bouchie days” and am tempted to hide the knives.

  7. Tracy Sapp says:

    Check out Pioneergirl.com for more information on the Bouchie family, pronounced boo-SHAY. There is info on this site that reveals more of the complexities of Louis & Lib Bouchie & their family. It gives us a better understanding of the people in THGY & the other people that lived in the Brewster Settlement but are not mentioned in the book.

  8. Wayne Johnson says:

    Hi everyone, love all the articles and comments. If you want to see an idea of a real prairie winter, try and see the Canadian film “Why Shoot the Teacher” with Bud Cort. It details a male schoolteacher under much the same circumstances, Samantha Eggar plays a destitute mail-order bride stuck in the cold frontier. Only this movie takes place during the Great Depression, but the winters are as cold, if not worse, than the Dakota’s.

  9. Marilyn says:

    I found this on a LH forum.

    “Apparently, in real life, Louis Bouchie (Lew Brewster) was the son of Robert Boast’s first cousin, Joseph Bouchie. And Joseph Bouchie was the father of three of Laura’s students – Clarence, Tommy, and Ruby. In the article, it is suggested that Clarence Brewster was based on 18 year old Isaac Bouchie, Tommy Brewster was probably 11 year old Clarence Bouchie, and Ruby Brewser was most likely 10 year old Fannie Ruth Bouchie.

    It gets even more bizarre than that. The Summer of 1884, Clarence Bouchie (Tommy Brewster) killed his older half-brother Isaac Bouchie (Clarence Brewster) when he hit him in the head with a bone fragment and the wound became infected with tetanus. Clarence (Tommy) and his mother, Elizabeth, went to trial and were convicted of manslaughter in Spring of 1887. Elizabeth first went after Isaac herself with an oxen yoke and a pitchfork then told her son Clarence to “pick something up and knock Isaac’s head off”.

    If all this is to be believed, no wonder Laura changed all their names. What an unhappy family – all the way around.
    The article also said that Louis Bouchie’s wife was named Olive Delilah Isenberger (Morrison). The little boy in the household that Laura remembered was Johnny Morrison – Olive’s son by a previous marriage. Louis and Olive Bouchie did have an infant son of their own named Leonard that was born in Oct. right before Laura boarded with them. The article suggested Laura may have left him out of the story to simplify things.”

  10. Carla says:

    On the PBS website for the Frontier House series, I found this about the salted/preserved meat (and “Little House Cookbook” was cited in the bibliography!) :
    While contemporary stomachs might turn at the quality of the salty, fatty dishes served in frontier houses, it must be kept in mind that most homesteaders were engaged in relentless daily physical labor. The conditions they lived with on a daily basis — including the tasks associated with preparing their food — burned far more calories than the average twenty-minute workout. A nice green salad with tofu wouldn’t serve you too well if you were sleeping in a room where it was 20 degrees below zero. Frontier food on the tended to be simple, heavy, and “rib-sticking.” Nebraska homesteader Myrtle Oxford Hersh observed, “We had food which met the needs of growing bodies, and we did not have to keep a bottle of vitamins from A to Z to keep us in good health.”

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