Looking Back: Good old school days in Meeker

The fall start of “school days, school days, good old golden rule days” has always meant gathering school supplies for “opening day” in the fall, yet one Axial Basin family’s fall tradition differed a bit from families nowadays hurrying around to gather the required school supplies.
The Sweeney family oral history in Volume II of the Rio Blanco Historical Society’s “This Is What I Remember” included the note that Mr. Sweeney believed in the effectiveness of a “good switching,” as when “the father would take the boys to school to meet the new teacher, he took a bundle of willow switches which he gave to the teacher, telling her that if the boys didn’t do their lessons and behave to use them — and he’d give them another flogging when he got home.”
Some remembrances from Volume I echo this the difference in discipline, teacher’s and parental expectations. Karl Metzger’s memories of growing up on the family ranch outside of town on the Mesa included his remembrance that, “They made you stay after school if you didn’t get your lessons, and when you got home, you really got it because you were late to do chores. If you played hookey, that Ray Boyd Garrison had a bunch of willows and he’d take you in the library, tie your hands behind your back and hit you on the legs. Our folks would give us the same when we got home. They said, “If you have to have it at school, you’ll get another one at home.”
Metzger looked back at all of the arrangements that had to be made to get to school when he noted that, “We went to school in Meeker. We had an old buckboard and a team we drove back and forth. In the fall, when they would need the horses for haying, we walked to school. It was about three miles. We walked, packed our lunch and walked back.”
Metzger added, “My folks rented this place from Link Tagert in town. We’d go there and change clothes in the morning before school, and then we’d go there to eat lunch. Then at night, we’d change clothes again and go home. We had some homework but didn’t have much time to do it. We generally had a couple of hours of chores every night.
That theme of learning responsibility while getting an education was part and parcel of most rural children’s upbringing, as not only did they have chores at home, some of them who lived the farthest away from the schoolhouse found themselves living on their own during the week. Thomas F.M. Burke’s remembered in Volume I that when he turned 6, he and his brother Jim, “batched for ourselves in a little one room log cabin next to the schoolhouse” (14 miles from their Piceance Creek ranch) all during the week. He told of spending many weekends there as well, as “if father didn’t come after us, didn’t bring the sled or come on horseback with a horse for us to ride, we didn’t get to go home. We had to stay in the cabin. He recalled that when someone in the class of 14 or 15 children from first- to sixth-grade got in trouble, “There was a few children that got stood in the corner when they were bad, or they had to sit by the teacher’s desk. But it wasn’t very rough. I only got hit on the hand, once with a ruler, I was pretty lucky.”
Growing up on Piceance Creek as well, Harland Dudley’s story in Volume I includes the note that “We only had six months of school. One year we only had three months because the teacher they hired was a little gal from Denver. I don’t recall her name, but she wasn’t qualified. They found it out after she got here, so they sent her home. Today I guess if they had a contract they’d have to pay her anyway, but at that time they didn’t. They sent her home and never had school any more that year.”
The children out on Axial Basin (between Meeker and Craig) experienced much of the same school year schedule. Ruth Taylor Jordan’s memory of the school year included, “There was anywhere from nine to 20 students, and most of them came on horseback. The first year (around 1887 or so) we had two months of school, and the second year we had four months of school. After that we had an eight-month school. We had four months in the spring, skipped two months in the summer and then had four months in the fall.”
It wasn’t only the children who faced a different type of school environment at the turn of the century. Teachers in the little one-room schoolhouses had to do more than just prepare the schoolroom with enough supplies and materials for the different aged students who were starting school together, Starting the fire in the coal or wood burning stove, as well as performing many of the custodial tasks was all part of the job. Many of the “schoolmarms” in those day were single, young, women from back “East” who, after teaching a year, married a local bachelor, and as married women were not allowed to teach, soon found out that they were required to quit.