Editor’s note: With many of our readers highly interested in the history of Plattsmouth and Cass County, The Journal has agreed to print a true story of Mary Sue Steitz year of working as a one-room school teacher just outside of Plattsmouth. Her story illustrates the hard work farming entails and the rich relationships that are built among rural residents.
I come from the plains
Where the people are free.
The fresh falling rains
Were a father to me,
The prairie my mother,
The fairest of earth,
The west wind my brother
Who sang at my birth.
I was barely 18 years old, just out of high school and I wanted to go to college. I did not know then that because I was a girl I would need to know twice as much to make half as much as a man.
I asked my dear Aunt Willie, who raised me, about helping me pay for college.
“I never went to college and I have a wonderful job,” said my lawyer aunt, scarcely looking up from her King James Bible.
(An aside. First, I never won an argument with her, so I knew right then it was futile to ask for money for college.)
My aunt had worked as secretary for Attorney Dennis Owen Dwyer, a huge, gentle giant of an Irishman. She had been working for him for about two years when he said, “You should take the bar exam. You know as much law as I do.”
At that time one had to have a high school diploma to take the bar exam in Nebraska. My aunt had not finished high school. She quit in the 10th grade to sell World Book Encyclopedias and help her impoverished family. What to do?
She called her friend Grace Jones, who was the Dean of Students in my aunt’s hometown high school, and told her of her predicament. Grace went to the office supply cabinet, took out a diploma form, filled in my aunt’s name and the appropriate date and sent this to my aunt. My aunt submitted it to the committee overseeing applications for aspiring lawyers and was granted permission to take the bar exam.
She told me that she passed it with flying colors. No need to college.
“If you want to go to college,” she said firmly,” “you need to work for a year and save y our money. Perhaps you can also apply for a scholarship. You have the grades for it. Or you could teach grade school. I’ll get the application for you to take the teacher’s exam.”
This was in 1946 when Nebraska was mostly farm country. Little red one-room schoolhouses dotted the landscape.
So I studied for the teacher’s exam. The questions were mostly about Nebraska agriculture. I learned the names of the cattle (Red Herefords and Black Angus, Holsteins, Jerseys and Guernseys; the names of poultry; (mostly Rhode Island Reds and White Leghorns), and Poland China hogs. With this basic knowledge of my home state, I did pass the exam and was given a teaching certificate just before school started in September. The school that accepted me was 10 miles outside of Plattsmouth, so there was no way to live in town and teach. The school’s supervisors arranged that for $40 a month, I could board during the week with the Leonard Born family. My salary was $200 a month, which my aunt confiscated and banked for me, except for $10 spending money.
The Borns owned almost a section, 640 acres, of farmland. The school I was to teach was across a road on the far side of the section, kitty-corner from the farmhouse. In other words, about three miles from where I would be living.
Mrs. Born (Lizzy) welcomed me and showed me my bedroom. Over her worn grey cotton dress she wore a bright gingham apron. She also nearly always wore a smile. She wasn’t what you would call fat, but she was stocky. A sturdy woman.
I didn’t meet Leonard, her husband, until evening. A tall, thin man with a dark stubble of beard, he worked from dawn until sunset, coming in at noon for lunch. When Leonard came in, he brought with him the mingled odors of sweat, earth, hay – the barn.
I thought of it as “eau de farm” and sometimes even now, I wish it were bottled for sale at Macy’s. I would load up on it.
Leonard had a deep, permanent frown, plowed by worry. He nodded to me but we were never close. I was an unmarried female and it wouldn’t have been proper. Besides, he was a busy man with fences to mend, cows to herd and milk, a field to mow and corn to harvest. It was also time to prepare the fields for planting winter wheat. I never would have guessed how hard a farmer’s life is.
I also met George Born, who would be an eighth grader that fall. He was a tall as I, a handsome boy with his black hair and dark eyes. He was a bit shy, shook my hand and then retreated to his room.
Having found a place to live, I now had to find a way to get over those three miles between the Born farmhouse and the school. The Borns were already aware of the problem. George rode his pony, Flicka, so Lizzy asked, “Teacher, can you ride a horse?”
“Oh yes,” I assured her. I had never been on a horse, but it seemed simple enough. I sat on the horse, the horse walked and I rode.
“Fine,” said LIzzy. “Then you can ride Dolly. George rides Flicka.”
Flicka was Dolly’s colt. The Borns’ kindness was immediately apparent when they overlooked my ignorance about riding a horse. Nobody laughed at me for walking like I had a barrel between my legs for a week or two until I learned how to position myself on the horse.”
As I unpacked my clothes, Lizzy looked me over up and down.
“You’re skinny, Teacher,” she said.
I never thought of myself as skinny. Later I realized that Mrs. Born didn’t want anyone to think she wasn’t feeding me very well. She set about to fatten me up. Anyway, fattening up is a “farm thing.”
Even George had his own calf, which he was fattening up to exhibit in the livestock show and at the county fair. He was obviously fond of the calf, petting her when he fed her.
On my first morning with the Borns I was wakened at about 5:30 a.m. by Lizzie and Leonard chatting. He was having his breakfast before driving the cows out to pasture.
I had my breakfast of boiled coffee, eggs, pancakes with homemade strawberry jam, ham and cinnamon rolls. Then, I was handed my lunch bucket, which weighed almost as much as my bag of books.
I peeked in my lunch bucket. I had been given a pint of chicken soup, a pint of milk, two tuna sandwiches, an apple, a piece of apple pie and about six large oatmeal cookies. This was to tide me over through the morning recess, lunch and afternoon recess until I got home where Mrs. Born would have hot coffee and pie to carry me through until supper. Once, I came home with half a sandwich left, which hurt Mrs. Borns feelings.
“You didn’t like your lunch, Teacher?” Mrs. Born asked.
That never happened again and I gained some 20 pounds that winter.
In the barn, Leonard had already saddled Dolly. I learned immediately that one always mounts a horse on the left side. Before mounting I tried petting Dolly’s long face. She was a beautiful bay horse with a black mane and tail. I tried to stroke her but stopped when she curled her upper lip, baring her teeth and snorting at me.
George suggested I give Dolly a carrot or piece of apple before mounting and, if I could, another carrot after dismounting. That went a long way toward improving my relationship with this horse.
The first day I rode Dolly I had my lunch bucket hung over one shoulder and my book bag over the other. The saddle was a Western saddle with a prong in front.
Dolly knew I was not anyone she had ever had on her back before. She tried to behead me by running under some elm trees with low branches. I quickly ducked, so she tried to wipe me off the fence.
George yelled, “Pull up tight on the reins.”
I did and the horse corrected her behavior but then began a stiff, jarring trot. While I opened the school and prepared for the day, George rode Flicka and led Dolly to a farmhouse a short distance up the road and stabled her there.
By the time I opened the schoolhouse doors, I realized how little I really knew…the three Rs was about it. Nothing had prepared me for the life of a farmer or a farmer’s wife or for living on a farm. There were no paved streets, shops, streetcars or buses. One learned to “make do,” as Lizzy said.
Leonard drove over to the school that first day to show me how to build a fire in the black pot-belly iron stove. Then he showed me the pump in the yard where I was to pump enough water for the huge pan on the stove. The kids could heat their soup jars in the water.
I wondered how many kids would bring soup. They all did. Frugal farm mothers made soup of any leftovers and the kids had it for lunch.
I was at the teacher’s desk at the front and slightly to the left of the stove before the kids began to arrive. Most of them walked. The school served all children in a five-mile radius of it. Any farm kid could walk five miles. Sometimes, in really bad weather their parents would give them a ride.
“I wrote my name on the blackboard, Mary Sue Bordelon, and expected them to call me Miss Bordelon. Instead, they all called me “Teacher.” I rarely heard my name spoken the entire school year.
There were many books as I had to prepare lesson plans for seven grades. There were 11 pupils in seven of the eight grades and no sixth grade.
The children hung their jackets and coats in the entry hall and put their belongings in the drawer under the seat of the desk. I called roll for the children only once, for after one day I knew all their names. By the need of the school year, I knew them as well as I would ever know anyone.
The first thing we did was say the Pledge of Allegiance, and then we began the lessons with the eighth graders reading first. The two eighth graders, George and Francis, were extremely bright.
Gene, a fourth grader, had a quick mind and a ready smile. There was a boy with Down Syndrome. I knew nothing about this disorder nor did anyone in the district. People just thought he was funny looking.
He was repeating first grade for the third time. Despite his disabilities, he walked the five miles to school every day.
While I listened to the other students read, the eighth graders helped the first graders. We had spelling classes and spelling bees. The competition between Francis and George was intense. The younger children would howl with laughter when one of them finally missed a word.
Of course, chewing gum in school was forbidden, but that didn’t stop the children from chewing it. One day while the seventh graders were reading, I saw a child reach over and get a piece of gum from the desk of a child who was reading.
I called his name. He knew why and said, “I was gonna put it back.”
When George and I got home from school, Mrs. Born always had food waiting for us so we would get our strength up before doing afternoon chores. I was expected to gather eggs, peel potatoes and do anything else needed to be done.
At first in my adolescent arrogance, I thought, “I am a paying boarder here. Why should I have to work?”
However, I gradually realized that by including me Mrs. Born had assimilated me into the family.
I also helped with making supper when asked. I peeled potatoes, tried to get the strings out of the beans and stirred the delicious brown gravy. Dinner was usually country-fried steak, mashed potatoes, beans and whatever leftovers needed to be eaten.
After dinner, when the table was cleared and dishes were done, everyone gathered in the kitchen for a game of pitch, a fast-moving card game. And then, we had a snack before going to bed lest we wake up hungry in the night.
Autumn was short-lived but before it ended George suggested we ride over to the old county farmhouse, once used as a home for the homeless. Now, it was empty, but behind it there was a huge watermelon just begging to be eaten. George broke it open just by dropping it. I have never had melon that sweet and good again.
That fall, George and I were late one day leaving school and we decided to cut across the farm instead of going by the road. This was risky because prairie dogs left potholes in the ground, and if a horse stepped in one and broke a leg, he would have to be put down.
We decided to risk it. Good thing we did. Over the first gentle rise of the land we heard a cow bawling. She had not made it back to the barn before dropping a calf. Above her bawling we could hear coyotes howling.
“We have to get them back to the barn or the coyotes will get them,” George said.
The cow kept nudging her tiny, wobbly calf. George took off his leather jacket and we laid the calf in it. George took one side of the jacket and I took the other. We carried the calf home with the cow nudging us all the way. We walked carefully across the farm the horses by our sides. By the time we got into the barnyard, the Borns were distraught. They had called all the neighbors whose farms bordered the road but no one had seen us. It was night by the time we appeared in the barnyard. There was much rejoicing in a dignified, muted way with lots of supper and hot coffee.
Winter came on early, bitterly cold. I woke one morning in mid-October to see that snow had drifted over the front porch and further out it had drifted in places up to the telephone lines.
“You have to go to school, Teacher,” Leonard said. “If the school’s not open, some kid will show up there and freeze to death. You and George don’t have to ride the ponies. I’ll hitch up the Percherons. And so he did. He hitched these enormous horses to a flat-bed wagon and put bales of hay across the front and down two sides, making a wind-proof well for George and me. Then I knew why Leonard kept those horses, about 12-hands high at the shoulder.”
We went the long way round to school. I was glad I had banked the fire, because the room was fairly warm. We put our soup in the pan on the stove and decided to play cards while we waited to see if anyone else showed up. George had just dealt the hands when the door opened. There he was, the dear little first grader with snot frozen on his face, his lips blue with cold. There were no gloves on his hands.
I warmed him up, gave him some soup and told him how brave he was to walk all that way. About noon, Leonard returned with the Percherons still pulling the wagon. We all climbed on and Leonard took us, first grader and all, home. The year passed quickly for me. All the children were promoted, including the first grader. George and Francis outdid themselves on the state exams, scoring over 95 percent.
All that year, I had in the back of my mind that one day I would have a wonderful life filled with interesting people, travel and adventure. I did not know I was leaving behind the best year of my life.