My school days at Muscongus’ one-room school began with walking a mile on Bremen’s heavily forested Shore Road hoping not to meet a moose on the way. In preparation for such an event, I had practiced scaling several climbable trees at strategic locations.
Arriving at Route 32, I would be picked up by Mr. Walter Ifill driving his 1920s wood-sided station wagon with celluloid windows, not all of which were intact. To offset this, he kindly provided a wonderful buffalo hide to cover our knees. When the ice conditions were right, some of us could skate to school as it was located at the end of Webber Pond.
When we arrived at the Muscongus school, Miss Eleanor Fossett, our teacher for the eight grades, would have the kerosene lamps polished and lit and a welcome fire burning in the wood stove centered in the one large room of the school. The first job for the boys was to carry big chunks of wood from the entry way and pile them around the stove for the day’s heat. Then two of them would take water buckets a quarter mile up the road to a neighbor’s well to provide us with drinking and washing water. A large, blue-banded crock with a spigot at the bottom discharged what water was left from the sloshing on the road trip into cups we had made of folded arithmetic paper, or in an agateware basin for hand-washing.
Miss Fossett was keen on cleanliness, and hands were washed three times daily, but the same water in the basin was used until we couldn’t see the bottom for dirt. No matter, the effort had been made and we all survived. Our hands were spread on the desktops and fingernails inspected, and the conditions marked on a chart beside our names. Then came the salute to the American flag, prayer, singing of a hymn, and a song chosen from the Golden Song Book. Miss Fossset provided music from the organ, though mice had destroyed a few notes.
There is much to describe about the daily activity of a one-room school in the 1930s, with one teacher in charge of all subjects in eight grades, and I will expand on it in the future. What Christmas was like for “scholars” (as we were referred to daily) is timely for now, as the season approaches.
The Great Depression was in full force and Christmas was simple, if not stark, for all of us. It did not affect the joy and expectation of any of us. First was the expedition for a Christmas tree. The day was chosen. One of the eighth-grade boys would bring an ax to school and, with Miss Fossett leading all 12-15 scholars, we set off into the surrounding woods tramping along with laughter, throwing a few snowballs while looking for the perfect fir tree. One year we came upon a large pile of brush that partially concealed what was left of a moose who had provided a hungry family with much-needed food.
When a noble tree was found and carried back to school, colorful paper chains were made and carefully stored ornaments hung on branches. A fine couple, Dr. and Mrs. Friedman, lived nearby and each year provided a practical gift for each child to be placed under the tree that always stood from floor to ceiling, filling the room with its pungent fragrance of balsam.
Miss Fossett gave us pieces to learn and guided the older children in the production of a Christmas play. With practice, we performed this quite well until the parents came to witness it, then stage fright took over and we mumbled our lines or delivered them in rapid-fire staccato lest our memory should fail under pressure of a public appearance.
The Muscongus one-room school Christmas brings pangs of nostalgia each year, the drenching scent of fir balsam, warmth of the wood stove, softness of kerosene lamplight. Thoughts of a beautiful time that is past and also of inner-city schoolchildren who have never experienced following their teacher into the holiness of an old and deep evergreen forest and listened to the silken silence of it, leaned to touch its velvet mosses, searched for a classic Christmas tree.
Yes, even in those early times, city schools offered “cultural” and sports advantages, but there was no building of snow forts, skating to school on a big lake, having the teacher help us identify birds and flowers in a springtime woods, or swinging on nearby birch trees bent from the previous winter’s ice storms. We could catch up with “culture,” but the solid and well-rounded education we received in our one-room school was unique — Christmases to remember like diamonds on the heart.