By Maxine Moss
In a lovely home east of Lincoln lives the first teacher of Sunnyside district No. 45. Mrs. A.W. Woody, a cheerful little lady, will gladly tell you of her experiences in teaching – experiences of pioneer days that she will never forget. Some of these were wonderful, and others that seemed rather disturbing at the time are now looked upon as comical.
It was in the spring of 1878 that the Baker family made the long journey from Pennsylvania to the Solomon valley to homestead; but since the land was all taken, they journeyed from Solomon to what is now the county farm, a two-day journey.
Unknown to Flora Baker, then only 17 with one year of high school left, the next Saturday her father received a permit for her to teach that summer and then take the examination the following fall. She was to begin the next Monday. She didn’t want to go among strangers and teach but "Papa’s word was law" then. On Sunday, Mr. Choate, an uncle of Henry Choate, came after her in a new wagon with two dancing horses in front. She climbed into the wagon and in a miniute they were off. The picture is still very vivid in her mind; she can still see the wagon drawn by two horses, scarcely broken, with Mr. Choate and a young girl beside him dashing down the trail. With one hand on her bonnet and the other "hanging on for dear life," Flora Baker started out to her first school. There was no dust to bother then but prairie chickens, quail and rabbits jumped from under the wheels of the charging horses. Off to one side a herd of antelope bounded away.
Over another hill and they came upon the Choate home. It was a dugout. Two small children were peeping around the corner, and on the hill a boy was herding cattle. On the other side was a huge pile of buffalo bones. At the door stood a friendly looking lady, Mrs. Choate, to meet her. As she stepped inside she could see a good sized room; at the far end were two beds with straw and feather ticks. Midway were two small windows next to the roof, a cupboard, a shelf for the water bucket, and under it an iron dinner pot-griddle, skillet and baking pans. There was also a small iron cook stove. On the other side was a table, shelves for clothes, and homemade stools. The roof of the dugout was made with branches, hay and then mud. Mrs. Choate, more fortunate than the average pioneer woman, could afford muslin to stretch over the ceiling to prevent snakes, bugs and dirt from falling in.
The next morning, Flora and the two children started to school. The twelve year old boy was unable to attend school as he was needed at home to herd cattle and gather buffalo bones, which they could sell. One can picture the three winding their way long the path bordered by tall prairie grass, the little boy leading the way. Once a small snake crossed in front of Flora and frightened her, but the little girl assured her it was only a blue racer and wouldn’t hurt her. Nevertheless, it was rather alarming to watch that snake wiggle right along behind her down the path. After a mile of walking, they came to the "schoolhouse." It was an abandoned dugout with only two small windows to study by, a long bench in the back of the room, and a few wooden stools. In one corner of the room was a spring running across to the end of the room. A black and yellow water puppy-dog lived there, much to the delight of the children. In this dugout Flora Baker had her first day of school.
School was to last about three months in the summer because of the lack of transportation in cold weather and the great distance. Miss Baker was to receive $10 a month and board around with the different families whose children she taught. Of the money she was supposed to get all she ever received was a pair of shoes and a pink calico dress. Her pupils were all below the third grade except one girl, who was the same age as her teacher. "Reading, ‘riting and ‘rithametic" were taught in that little dugout.
The first Sunday, the Choates took the "schoolmarm" and their family to Sunday School. It was held in the large home of the Woody’s. Of the ten children of the Woody’s, six were at home, five boys and one girl. This is where Miss Baker met her future husband. When she entered, he was studying a book and didn’t look up. But since, he has told her it was love at first sight. Since the Woodys was a post office, church, and the home of several good-looking boys, it was a natural meeting place for the young people.
At another home where Miss Baker boarded during the school term, the man of the house was supposed to be crazy and would leave home for days at a time. One time when a hard rain strom came up and all were in bed, the roof leaked in several places. The father came in with a tall stack of milk pans, placed them in several places, even on the bed, and walked out again. The family calmly went to sleep with the rain dripping in the pans. Later, this same man was taken to an asylum for the insane where he died.
In the late summer of the same year, a month of County Institute was held for all the teachers. A.T. Biggs, "Old Black Biggs," as he called himself, was the county superintendent. Flora and her sister Ella attended this institute. Ella stayed with a friend from Pennsylvania and Flora stayed with the Rev. John Medcraft as company for his daughter, Mollie, who was still too young to teach. The other daughter of the family, Emily, had been left in England with two aunts and came to this county later. Every day the two girls would walk to the institute with their lunch of crackers and cheese. That summer was the summer many died if diphtheria. In the middle of their term, a funeral was held in the bottom floor of the school house. It was a despairing affair, as it was a little girl’s. The same day Ella complained of a sore throat and discovered she had diphtheria. Few who got diphtheria at that time lived, but her sister Ella finally recovered.
In all the schools Miss Baker taught, only two were houses. In one school a little German girl had to interpret for her as all of her other students were unable to speak English as yet. In the same school, two of her pupils had six toes on each foot and were quite proud of the fact that there was always someone in the family with that oddity. In one place where she taught school in the winter a boy came to school with his ears frozen. They had turned black with the cold and part of them came off. He is now a successful lawyer in Georgia and had written to his teacher to tell her what he was doing.
In concluding our little chat, Mrs. Woody stated, "You young folks of today probably think we didn’t have a good time but even with your modern conveniences, you don’t enjoy yourselves as much as we did. You see, the young people of my day did not expect as you do and were very content with what we had."