Sunday, May 9, 2010

Grandma Smith Was a Depression Teacher

The 1930's were a perilous time for public education.

With cash money in short supply parents were unable to provide their children with the necessary clothes, supplies, and textbooks to attend school.  Some states did not furnish supplies. Taxes, especially in rural areas, went unpaid. 

With the loss of revenue, school boards were forced to try numerous strategies to keep their districts operating. School terms were shortened. Teachers' salaries were cut. One new teacher was paid $40 a month for a five month school year and was very glad for the job. 

Other teachers agreed to go without wages, like my Grandma, Vivian Pritchett Smith. She taught in the Huntington, Emery County, Utah, elementary, a rural school in Utah. They had agreed to teach, because it was important to rear a generation of good students.

When a rural county in Arkansas was forced to charge tuition one year in order to keep the schools open, some children were forced to drop out for that year. However, one farmer was able to barter wood to fuel the classrooms' potbellied stoves for his four children's tuition, thus enabling them to continue their education. 

Many farmers learned to barter as did many professionals. They exchanged what they had, goods or skills, for what someone else needed. Each helped the other out. The city pitched in with utilities, which just meant lights and water in those days. A well-lit house had one bulb dangling from the ceiling in each room. Most homes were heated with a living room stove that used coal or wood and kitchen ranges were wood or coal-burning and also werre used to heat water.

GrandmaSmith,  recalled that she and fellow teachers in the district went without monetary pay but were given items by farming parents to make up for the loss. Everyone wanted the schools open and, therefore, they gathered around the teachers paying a part of a pork at slaughter time, gleaned potatoes, onions and apples at harvest time. Merchants who could chipped in with shoes or cloth for sewing clothes.

"One year, for Christmas, each teacher received a ham and each of us was invited to glean pototoes and onions on a farmer's land. We even had some apples which were not large enough to sell."

Vegetable seeds were also harvested and stored for the next planting season.

“We each had our own vegetable garden and canned everything we could each summer,” she said. 

Those with dairy cows shared milk, cream and a little butter for special occasions.

"We also learned to: 'Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without,'" said Grandma.

She said that an adult coat, with some good wear left, could be cut down and sewed into a coat for a child. Sometimes, depending on sizes, it could make two coats. Dresses were cut up to make clothes for children.

"I was fortunate to have a treadle sewing machine which my father had given me for a wedding present many years before the Depression," said Grandma.

Many teachers during this time had their salaries cut or were paid in script. Some teachers received only room and board as compensation. In some areas, rural school teachers would live in the schoolhouse and cook their food on the wood stove used to heat the room. 

Some say the Great Depression started on October 29, 1929, also known as Black Tuesday. This is the day approximately 28 million shares of stock were sold and the stock market collapsed. However, the worst years of the Great Depression were yet to come; those years being 1932 and 1933.

During the Great Depression years not only did people suffer from lack of jobs, money, homes, and food, but the education of children suffered also.

City children dropped out of school to sell newspapers and shine shoes. Some students were also forced to wear worn out, mended clothes, went shoeless and were too embarrassed to go to school. Rural students worked hard on family farms to try and make ends meet.

People couldn't pay their property taxes so school districts were lacking funds. Few teachers were hired and there wasn't enough money to buy books and supplies. Students were forced to use worn textbooks which sometimes had pages missing.

“Art paper was used newspaper which parents and others would donate to the school,” said Grandma Smith. “Some of those projects turned out quite nicely with the newsprint serving as part of the art work.”

Finger paints were made from flour, when there was some available, and water cooked together over the wood stove to make a paste. Various items were used for coloring. The same paste was also used for glue.

Students were required to bring their own supplies to school. Since many parents couldn't afford to buy these supplies, some students dropped out. In Grandma Smith's school, students were encouraged to come to school in spite of the fact that they had very little. There was always a blackboard at the front of the class.

Most schools were forced to drop classes like home economics, physical education, art, and foreign languages. Just the basic courses of reading, writing, and arithmetic were taught.

By 1933 many public schools closed, leaving three million students with no school to go to.

Teachers were paid a flat fee regardless of experience or education. Many rural school teachers only had a high school diploma and were sixteen years old when they began teaching. Some had what was known as a “normal” certificate.

"I began teaching with a normal certificate," said Grandma. "Later, I returned to college going to night school and summer school and received my degree."

In the 1930s, some city schools started what were called progressive classrooms. In these classrooms teachers let the students choose what subjects they wanted to learn. Teachers rarely used the standard textbooks and let the students work in small groups doing art and science projects and learning songs and dances. These small groups were also used to teach reading.

A good teacher, like Grandma, often used these methods because they worked well with students. These methods had always been used in rural one-room schools. Students in one group would recite their lessons while students in other groups did math problems on the blackboard in the front of the room or read their textbooks. Some of the more talented older students would assist with teaching younger students.

"I usually worked with the slower students," said Grandma. "I did work with the reading groups. We assigned them to bird name groups, like bluebirds, owls, etc., so the student would not guess what skill level they were at while they were so young."

Many parents were against progressive classrooms. They wanted their children to learn the basics like reading, writing, and arithmetic, period.

At the time, many rural schools consisted of one-room, which meant that all the students, no matter what grade they were in, were in s single classroom. Some of these schools had neither electricity nor running water. The school was heated with a wood stove and lanterns provided light. Water came from an outdoor pump.
Many students, like some of the students in Huntington, who attended rural schools had to help with the spring planting and fall harvesting. During these seasons, students went to school part-time or not at all. Many rural students quit school after eighth grade to work full-time on the family farm. In some areas, to make it easier for farm students, school let out in early May and didn't start again until late September.

The famous Dick and Jane books that taught millions of children to read were first published in 1931. These primers introduced the students to reading with only one new word per page and a limited vocabulary per book. All who learned to read with these books still recall the "Look. See Dick. See Dick run."

"I taught many children to read using these books," said Grandma. "You were one of them (to Myrna)"

President Franklin implemented his New Deal economic programs to help people get back on their feet.

Grandpa Ray was able to take advantage of the CCC camp program. He had trained as a bookkeeper and was able to get a job as the storekeeper.

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) gave money to schools to hire more teachers and buy supplies. It also enabled public schools to provide free hot lunches for students.

However, in some of the rural Utah schools, like those in Kenilworth, that meant that mother’s took turns cooking beans or baking bread and school lunch was provided only on two or three days of the week. The rest of the time, students brought their own lunches such as a slice of bread and an apple or some leftover from home.

"I remember Mrs. Fail always made chili," said Leonard Trauntvein. "She made the best chili."

The WPA and PWA (Public Works Administration) built larger schools to replace the one-room schools. Separate rooms for different classes proved to provide a better education for the students. 

The Great Depression lasted until World War Two. With the start of the war men and women were able to get jobs in factories building planes, ships, and weapons. With people working the economy recovered.

In the 1930s money was scarce, so people did what they could to make their lives happy. Movies were popular, parlor games and board games were played in the evenings. People gathered around radios to listen to the Yankees. Young people danced to the big bands on the radio. Franklin Roosevelt influenced Americans with his Fireside Chats. The golden age of the mystery novel continued as people escaped into books, reading writers like Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler. 

During the depression years the population was 123,188,000 in 48 states, life expectancy for males was 58.1 and for females was 61.6, the median salary was $1,368, unemployment rose to 25 percent and Huey Long 
proposed a guaranteed annual income of $2,500. Car sales were low at 2,787,400. 

Food prices: milk, 14 cents a quart; bread, 9 cents a loaf; round steak, 42 cents a pound. 

Some facts were taken from two websites: (FACTS about this decade) and html (written by Barb Jensen on Jan. 25, 2008)

Personal accounts are from the memories of Vivian Pritchett Smith, Leonard H. Trauntvein and Myrna Trauntvein.

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