Monday, December 15, 2008

Acorn School - Part I: Life on a Michigan Farm

This is my third weekly installment of "random thoughts." I am very pleased with the responses and comments I have received so far and I am glad that the things I have written about Florida and Maine have resonated with others. This week my thoughts wander farther afield, to Michigan, where I spent a great deal of time when I was growing up and where I started school in a one-room schoolhouse some fifty years ago (am I giving away too much information here?). Anyway, to the story at hand.

I am beginning to forget my grandparents. They have been gone for over 30 years, but for a quarter century I would know them yet never truly understand their lives on a small farm in southwestern Michigan. My grandfather gave his all to that hardscrabble enterprise, and made a life there for his family. He planted corn in the spring, picked asparagus in mid-summer, baled and gathered the hay and stacked the harvest corn in autumn. As winter’s snow blanketed his fields he would stare to the distant tree line, a rolled cigarette clenched between yellow teeth misshapen and cracked like crib corn as he awaited the thaw, the beginning of a new season that brought little more than the one that slipped away with the first frost of the autumn gone by. I seldom recall him smiling or laughing (my grandmother was the jolly one); his life on that Michigan farm was a difficult one. All their lives my grandparents tried hard to provide for their family. They had seven children. My mother is the oldest. The youngest would die before them. If my grandfather bounced me on his knee and made me laugh when I as a little boy, I no longer remember it. It was a long time ago.

But I do have a very strong memory of the time I came to spend on the family farmstead as I was growing up. It was the autumn of 1956 and I went to live with my grandparents while my parents were traveling for my dad’s job. I was entering kindergarten and so I had to be someplace where I could attend school. This is how I came to begin my academic career in a small one-room schoolhouse in rural Almena Township of Van Buren County.

That autumn I arose shortly after dawn to help my grandfather as he moved through his early morning chores. He stoked the ancient furnace with wood stored in the dark and shadowy basement then walked down the long hill to the barn where his five cows spent the night in the tie-up, giving each her morning ration of alfalfa onto which he drizzled a thick stream of black molasses before the morning milking. He would then feed and water the other animals followed by a trip to the henhouse to gather eggs, some of which would be served for breakfast along with bacon or sausage and a large bowl of oatmeal and milk straight from the cow. What a treat for a city kid like me!

After morning chores and breakfast, I struck off for school along the gravel county road, passing by neighboring farms with their similar fields and barns, each one a landmark I came to recognize on my morning and afternoon walks to and from school – a distance of perhaps a mile and a half although it seemed so much longer at the time. My favorite of these farms was old Bee Earl’s place. He did not keep cows or other livestock. Instead he had rows of whitewashed wooden hives and a small barn in which he would process and bottle his honey, each jar with a generous piece of honeycomb. Bee Earl’s honey was a regular staple on my grandparent’s table.

Along the way to and from school I would encounter or bid farewell to my fellow classmates at Acorn School. At the time I was an only child, but at school I was part of a bigger family. Unlike the city school I could be attending in Chicago or Detroit, I was not merely a face in the crowd. I had become a fundamental part of a real American community although I did not realize it at the time. An essential part of the Michigan landscape for over a century, one-room township schools were far from obsolete and served a vital purpose well into the 1950s. Several generations of Michigan children, including my own, received their education in these schools where teachers and students shared close quarters and often the responsibilities for keeping the school operating. Despite their many successes, one-room schools were ultimately doomed and dwindling rural populations and a new strategies to improve primary education gave rise to newer and larger consolidated schools thus making these smaller schools obsolete and expensive to maintain. It would be several more years before the last of these schools closed, but throughout the later half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century the small one-room schoolhouse seemed almost as prevalent throughout the countryside as the ubiquitous barns and silos.

NEXT WEEK: "Acorn School - Part II: Gone But Not Forgotten"

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