The Sacrifice and Worth of a Pioneer Education

The Sacrifice and Worth of a Pioneer Education

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2001 issue of Pioneer Magazine

by Don H. Miles

“John Percival Lee is one of the best-remembered teachers of [pioneer] days, He taught in two rooms of his three room log house. He was a good teacher but very strict and it was said by a student that their first look around the room each morning was to see how many switches were piled in the corner. There were always plenty“ (An Enduring Legacy, p. 283).

The Sacrifice and Worth of a Pioneer Education
Old log schoolhouse, Parowan Utah, circa 1890

This statement shows that a few things have changed in school since pioneer times. For one thing, computers have replaced switches in the corners, and there aren’t always plenty. And many other things have changed as well.

Most of us have heard at least one parent or grandparent talk about how hard it was to walk to school uphill (both ways!) through waist-deep snow. But in pioneer days they didn’t mention the uphill—because it was tough enough on the flat. “Mary A, White remembered going without footwear when the snow was almost to her knees. She would stop at each house along the way to warm her feet, then run as fast as she could to the next place” (An Enduring Legacy, p. 283).

In Huntsville, children often rode horses to school in the deep snow, hut in the spring the sun melted the top of the snow, so that in the mornings the children could “walk on the crust right over the fences” (An Enduring Legacy, p. 399), But often the summers in certain areas were just as hard on children’s feet.

“Few had leather shoes, the popular footwear being a shoe made from old overalls. .. . Children often found the sand so hot they would jump from the shade of one sagebrush to another and at frequent intervals jig up and down, first on one foot and then on the other, to cool their feet. In the winter the problem was reversed and they battled the cold, many suffering injury from frostbite” (An Enduring Legacy, p. 401).

Of course, school “buses” eventually came on the scene, which “in those days was a covered wagon and team of horses which gathered up the children and took them to school. One old-timer said they had fire in the wagon, which brought to mind the picture of an open flame, but of course he meant a stove. In case of lack of fuel, each child had his own heated rock or brick for his feet” (An Enduring Legacy, p. 302).

Stories from journals and other books that mention children walking to school in bare feet are fairly common. They walked with anything bundled or wrapped on their feet, and they also walked with boards or other heated devices to throw down on the snow to stand on to warm their feet.

Once the children got to school, the situation didn’t always improve much. Trekking across the plains, the pioneers held school, when they could, in the wagons. Once they arrived in Utah, they had no school buildings, so they continued to gather in tents and wagons. “Within three weeks of her arrival in Utah in 1847, Mary Jane Dilworth was conducting school in a military tent in the old fort” (Utah’s History, p. 299-300).

George A. Smith describes vividly the conditions of his early school in Parowan:

“‘March 3, 1851. My [wickiup] is a very important establishment, composed of brush, a few slabs and three wagons, a fire in the center and a lot of milking stools, benches, and logs placed around, two of which are covered with buffalo robes. It answers for various purposes: kitchen, schoolhouse, dining room, meetinghouse, council house, sitting room, reading room and storehouse. Oh, to see my school, some of the cold nights in February scholars standing round my huge campfire, the wind broken off by the brush, and the whole canopy of heaven for a cover- mg. The thermometer standing at seven degrees, one side of you roasting while the other was freezing, requiring a continual turning to keep warm. I would stand with my grammar book, the only one in the school and give out a sentence at a time and pass it around. Notwithstanding these circumstances, 1 never saw a grammar class learn faster for the time” {An Enduring Legacy, p. 318).

The first school in Bountiful was “held in a wickiup down on the Jordan River . . . taught by Hanna Holbrook in 1848” (An Enduring Legacy, p+ 297). Many other records document schools held in tents, wagons, and wickiups until school buildings could be built, and this practice continued even into the 1900s.

Around 1907, Fred Holmes taught the “first school at Crescent in a tent with a stove in the center, but when heavy snow fell, they moved into Joseph Murray’s granary to finish out the year” (An Enduring Legacy, p. 306). People in Cedarview and the Basin built a log school, but in 1912 and 1913, they had to divide the school into smaller grades and larger grades, and the “smaller grades of the Basin met in a tent and were taught by Effie Davis” (An Enduring Legacy, p. 306).

Sometimes teachers even had to live in such conditions, not just teach in them. One early teacher in Provo, a Brother Kane, bought a house for 5200 and moved in on November 8, “having lived in.. , wagons four months. It was well they could get a house to shelter them, even though it was a poor one” (Juvenile Instructor, pp. 827-8).

The schools of that time progressed from a tent, wagon, and wickiup to the next generations of buildings, which were log cabins, then adobe buildings, and then brick.

Many of these early schools had only one chair for the teacher, with no desks or chairs for the students. They mostly sat on logs and wrote with slate, paper scraps, and anything else they could get. In a few cases they literally had to write their lessons on their hands.

When schools finally moved into buildings, many were simply converted granaries, farm buildings, churches, or any other vacant structures. For example, the first school in Bear River City was a “one-room rock structure. It had been built… as a tithing granary. The grain was moved upstairs and the children used the lower area. A few years later bars were placed over the windows and the building was used as the city jail” (An Enduring Legacy, p. 288).

As romantic as school in a granary and jail sounds, the reality was that life as a student meant dealing with a host of challenges and difficulties. Not all schools had a stove, and even when they did, not all the students sat close enough to get any benefit from it. Years later when students recalled those times, frequently even more vivid than lessons learned was the memory of the freezing cold and how they bundled up to stay warm.

Adult faced the same problems. Both on the trek to the west and after the pioneers arrived in the valleys, adults often sat by a campfire at night while someone read to the entire group. Lack of textbooks was a major educational problem. Most teachers and schools had only one or two books, though a lucky few had as many as a handful.

As the pioneers left Winter Quarters, LDS leader Brigham Young instructed them to procure “every book, map, chart, or diagram that may contain interesting, useful, and attractive matter to gain the attention of children and cause them to learn to read; and every historical, mathematical, philosophical, scientific, practical, and all other variety of useful and interesting writing, maps, etc.” for the benefit of teaching the next generation (Chronicles of Courage, p 368).

On one wagon train that arrived in 1850, Wilford Woodruff brought “two tons of school books” (An Enduring Legacy, p. 271) and “two large globes” {Chronicles of Courage, p. 370) to help alleviate the book shortage. But so many people arrived in such a short time that the book shortage was always a problem* So was funding for the schools. Many people paid for their children’s tuition (usually around $3 a month) by giving food or produce, fuel for the stove, or anything else a teacher would agree to accept.

Residents of Knightville solved the pay problem in an interesting way for the first couple of years. They hired Miss Fanny McLean from Provo, and “unmarried miners were largely responsible for her salary* Voluntary monthly allotments were instigated by them” (Treasures of Pioneer History, p. 181). If her looks and not her teaching were responsible for the instigated salary, this is likely the first documented case of students having a crush on their teacher in Utah, which evidently worked out well for both the teacher and students.

Since wages were so low, most teachers taught for the love of teaching, and many started very young. There are numerous reports of teachers hired in their teens. Mahala Sylvester started teaching at age 15 (Treasures of Pioneer History, p. 88), while Brother Kane from Provo had his daughter Rhoda assist him even though she was only 13. “She had an excellent education for those times; and she had always seemed womanly and intelligent far beyond her age” (The Juvenile Instructor, p. 828).

Many pioneers sacrificed and made significant contributions to their schools in various ways, donating time, books, money, wood for fires, etc. But some contributions stand out even in such harsh times, such as the one made by Thomas Trout. He won some money for a horse race and bought a lot in Moab. When the school board decided in 1887 that two schools had to be built, they wanted to buy Trouts lot for one of them. Eighty children needed to attend school there, and when Trout was asked about selling the lot, he “gave the lot to them for the school, saying he never expected to need it. The site is still owned by the county school district [in 1982] and there are buildings on it today worth more than a million dollars” (An Enduring Legacy, p.314).

The interesting thing is the average employee today will make over a million dollars in his or her lifetime, which means the average education today is worth over a million dollars. Hopefully we can learn to appreciate the sacrifices and contributions the pioneers made during the harshest conditions so we could have the education system we have today—a system tvell worth the prices paid.

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