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Hiram Parks Bell:  The Old Field School


Chapter 3 from Men and Things is a continuation in the series on Col. Hiram Parks Bell.  The volume was published in 1907 shortly before the death of its author.  The following is located on  pp. 14-26:

    “The old field school, like some other institutions of this country, has, in its peculiar way, served its day and generation, and by common consent has been relegated to memory and history.  In these days of public school fads, higher education pretentions, college and university base and football games, and punch bowl banquets, reference is seldom made to an institution which, though lowly in origin and humble in claim, has made possible all these institutions as well as our advanced state of civilization.  When it is referred to it is usually with the sneer of derision or the smile of amusement.  It seems that such a spirit of ingratitude is capable of repudiating the love of a mother, or reproaching the misfortune of poverty.  It met a condition of society at a time and under circumstances which could not have been met without it.  It kindled a light that made the opening years of the twentieth century all radiant with the glow of intelligence.  The ‘old field school’ possessed three distinctive sides---the ludicrous, the sentimental, and the useful.  Its houses, furniture and comforts, as well as the extent of its curriculum and the qualifications of its teachers, compared with those of the present time, appear ludicrous in the extreme.

   “The schoolhouse was usually located in the corner of an old field cleared by the Indians, or in the woods, constructed of small round oak or large, split pine logs, notched down at the corners and covered with clapboards.  The orthodox dimensions were 24 x 16 feet.  The larger part of one end was devoted to what is known as a ‘stick and dirt chimney.’  Economy in labor and money was promoted by dispensing with sleepers and floor, and substituting the ground therefor.  The furniture consisted of a small, rough pine table and a superannuated chair in the rear of it.  This was the throne of the intellectual sovereign.  The seats for the pupils were made of oak or chestnut logs about six inches in diameter, split open in the center and pegs driven into auger holes from the round side of the half-log.   These pegs were of a length that would prevent the feet of the urchins occupying the benches from reaching the dirt floor by a distance of from six to eight inches.  To occupy such a seat for a long, hot summer day was a penance that ought to atone for a multitude of sins.  The remaining article of furniture was the writing bench.  This consisted of a rough plank nailed to the top of a frame, as nearly on a level as practicable, twelve inches wide and ten feet long, and a plank of similar dimensions joined to each of its edges, slightly inclining downwards.

    “The aesthetic will perceive that this equipment, in the line of convenience and comfort, was neither expensive nor elaborate.  The curriculum was not extensive but it had the merit of being in harmony with its surroundings, and confined, within the constitutional limitation, to ‘the elements of an English education only.’  It embraced spelling, reading, writing and arithmetic.  The standard textbooks were:  The American Spelling Book, the American Preceptor, and Dilworth’s or Fowler’s Arithmetic.  A little later, as this class of educational institution advanced, the Columbian Orator and Weem’s Life of  Washington were added.

    “The teachers, in the main, were men of advanced age, too lazy to work and too poor to live without it.  Having appeared after the age of Raphael, Titian, Angelo, and Reynolds, and passed away before the discovery of Daguerre, the world has lost the pleasure of looking upon their pictures and must rely only upon such faint and imperfect pen-pictures as memory alone can supply.

    “I have in mind with some degree of distinctness, the image of four of them who are strikingly typical of the class.  For fear of marring the pleasure of some filial descendant in tracing his heraldry, for the discovery of his ancestral escutcheon, I refrain from stating names.  Indeed, the given or Christian name of the first one to whom I refer is forgotten.  I only remember that his students, by common consent, substituted for it, whatever it was, the name ‘Nipper,’ so that he was known only as Nipper A____s.  I do know, however, that he was a tall, ungainly, bald-headed, sour-tempered old man, with no magnetism and but little intelligence.  He was not deficient in physical force, as two certain boys who engaged in an innocent game of ‘hard-knuckles’ during study hours when he was supposed to be asleep, after having visited, at the noon recess, a neighboring still-house, discovered to their mortification and discomfort.

    “The next one, W_____, whose only possession was a homely wife and a bad ‘small boy,’ was an Irishman of exuberant cheerfulness.  No conditions seemed to discourage or dishearten him.  He secured his support, principally, from his neighbors by borrowing such articles of food as were necessary to prevent actual starvation, under the pretext that ‘to his surprise, he had ascertained that the articles desired had just been exhausted at home,’ and with the munificence of a prince bestowing an ‘order’ or conferring a proconsulship upon a grateful subject, he promised to return it with manner that simply defies description, except to say that it was done in a way of Irish shrewdness that made the lender feel that he was the beneficiary.  This feeling was the only benefit he ever received for the loan.  His theory of teaching seemed to consist, judging from his practice, in the belief that light could be communicated to the mind by the application of force to the body.

    “H_____, unlike W_____, was a man of some means.  He had a wife, a very large family of children, five or six dogs and two rifleguns, the stocks of which were well worn by long use.  Mr. K_____ was a man of large frame, dark complexion, of slow and deliberate speech; though of robust health he seemed to be averse to motion, and the act of breathing appeared to be irksome to him.  If the ‘law of the Lord’ was not his delight the law of inertia was.  His uncharitable neighbors entertained the suspicion that he was afflicted with an attack of remediless laziness.  Of the truth of this imputation, posterity must judge.  I only state the facts in this case.

    “F_____, the remaining member of this quartet of famous pedagogues, was a man of decidedly marked, if not unique personality.  His stature was low, his head large and of peculiar form, his lower limbs short and bent with a regularity that fitly represented the segment of a circle, the convex side being outward; his feet inclined to the club variety; his walk was sort of hobbling and shuffling movement.  The conception of a cross between a chimpanzee and a dwarf would present the nearest an ideal picture, of which his figure was susceptible.  In bestowing her gifts, Nature had been parsimonious with him; some---and among them beauty---had been entirely withheld.  An officiating clergyman said at a vagrant’s funeral, that ‘Whatever else might be said of the deceased, all would admit that he was a good whistler.’ So I can say of this dead pedagogue (and it is about all that could be said), he wrote a beautiful hand.

    “These great men of the olden time were differentiated mainly , if not solely, in their personality.  They were all old men.  They were about on an equality in scholarly attainments, perhaps I should say, in the absence of scholastic attainments.  They all taught at the same place, used the same books, practiced like methods and quenched their thirst at the common ‘still house.’

    “As the branches taught were few, the methods employed were simple.  The lessons were studied vocally, not silently, and by far the largest portion of the study consisted in the hubbub of mingled voices in every variety of key.  The full measure of vocal power was developed in preparing the “heart lesson” preceding the evening adjournment.  With favorable atmospheric conditions the hum of this noise could be distinctly heard  at the distance of a mile, and the peculiar shrieks of one boy’s voice (Duncan Campbell’s) could be easily distinguished at that distance.  The useful art of writing was taught by commencing with a so-called ‘line of straight marks’ across the top of a leaf of coarse, unruled paper.  This, of course, was made by the teacher and called the ‘copy.’  The beginner, equipped with a goose-quilled pen and the juices pressed from oak balls (well known among the scholars as ink balls) for ink, commenced the process of copying the marks.  The second lesson was the mark, as in the first, curved at the bottom and traced upward.  This mark, in the figurative language of the teacher, was called ‘pot hooks.’  The third copy was a line of ‘pot hooks’ with the second line curved at the top and brought down to evenness with the lower curve; then followed copies of capital letters of the alphabet, etc.  It was a singular fact that the students almost invariably in making these curves, slightly twisted and protruded the tongue, and kept the tongue and eyes in a movement precisely corresponding to the motion of the pen.  I never did understand, and do not now know, which was the dominant motion in this operation---these members or the pen.  I had the privilege of securing early instruction from each of the worthies here mentioned, in an institution which I have endeavored to describe.  Whatever mistakes in instruction or discipline they made I forget and forgive.  For whatever of good they did me, I give them the thanks of a heart which I trust is incapable of ingratitude.


The Sentimental Side of the Old Field School

   ‘A land without sentiment is a land without liberty,’ The short resolution adopted by the Pilgrim fathers in the cabin of the Mayflower was the prophecy of our magnificent structure of democratic constitutional government.  They symbolized the religious faith of the United States as they stood on Plymouth Rock.

   ‘And shook the depths of the forest gloom with hymns of lofty cheer.’

    “The old field school was our present generation in embryo.  It was the beginning of what now is.  Pioneer settlers were always distinguished for their energy, industry, fearlessness and faith.  This school was theirs.  Indeed, it was the pioneer educational institution of the North American wilderness.

    “On a Monday morning, late in July or early in August, coming from all directions in a circle within three miles around the schoolhouse, from 40 to 50 children of both sexes, ranging in age from five to 20 years, might be seen to meet at the schoolhouse.  They were simply and cheaply clad in such apparel as their good mothers could manufacture.  They were all barefoot, except for the few grown girls.  They were all bronzed by the mingled force of hard labor and hot sunshine.  The commissariat consisted of bacon, or steak, sandwiched between slices of cornbread or biscuit, neatly wrapped in a clean napkin and placed in a small tin bucket, or basket, and a black quart bottle---which had seen other service---filled with buttermilk and closed with a corn cob stopper.  The dessert---peaches and apples---were carried in the boys’ pockets.  There was no difficulty in arranging classes.  All that was necessary was to point out and assign as lessons, the alphabet, the lesson in spelling and the multiplication table.  A few lessons being recited, the noon recess reached and lunch over, they assembled on the playground, and speedily renewed old and formed new acquaintances.  They cared little for the ceremonious etiquette of courts, or the military discipline of camps.  These children on the playground presented a scene on which idle angels would delight to look for.

   They also serve who only stand and wait.’

    “The games they played, if lowly and rustic, were healthful and harmless.  Their section of the country, at least, had not been favored with the entertainment of the cock pit, the bull fight, nor football.  Nor had a powerful daily press then delighted the public with columns of detailed description of the bloody ‘rounds’ of Jeffries and Fitzsimmons.  To preserve the facts of history, a list of them is given; they were:  Base, tag, cat, marbles, bull-pen, town-ball, shinny, roly-hole and mumble peg.  Both sexes joined in the first two named, therefore base and tag had precedence in popularity.  I always thought, for the reason, that the execution involved the thrill of touch.  These children had a common experience in labor and poverty; had learned self-denial and self-sacrifice; had waded in the branch and been charmed by the ripple of its tiny waterfalls; had gathered autumnal fruitage in the tangled wildwood; had breathed alike the fragrance of the rose and honeysuckle; had listened in ecstasy to the chorus of the birds and gazed in wonder upon the stars that deck the diadem of night.  They had communed with Nature and reveled in its charms until their life had become an unwritten idyl.  They had likewise realized in their short, young lives all the emotions of hope and fear, of success and defeat, trial and triumph, and gratification and disappointment.

    “As they stood on the playground about to advance a step in the social and intellectual world, each felt the consciousness of a force within that was not understood, and that could neither be defined nor described, still it throbbed in the brain, pulsated in heartbeats and gurgled through the veins.  It was present in their ambitions, aspirations, admirations, envyings, rivalries, likes and dislikes.  What was this force?  Was it the struggling of the mind for higher attainments in knowledge, the panting of the restless spirit for the solace of peace, or the thirst of the soul, clamoring for one full draught of immortality?  Nobody can tell.  No one knows.  Whatever it was, it was the power dying

   ‘Ion caught from Clemanthe’s eye’ that assured him a reunion of love,

    Beyond the sunset’s radiant glow.’

    “If they never heard the name of the poet, nor read the couplet, they all felt the sentiment that

    ‘Kind words were more than coronets,

    And simple faith, than Norman blood.’

   It was very soon discovered that in playing the game of base some boys were very easily caught by certain particular girls.  It was further observed that the same boys and girls, in going home in the evening, would linger at the parting of the ways and play, or pretend to play ‘tag.’  They parted with the compact that, whichever one reached the place first on the succeeding morning, in returning to school, would make a cross mark or drop the twig of a green bush in a particular place in the road.  This sign always accelerated the movements of the party of the second part.  I never heard of any complaint of violating the stipulations of this treaty.  It may be, after all, that these trivial, simple little things shed light on the solution of this great problem that has baffled the learning and exploded the theories of psychologists.  It was a little thing to dip seven times in Jordan but it healed a leper.

    “In long after-years and from faraway places, many a heart has sent memory back to the old playground, and silently sighed for

   ‘The touch of a vanished hand, and the sparkle of an eye forever closed.’


The Useful Side of the Old Field School

    “It must be remembered that the school under consideration was the educational initiative, the first grade or primary species of the genus old field school.  This grade did not, and necessarily, could not exist long.  It was subject to the great law of gradation, progress and development, which seems to have dominated the process of creation, as well as the disclosures of revelation.  As the good people improved their conditions, increased their means and enlarged their views, they built better houses, used superior books and employed more capable teachers.  Occasionally, in a more wealthy neighborhood, an academy would spring up, and as new counties were formed the law provided for the establishment of an academy at the county seat.  In the meantime the University was struggling up to the guerdon of triumph; later the great churches built colleges for both sexes; finally public sentiment crystallized into constitutional provision for the public school system.

    “The first grade of the old field school, as described in these pages, is the granite bedrock upon which this superb superstructure rests.  It was the small seed from which this luxuriant harvest within the period of a century was gathered.  The children of this school, belonging to the same grade of society, identified in common environments, and the sympathies which result from early association (at least many of them), married and organized homes in the quiet country, in which peace, gentleness, affection and contentment exemplified the only remnant of Eden, unblasted by the fall.  They became the parents and grandparents of a race of men and women that subdued the wilderness, beautified it with gardens, orchards, farms, towns and cities, and crowned it with temples of worship and learning, and hospitals and asylums.  A race of chivalrous patriots, who in 1812, dispersed the boasted navy of England, sent back to her, from New Orleans, the pickled corpse of Packenham; scaled the rocky heights of Cherubusco, Chepultepec, Milino del Rey; floated the American flag from the dome of the capitol of the Aztecs, and spangled the ‘milky way’ of national glory with a gorgeous jewelry of stars.

    “The people provided the old field school for themselves.  It was the best they could do, and they deserve the grateful thanks of all the coming ages for what they did.

    “There were two other potent factors cooperating with the old field school in laying the foundation for these achievements.  They were the Decalogue and the Sermon on the Mount.  Side by side with the school appeared the irrepressible Methodist circuit rider, with his much-used and well-worn Bible, hymn book, and ‘Discipline,’ preaching every day in the week, at the little log church or schoolhouse, and at night frequently at some house of a brother in the neighborhood.  At the same time the Baptists appeared, preaching on Saturday and Sunday.  The preaching of that day dealt with the doctrines of depravity, repentance, faith, regeneration, and obedience, as taught in the Bible, with occasional reference by the Baptist brethren to some of the dogmas of the ironclad theology of Geneva, such as election and reprobation, final perseverance, mode of baptism, etc.  These combined forces formed the character of a good people and directed the course and shaped the destiny of a great nation.  The power of many of these men finds fit expression in Wirt’s description of the blind preacher:  ‘They spoke as if their lips had been touched with a live coal from off the Altar.’  They accepted the Mosaic cosmogony.  They taught that ‘the Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost,’ and that He brought ‘life and immortality to light.’  They indulged in no speculations on the ‘glacial’ and tertiary periods, nor did they waste any time in searching for ‘protoplasm,’ nor tracing their paternity, through the process of ‘evolution,’ to a monkey progenitor.

    “Schools, academies, colleges and universities cannot educate.  They can only supply the means to aid and enable people to educate themselves.  Education, in its last analysis, is a personal work, facilitated by the aid of helpful agencies, or retarded, of course, by their absence.  To become thoroughly educated, comparatively, required a life long, unremitting, systematic process of observation, reading, and thinking; and this can only be done by the student himself.  The great and learned Newton said that he ‘had only picked up a few shells on the shore, while the great ocean of knowledge lay, unsailed, beyond him.’  The old field school did its work, and did it well.  Like the ‘Mother of the Gracchi,’ she can present George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, and Abraham Lincoln as her jewels and proudly challenge Harvard or Yale, Oxford or Cambridge, Leipsic or Heidleberg, or all of them combined, to duplicate this quintet of American immortals.