Friday, February 7, 2014

School Wasn't Canceled for Bad Weather in 1882: A story from one of Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" books proves we've all gone soft

The following comes from an article written by Eleanor Barkhorn that was recently published on the internet in the news magazine The Atlantic.
Many times previously I have linked history-oriented news stories in this blog, but after a while the links no longer work and the story is lost, so I have decided to print this particular article here with all credit going to the author and giving a link to the home page of the source, in this case (as mentioned) The Atlantic in hopes this will be acceptable.
With the extreme cold and snow we in the upper Midwest and eastern/New England United States have been having here in this winter of 2014, I feel this is a very timely story:


~ Record-low temperatures caused by the Polar Vortex have forced schools across the country to close this week. Weather-related school cancellations tend to raise anxieties about whether we're a nation of wimps. In response to this latest round of school closings, a Virginia mom sighed, "Hasn’t anyone heard of gloves, scarf and a hat when it’s cold?? Just bundle up—people do it all over the world. We are such wimps to cancel school."
A story about a teacher assigned to a one-room schoolhouse in South Dakota in the 1880s will confirm suspicions that America has gone soft when it comes to dealing with the cold. The story is from “These Happy Golden Years,” the second-to-last book in Laura Ingalls Wilder's beloved "Little House" series about growing up on the American frontier. It describes the protagonist, a 15-year-old teacher named Laura, traveling a half a mile in the snow to get to school: 
There had been a snowstorm in the night. She had to break her path to the schoolhouse again. The early sunshine was faintly pink on miles of pure snow and every little shadow was thin blue. As Laura plunged and plowed through the soft drifts, she saw Clarence breaking a path for Tommy and Ruby behind him. They floundered to the school-shanty's door at the same time.
Little Ruby was covered from head to foot with snow, even her hood and her braids were snowy. Laura brushed her and told her to keep her wraps on until the room was warmer. Clarence put more coal on the fire while Laura shook her own wraps and swept the snow through the cracks between the floorboards. The sunshine streaming through the window made the shanty look warm, but it was colder than outdoors. But soon the good stove's warmth made their breaths invisible; it was nine o'clock, and Laura said, "School will come to order."
The first thing to point out is that there is no pause between "There had been a snowstorm in the night" and "She had to break her path to the schoolhouse again." No moment to wonder whether school would be called off, whether she'd be able to spend the day at home by the fire. School was happening.
And then there's the description of the journey itself: Laura and her students didn't have the benefit of snowplows or sidewalk salt to clear their path to school the morning after a storm. They had to break their own ways through untouched snow. And when they arrived at school, what did they find? A room that was even colder than the frigid outdoors.
What happened next is equally surprising to a modern reader. Two students came in a few minutes after Laura called class to order. She had to decide whether to penalize them for being tardy:
Martha and Charles came in panting, three minutes late. Laura did not want to mark them tardy; they had to break their path, the whole mile. A few steps in deep snow are easy, and fun, but breaking a path is work that grows harder with every step. For a moment Laura thought of excusing Martha and Charles, this one time. But that would not be honest. No excuse could change the fact; they were tardy.
"I am sorry I must mark you tardy," she said. "But you may come to the stove and get warm before you take your seat."
Martha and Charlie were three measly minutes late after walking a whole mile through deep snow. But even these heart-wrenching circumstances weren't enough to turn this young teacher from her commitment to honesty. She marked them tardy.
Finally we get to yet another remarkable part of the story: the students' reaction to Laura's decision. 
"We're sorry, Miss Ingalls," Martha said. "We didn't know it would take so long."
"Breaking a path is hard work, I know," said Laura, and suddenly she and Martha were smiling to each other, a friendly smile that made Laura feel as if teaching school were easy.
Martha didn't throw a fit at being marked tardy. She simply apologized. In fact, Wilder seems to imply that this episode made Martha like her teacher more. Notice the description of the student and teacher smiling at one another, and Laura's subsequent determination that teaching school was "easy."
It's important to recognize that the "Little House" books were written decades after the events that they describe. As author Wendy McClure, who wrote a book about the series, put in an interview a few years ago, "You have to admit that the Little House books are constructed, and there were definite artistic decisions and efforts to portray things a certain way, and leave out other things." Anyone with a grandparent who reminisces about walking five miles to school, uphill both ways, knows that people sometimes exaggerate the hardships they faced in their youth. Still, we can trust the basic facts about life a century and a half ago: School was open, even the day after a snowstorm. Getting to school was very difficult without the technologies we have now. School was cold once you got there. And, yes, by comparison, today we're all wimps.~
Eleanor Barkhorn
  ~ ~ ~


And here is an addendum concerning the above article from historian Melanie Stringer:  

Interesting but entirely inaccurate, I'm afraid. Schools DID close when weather was particularly challenging, and people were well aware of the very real and lingering dangers of frostbite. If anything, school districts and teachers were used to, and in fact expected, students not attending regularly when their presence and or labor was required at home.
As for using Laura Ingalls Wilder's novels to support the argument, the author (of the article) conveniently ignored the sixth book in the series, “The Long Winter,” which, like all in Wilder's Little House series, includes many historic events as well as fictional embellishments or omissions to tell an interesting story. “The Long Winter” tells of the notorious Hard Winter of 1880-1881, and in Wilder's telling, school that year was closed long before Christmas with the intention that it would not reopen until the next train could come through with coal and other dwindling supplies for the fledgling town. The next train did not get through until the blizzards stopped and the weather warmed enough to clear the tracks again-- in MAY. See chapter 15, "No Trains:"
'Slowly Pa grew warm and without saying anything more he sat down by the window to read the Chicago Inter-Ocean that had come in the last mail. 'By the way,' he said, looking up, 'school is closed until coal comes.'
If a fictional series written by an iconic and beloved author is to be used to support one's nonsensical and ill-informed statement regarding the supposed history of social behavior in America, it would serve such a commentator well to read the whole series and note the discrepancies with their own argument before citing it as a "source."


Ms. Stringer does a first-person history program as an adult Laura Wilder. She is also a social historian who has studied a great many aspects of Westward Expansion, American migration patterns, cultural and regional practices, education, and occupational opportunities from settlement to c. 1960 for over two decades. She portrays the historical person of Wilder and not the fictional character.

As I try to give factual information on social history in Passion for the Past, I felt it was important to include Ms. Stringer’s comments in this posting. Ms. Stringer and I have been in contact and she has noted to me that her commentary here is directed at the original author of this article and not me.


By the way, if you are interested in a typical school day during the late 19th century, check this posting out that I wrote not too long ago:
The World of 19th Century Rural Michigan Teachers



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7 comments:

Melanie Stringer said...

Interesting but entirely inaccurate, I'm afraid. Schools DID close when weather was particularly challenging, and people were well aware of the very real and lingering dangers of frostbite. If anything, school districts and teachers were used to, and in fact expected, students not attending regularly when their presence and or labor was required at home.

As for using Laura Ingalls Wilder's novels to support the argument, the author conveniently ignored the sixth book in the series, The Long Winter, which, like all of Wilder's series, includes many historic events as well as fictional embellishments or omissions to tell an interesting story. The Long Winter tells of the notorious Hard Winter of 1880-1881, and in Wilder's telling, school that year was closed long before Christmas with the intention that it would not reopen until the next train could come through with coal and other dwindling supplies for the fledgling town. The next train did not get through until the blizzards stopped and the weather warmed enough to clear the tracks again-- in MAY. See chapter 15, "No Trains:"

'Slowly Pa grew warm and without saying anything more he sat down by the window to read the Chicago Inter-Ocean that had come in the last mail. 'By the way,' he said, looking up, 'school is closed until coal comes.'

If a fictional series written by an iconic and beloved author is to be used to support one's nonsensical and ill-informed statement regarding the supposed history of social behavior in America, it would serve such a commentator well to read the whole series and note the discrepancies with their own argument before citing it as a "source."

I am an historian of American cultural and social history and I present educational, first-person history programs as an adult Laura Wilder. I have studied a great many aspects of Westward Expansion, American migration patterns, cultural and regional practices, education, and occupational opportunities from settlement to c. 1960 for over two decades. I portray the historical person, not the fictional character, and as much as I love her work I would not use her fiction as a singular source to support any assertion. Relying upon any one anecdote is misleading and disingenuous at best, and serves only to perpetuate a mythology that has little basis in fact.

Kat said...

I think ma'am you could have gotten your point across without such venom. Mr. Ken was very gracious in giving you a platform on his very well written and thoughtful blog.

I have very much enjoyed this blog. I've spent many hours catching up through your archives Mr. Ken. I love your writing style and I have learned a great deal. I've especially enjoyed learning about Michigan and the Union point of view of the Civil War. Ive never been there but would love to visit. I'm a 8th generation Alabama native so I don't much hear from the other side.

pioneergirl said...

Why would you cite a work of fiction to prove something in the first place? Boggles the mind.

Historical Ken said...

Thank you both very much for sticking by me but I believe Melanie Stringer was referring to the author of the original article and not to me.

Ken

Kat said...

Well you are welcome of course. I was just startled. I have now read your blog form the beginning and not once have I read anything with the tone of this writer. I'm just sorry I chose such a way to comment for the first time.

And I obviously didn't proof my first comment. Shame.

Historical Ken said...

No harm Kat. I can remove it if you'd like - - -
But I really appreciate the kind words you said. This blog means a lot to me and I take what readers of it say very seriously.

Susan Gill said...

I just read this entry again, nearly a year later. I have to say I find Ms. Stringer's commentary pompous to say the least. School in the past was in many regions an arbitrary thing, but usually families and children welcomed it. In the story, it snowed and the next day was sunny. Why wouldn't school be held? When I was a girl, considerably more recent than Laura Ingalls day, we went to school after a storm. I remember walking knee high in snow in some areas. We girls wore snow pants that got soaked by the time we went to school. So for Ms. Stringer to acidly comment that Laura's story was inaccurate is short sighted. In addition, there are photographs of school houses with snow outdoors and the children are outdoors playing. Of course, if it was a blizzard that is another story. But the original account did not mention it was blizzard. In addition, I am friends with Old Order Mennonite women who are school teachers in the only remaining One Room Schools in constant use in America. They teach , like their predecessors, all 8 grades in one room and their methods mirror those of the past. My friend, Alice, does NOT close the school for snow. She actually walks about a mile in it to open the doors at 7:30 am. The only time the school closes is if the weather is dangerous which in southeastern PA rarely is. The point of the blog post was to juxtapose the situation in modern schools with those of the rural past during inclement weather. IT was not a venue to promote herself.