Posted 6/23/15 (Tue)
By Kevin Killough
The outhouses were frosty cold in the winter; there wasn’t a lot of money for books, so they had to be shared; and the teacher pay was awful.
But because of close friendships and family bonds, those who lived in that time say their time at the Wolla School was one of the happiest of their lives.
A few dozen former students and teachers of Wolla School, as well as some of their friends and family, gathered Thursday at the Neset Consulting conference room to reminisce at a reunion for the school, which closed in 1962.
“We were one big family,” said Linda Davidson Wooters, who taught at the one-room school. She traveled from Denton, Texas, for the reunion.
A different time
The reunion attendees all spoke fondly of their experience with the school, despite the difficulties of the time.
“When I started there were five kids in the whole school,” Wooters said.
The pay for a teacher back then was $200 a month, which is about $1,600 a month today. At the time, she lived with her parents in Tioga.
“That helped out a lot,” she said.
She recalled how she had to share books with students, which led her to become skilled at reading upside-down. Rather than stand behind the students and read over their shoulder, she would stand in front of their desk and read along with the students.
Back then, teachers were not married.
“Wives didn’t really work back then,” explained Evelyn Curtiss, another former teacher at the reunion.
While teaching at Wolla, she began dating the man she would eventually marry.
Steve Fretland, a student at Wolla from 1955 to 1962, remembered how they met Curtiss’s future husband at the time and teased her about it.
“Oooh, the teacher has a boyfriend,” Fretland remembered telling his classmates.
Curtiss was not the only one to travel from across the country to share memories of the school. Wolla former student Lynn Chase came from Las Vegas.
“We all had such a good time together,” she said.
She recalled a playground toy they called the “giant stride.” It was a pole with chains hanging from it. The kids would grab the handles at the end of the pole and swing around it like a May Pole.
Fretland said they also played a game they called pump-pump down, which was similar to what kids today call Red Rover.
A few students recalled Curtiss playing organ and singing in class. It was an old pump organ, so she had to have one student work the foot pump while she played.
Tradition was a big part of life for everyone back then, and it was no different at Wolla School. Every day they raised the flag and took it down at the end of class, folding it in the proper tri-fold manner.
Though traditions were strong, kids will be kids.
A few of the students recalled how one day the flag was raised upside-down—a well-known sign of distress.
Curtiss recalled a Hess employee came running into the school to find out what the distress was.
Questions about whether the flag was hung upside-down as a prank or just an innocent mistake—as well as the guilty party—were met with a smile and a shrug by the former students.
“If you didn’t have enough in your lunch kit, well that was distress,” Bruce Wolla joked.
There were also the Christmas pageants they held every year at the school. Alvinna Kjos Martel, another former teacher, remembered putting on the shows.
“That was the highlight of my year,” she said.
In the pageant, Steve Fretland’s brother Wally played a black female maid. He dressed the part, including wearing blackface, which wasn’t considered offensive at the time.
“That was the beginning of my acting career — beginning and end,” he said.
Life was much less convenient in those days. Many of the students traveled by horse to school. The trip was especially difficult in the snow. Sometimes the snow was so bad, they would have to travel by sleigh.
To provide some comfort from the wind, they would create a fort on the sleigh out of bales of hay. As they sleighed their way to class they would huddled inside the space at the center of the hay bale fort. They called these “stone boats.”
“It’s how you’d stay out of the wind,” Chase said.
They would also build snow forts by the school, which Wooters said would keep “nice and warm.”
The schoolhouse was heated by a heating oil stove, and they would dry their wet mittens on it, keeping an eye on them so they didn’t burn. They would also place potatoes on the stove in the morning, and by lunchtime they’d be cooked and ready to eat.
This was a time well before smart phones and video games. Even television was a luxury.
Former student John Dilland traveled from the Detroit area to be at the reunion. He recalled how the Fretlands were one of the first families to get a TV. He and his friends would go over on Saturday mornings to see cartoons.
“It was almost like an extended family,” Dilland said, echoing a sentiment voiced by many at the reunion.
Besides the relationships they built as classmates, families were a lot larger back then. So many of the kids were siblings and cousins.
“We had to go into the next county to date someone,” Wolla said.
And there was no running water in the school. They had two outhouses out back—one for the girls and one for the boys. The school would never have indoor plumbing by the time it closed, but towards its final years, they did get chemical toilets.
At home, farm life was the norm for the kids, and that meant a lot of chores to do before school.
Jerry Kerbaugh was a student at Wolla earlier than many at the reunion. He recalled how everyone had to milk cows before class.
“So when we got to school, we all smelled the same. And no one complained,” he said. “At the time we didn’t think nothing of it.”
The entire reunion lasted three days and included a bus tour to the old school house, which stands in a field.
“They say the best years of your life are those early years in school. We were blessed these great teachers,” Fretland said.
“It was the best education we could have gotten,” Wolla agrees.