Trek to schoolhouse in sub-zero weather was common

Jerry Apps
Author Jerry Apps says mile trek to one-room schoolhouse in sub-zero weather was common when he was a boy.

One of my dad’s favorite sayings, as the days in winter got a bit longer, and nights a little shorter, “As the days lengthen, the cold strengthens.” That surely fits this winter.

December and January, mild. Early February, mild. Then wham! The temperate dips below zero, sometimes 15 and 20 below, and barely climbs into the single digits plus. And it goes on for days. Not just a day or two without a warmup, but days on end.

I think back to when I was a kid attending a one-room school, and walking a mile to get there. There were weeks when the temperature each morning was below zero, sometimes 20, even 30 and more below.  And yet we walked to school each day, as the country school – no matter how cold or how much snow – always remained open.

I wore layers of clothing—long woolen underwear, two pairs of overalls, heavy wool socks, a wool shirt, a wool mackinaw jacket, wool mittens, a cap with fur earlaps, and a wool scarf that my grandmother had knitted. My mother wrapped the scarf around my head several times so only my eyes were not covered.

Arriving at school, which was heated with a wood stove, on below-zero mornings, we all sat around the stove to do our lessons. The front of the school was freezing cold.

On the walk home, not quite as cold, I looked forward to my mother’s woodstove cooking. She always had something special on those cold days—homemade bread, vegetable soup. As I think about it today, I can still remember those wonderful smells coming from our farm kitchen. For a little while, I forgot how cold it was.

THE OLD TIMER SAYS: Below zero temperatures must be respected.

Jerry Apps

Jerry Apps, born and raised on a Wisconsin farm, is Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of more than 35 books, many of them on rural history and country life. For further information about Jerry's writing and TV work, go to