Memories of Christmas in rural Wisconsin

John Oncken
A typical 1930's-era rural school, similar to the one writer John Oncken attended.

The Holiday season harkens memories of days gone by ‒ to most of us at least. Oh, young children and teenagers don’t spend much time on the past ‒ they haven’t any, yet ‒ but, give them time. The “olden days” make for especially fond memories to one particular class of people ‒ former farm kids who attended one-room rural schools.

Maybe it’s a gene or perhaps it’s a personality quirk. Possibly it’s because the rural school crowd (I’m a proud alumnus) just can’t figure out how they attended a school that had one teacher for all grades (with most likely a two-year degree), very few books, no TV or computers and cow manure on their shoes. Despite that we actually learned how to read and write and went on to successful careers in agriculture, industry, education and government.

50 years ago

No, you don’t need to be a 90 year old grandpa in a nursing home to have experienced a one-room country school. Would you believe it’s really been only about 50 years since the professional educators, government officials and assorted Wisconsin social experts finally “stomped out” the last rural schools in the state. (The strong Belgian community up in Kewaunee county held out to the bitter end.)

Faithful readers of this column may remember my past occasional musings about Flint school in the Township of Rutland half way between Stoughton and Oregon on then Hwy 106 (now Hwy 138). And how the Christmas program was the highlight of the year and how we sang at carols, mumbled our “pieces”, waited for Santa and gobbled the peanuts and candy he brought in the big bag.

I’ll not repeat that same story ‒ maybe another year ‒ although readers are forever asking for a rerun. Let’s try to look back to some other memories dating back to that era.

30 students – no problem

Interestingly, while writing these words, an education expert is pontificating on this very subject on public radio ‒ at the moment about how 30 students was an impossible task for a teacher. I suspect so, but Miss Otteson, Miss Zoellich and Mrs. Martin during my grade school days, easily taught well-over 30 students each year. And believe me, we were really country bumpkins in many (most) ways. No one had ever heard the words self-esteem ‒ I’m not sure we had any. On the other hand, maybe we had too much.

The duties

I well-remember we students competing for the privilege of putting up the flag, cleaning the blackboard, clapping erasers, filling the water bubbler and sweeping the floor. I guess we didn’t understand that these “duties” were actually work, but to us they were an honor! The real payoff was having the teacher admire how clean the blackboard was, how the floor gleamed and how the flag flew straight.

About that water bubbler ‒ it would never pass a sanitation inspection today ‒ even worse, the water was hauled in a bucket from the well out back that had to be pumped by an upper-grader who could manage the big iron pump handle.


The radio expert is now talking about how bad memorizing things in school is for today’s students. Most of us students in that old brick school would have agreed 100% at the time, but realized many years later that the multiplication tables we learned ‒ and hated ‒ are the main reason we now silently snicker at many young people who struggle to make change at a fast food place.

One-room school grads never had a chance to talk with a counselor ‒ luckily. We didn’t have a clue about what we were going to be “when we grew up” and we sure weren’t making any great plans to take the right classes.

The radio was the virtual education tool of the times.

Radio – our virtual education tool

We just studied what the teacher taught ‒ reading, writing and arithmetic, listened to what the daily WHA radio program offered. “Ranger Mac” told us about forests, wildlife and the whole outdoors, “Let’s Draw” told us to draw and we drew, E.B. Gordon told us to sing and we tried but usually failed and we played such exotic recess games like “workup” softball, “tackle” (no football), pump, pump polaway and “fox and geese” when the snow was deep.

No coaches

Fortunately, youth athletic coaches hadn’t been invented in those days, so we pretty much made our own rules and the big guys had more ‘say” than the little guys. In spite of our ignorance and undemocratic ways of doing things, we all realized that some day we too would be the “big guys”, maybe not in size but surely in grade as we moved through the years. I don’t ever remember anyone complaining about not making the team ‒ you don’t have teams when playing “workup”, everyone batted and fielded and played all the positions.

The school Christmas program was a big deal, it was the social event of the year and more important ‒ the first day of Christmas/New Year vacation. We all left the school that night , wise-guying with the “see ya next year” goodbye.

The Oncken Holiday vacation centered on stripping tobacco.

It seemed like New Year’s eve was a big event ‒ not for us farm kids ‒ but for the big city folks who were dancing at some elaborate ballroom (we heard it on the radio) to the music of Guy Lombardo. We knew that the cows had to be milked the next morning, the barn had to be cleaned and the tobacco had to be stripped. But ‒ we also realized that the football bowl games would run all day ‒ again on radio ‒ beginning with the Orange Bowl in Miami, Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, Cotton Bowl in Dallas and ending with the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.


How did us one-room school kids survive with no TV or computers, a strict teacher and stricter parents, memorizing multiplication tables, suffering through penmanship, no indoor plumbing, measles, mumps, and chicken pox?

Some years ago I was the speaker at a high-level meeting in Madison and was seated at a table with seven livestock feed industry leaders (I was the only one without a PhD). It turned out that each of us had attended one-room rural schools and we pondered that very question and offered many answers, none of which would be accepted as scientifically accurate by education leaders today.

This is indeed the season for memories and for making memories. I should never have visited the old Reed school at Granton that sits so silent and so full of the very things that former one-roomers knew so well and remember forever.  I’m sure there are many five year olds getting pricey computers this very Christmas who will relate the story to grandchildren decades from now. Good but not great. Great is getting a really fine 25¢ gift from the unknown classmate who drew your name for the rural grade school program and you found out later in the evening that it was from the girl who you thought didn’t know you were alive. That’s great!

John Oncken can be reached at