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An ‘old field’ school likely stood at center of Johnson City

Bob Cox • Jan 20, 2014 at 10:33 AM

According to T.C. Karns, a Tennessee history writer from around the turn of the century, “old field” schools existed in this country in the 1800s, each standing in a crop-depleted field, hence the name.They were centrally located in a village to allow near-equal distance access by area students. That would have been the type of grammar school familiar in the little village of city founder Henry Johnson. The smallish schoolhouse was fabricated of hewn logs, had a dirt floor and was equipped with a fire stove in the middle of the room that vented through the roof. The only openings in the modest structure were a rough door on one side that stayed open during fair weather and one or two small windows. At best, adequate ventilation and natural lighting were lacking. The furniture was quaint but purposeful. Instead of modern desks that appeared later in classrooms, seating was provided from crude logs that had been split in half. Long pegs were driven into bored holes at each end that served as legs. The split side of the log was sufficiently smoothed for use as student seating. Because of the dirt floor, seats were high enough to allow students’ feet to dangle. Rows of pegs along one wall provided storage for students’ wraps and lunch containers. A long, flat bench, wider and higher than the rest, stood along the back of the room for use as a writing table. There were no blackboards or maps on the wall and very few books available.Students used whatever written text they could uncover. Seats were positioned around the stove in the shape of a square for maximum comfort in winter. Young males in the community arose at the crack of dawn in order to finish their morning chores before walking to school. Hogs and cattle had to be fed and turned out into the fields so they could graze during the day, causing some students to arrive late at school. Those students who showed up early were expected to take their seats and silently study until class began. If a teacher arrived and found a student not engaged in schoolwork, he or she was punished. The first male arriving at school in winter was required to build a robust fire in the stove. Students were confined in one room with various grades represented. While the teacher worked with one pupil, the others studied aloud, often shouting to the top of their lungs. Surprisingly, this behavior was completely acceptable. Making a loud noise was often meant to trick the teacher into thinking they were engaged in deep study. Not surprising, the facilities became known as “loud schools.”Another curious custom occurred when a youth rode by the door on horseback shouting the words “school butter.” This expression was meant to be an insult to the school and was issued as a dare (or perhaps a bold “double dog dare”) to the students to come after him. The older boys rushed from the classroom house without hesitation in hot pursuit of the offender. If they were fortunate enough to catch him, they carried him to the nearest creek for a “ducking.” Sometimes the perpetrator almost drowned, but the honor of the school was at stake and had to be preserved. Notably absent from this event was the teacher; custom barred her from interfering. At the end of the school term or at Christmas, the teacher was expected to treat pupils with such delights as apples, cider or gingerbread. A committee of boys always arrived early, waited at the door for the teacher to arrive, after which they would request their treat. If he refused or ignored them, they declared war. The “conflict” extended to the next morning when the boys again arrived early, but this time they piled seats against the door preventing their teacher from entering. The request for a treat was repeated. The final straw was giving him a “ducking” if he delayed too long or refused again.The 1900s brought improvements to the quaint little “old field” schools, causing them to sadly drift into yesteryear.Email Bob Cox at boblcox@bcyesteryear.com or visit www.bcyesteryear.com.