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A ‘normal’ reunion

They have memories of a time a good many people this day and age cannot relate to and probably only know about through history books.  They were born during the Roaring 20s, they lived through the Depression years, they survived the Dirty 30s dust storms, they lived in homes that had no electricity or plumbing, World War II was in its full fury when they were young women, and they were the first generation where it was acceptable for women to work outside the home. Women didn’t have a lot of choices as to the type of work, and many of them chose to attend Normal Training School.  After that training they were qualified to teach in a one room school house. Marvel Griffin Wagner of Morris, Virginia Strand of Welch, Amelia Giroux Rixe of Hopkins and Doris Gullickson Simpson of Wheaton are four of the women who chose to do that, and this past June 17 held a reunion to celebrate the 65th anniversary of their graduation from Wheaton Normal Training School. Wagner put together the celebration, which was held at the Prairie Inn in Morris. She waited in the lobby for the other three women and when they arrived it didn’t take long before the lobby was abuzz with talk, and photos were pulled out for the rest to see, all four eager to share their lives, talk about their families, to reminisce about the time they spent together at Normal Training School and those early days of teaching grades one through eight in a one room school house. The four of them graduated in 1944-45 and then went to work teaching in those one room school houses, one teacher to a school. That teacher not only taught the kids but also had to be the janitor and everything else that went along with operating that school from shoveling snow, to splitting kindling wood, to carrying in water. Wagner went so far as to write a manuscript that goes into detail about those years and how it was the Civil War that gave women the opportunity to teach school. She said they were hired to replace the men that had been teaching because they had to go off to war. Wagner said most people today don’t even know what normal training was, then went on to explain how it was an early vocational school to teach country school teachers. “Married teachers couldn’t teach public schools at that point because they couldn’t be pregnant and teaching school so they needed new teachers every year to replace the ones that got married.” This was a good starting place, she said, because they educated all these young school teachers who wouldn’t marry right away and they could fill in where the other ones quit. “We usually got jobs.” The Normal Training Course was a one year course, she said, but it covered everything they usually taught in two years. Eight grades were taught in a one-room school house. Wagner and several other girls roomed in a three story brick house while they were going to training classes. They lived on the third floor and had to share the bathroom, which was on the second floor, with 16 girls. Sharing the bathroom with 16 girls never seemed to cause a problem, she said. They brought their own food along from home and cooked over a little kerosene stove, and that was quite the experience. It took a long time to cook the food, she said. “It was like having a lamp under a kettle.” Wagner said she really didn’t know what a country school was really like. “I had visited a country school but had never gone to one so this was kind of new to me.” She was 20 years old her first year of teaching and she had five boys in the 7th and 8th grades. “They made me laugh all the time so I didn’t get much work done. And now the one boy from that group is a roommate with my husband in the nursing home.” Wagner said they didn’t have cars so they walked to school in the morning. “I didn’t have very far, I cut across a hay meadow, I had about a third of a mile and I basically supported the people where I stayed because they got $30 a month for board and room from me.” These people had no money, she said, but somehow they bought a brand new bedroom set for her because they wanted to keep the teacher. In February of that year there was a snowstorm, and Wagner brought some of the children from school home with her because their parents couldn’t come and get them. “I took them by the hand and walked them to the house because there was nothing in the school house to eat or a place to sleep.” She recalls the woman’s husband didn’t make it home either but they had cows and she ended up helping milk those cows so the kids could have some milk to drink. Wagner said they didn’t dare let the cows out of the barn for fear they’d never get them back. Wagner ended up teaching for nine years, four of those years in country school, one year in a Hutterite colony, then taught in Hancock for two years as a chief teacher with a limited certificate. “I had to get a probation status from the state. Then they wouldn’t give it to me anymore so I had to go back and get my degree if I wanted to teach.” She went back to college for a year, took dancing and other classes. She said there was only one science course she had to take to get this degree. She got her degree and her wages went up by $1,500 a month because she had nine years of experience. Wagner said she even had to practice teach, and after that she never taught another day in her life because they could hire other teachers with less experience for less money. “But I teach every day because I teach everybody that’s around me.” Wagner said when she taught the Hutterites it was 5th through 9th grade. “It was the first year the state said children had to go to school until they were 16. My ninth graders didn’t want to go because they had finished 8th grade but the state said they had to, so I found all the harder 8th grade books and that’s what I taught them out of.” They were very good students, she said. Wagner didn’t live with the Hutterites, but ended up staying in the colony four nights because of snowstorms. They would never let them stay more than two nights in a row, she said because they felt her family needed her so they’d pull her car to the highway with their tractors. “When we came in the morning, if they saw us coming, they would be there to meet us and pull us through.” Wagner said her husband wasn’t happy with them pulling on her car. “We tried to wait until the roads were open. Many times if it was storming we’d stop in Graceville and have coffee and decide if we were going to go in or not and then we’d call from there and say we couldn’t make it.” Then when she showed up the next day they’d say ‘I don’t know why you didn’t come because we went to Ortonville.’ Wagner and her husband have two children and four grandchildren. Strand’s folks lived by Donnelly so she stayed in Wheaton with the girls so they could go to school during the week. Her first school was District 63. She had to walk a mile to school, stayed with some people in the district and went home to her folks on the weekends. “I got married and taught two years more in District 51 and there I drove from where I lived, about six miles, way out in the country.” She said she enjoyed teaching and with the school being so far out in the country they saw all kinds of small animals from badgers, to gophers. Strand had about 14 kids in the school and enjoyed them all. “I didn’t have a lot of teaching experience. When I was finishing my third year of teaching I got pregnant and that was the end of my teaching.” Strand said they were able to teach after they got married because the war was on and they needed teachers; however, that ended when the war ended and the men returned home. Strand didn’t mind. She married her husband, Milton, in 1946 and wanted to stay home and take care of her children. Back in those days, she said, a woman could be a nurse, learn shorthand and do secretarial work or be a teacher. She took shorthand in high school so could have gone into the secretarial profession but didn’t want to, nursing never appealed to her, so she opted for teaching. She shared with the three other women how her husband was the head trainer for an Arabian horse farm, how after four years they moved to Iowa where they built a horse stable and showed and trained horses. After seven years they moved to Welch, Minnesota where they bought a farm and her husband showed and trained horses until he died in 2002. When they were living in Owatonna, Strand had another son, who lives on the farm with his family. Strand now has 14 grandchildren and six great grandchildren. Rixe said her teaching career was fairly short. She taught in three schools and remembers having nine students in five grades. She said she really enjoyed the children. How they got as many subjects in and how they taught the children as much as they did, she has no idea. “Our days were fairly short and of course we did the janitor work and many times put the hot lunch on top of the stove, the stove with the big black jacket.” Someone would bring in the water, she said and the children all drank from the same long-handled dipper she put in that water for them to drink from. Rixe stayed with the families near the school because she didn’t have a car. “The one thing I remember is each one of the families had me come over for supper at one time and I think many times they were nervous but I was just as nervous as they were.” She met her husband and taught another year after going to summer school. She shared an experience that happened shortly after she got married, that of the locusts that descended on the area. “You could hear the noise, the grinding as they were eating the crops. There were paths here and there. I don’t recall a lot about it but I remember the noise. It was deafening.” Rixe still lives in Hopkins, but her husband died in 2005. She has three children and three grandchildren. “I’ve enjoyed life and right now I enjoy living where I am because I’m close to my family.” She said she was very excited about the 65th reunion celebration. Simpson lives in the Wheaton area. “I was a local girl with this class, graduated from Wheaton high school and took this normal training. She said finances made a lot of difference in choosing between teaching, secretarial or nursing. “My brother was attending high school at the same time so we shared an apartment. It was mainly finances, and in nine months I could be out earning money.” She said she would have had to go away to school to study for another career. “This way I could do it right at home.” Simpson said she enjoyed teaching country school. She had seven or eight students to start with, and that number increased to as high as 14. “The number of grades varied from school to school, she said, noting she taught arithmetic, reading, language classes, and industrial arts. Industrial arts was taught only on Fridays. “That I didn’t enjoy because I’m not artistic.” They had 15 minutes of music in the morning. “I wasn’t very good at that either but we got by.” For opening exercises in the morning they’d have quotations like ‘early to bed, early to rise’, and then they’d have pictures by artists which they’d put up on display. “We had a little bit of culture with the art work.” Simpson said the close relationship she had with the students really stands out. “It was one-on-one because the classes weren’t large, sometimes you only had one child so it was very personal.” When living with the families, she made a point of not getting closer to the child. “And the parents a lot of times didn’t want me to either.” She went on to say when she was taking normal training one of the subjects that was new to her was psychology. “I remember the time we were studying about bridging the synopsis and I thought ‘wow, that’s gonna be a piece of cake, just teach the kids how to bridge those synopsis,’ well it didn’t work that way but I found that interesting.” She said they also did a lot of drilling with the arithmetic multiplication tables. Simpson has four children and seven grandchildren. All in all the four women said they’ll never forget the years they spent together at the normal training and they certainly hope they’ll be able to get together again to reminisce some more.

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