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A century old: And still a teacher at heart

Photo by Jenny Kirk Former one-room schoolhouse teacher Lois Larson shares memories about her life as she prepares to celebrate her 100th birthday today.

MARSHALL — A lot of changes have taken place in the last century, but one thing that has remained constant is that former one-room school teacher Lois Larson still lives by the adage, “Once a teacher, always a teacher.”

Larson turns 100 years old today.

“I’ve had a good life,” Larson said.

At an early December birthday celebration with family and close friends, daughter Marian Fischer said she and her siblings reflected on the educational family vacations.

“No matter where we went, mother had us learning stuff,” Fischer said. “We’d go through the counties and we’d have to learn them or we’d have to count horses. She was constantly teaching us, whether it was math, words or whatever. She’s still a teacher today because she’s very concerned about the great-grandchildren and how they’re doing.”

Larson said she attended elementary school in Vesta and then graduated from Redwood Falls High School in 1936, adding that she had always liked school, so becoming a teacher wasn’t a difficult decision.

“I guess I just liked the idea,” she said. “I went to Mankato State Teacher’s College for two years. Some of my friends went to college at the same time. I think my mother wanted us to be teachers. She was a milliner and went to people’s home and sewed. She also had a (women’s hat) shop in town for awhile, too.”

Larson taught rural school students for four years. Her first year was near Lafayette, followed by a year in Underwood Township near Vesta. The next two years were spent teaching at a school between Delhi and Belview.

“It was about the time some of the schools were consolidating,” Larson said. “When they started busing, that’s when public schools in town got big.”

Larson said she did light housekeeping at the home where she and three others boarded while teaching. Her parents — Vernon and Anna Anderson — took turns picking her up and bringing her home for the weekends.

“I made from $70 to $80 a month for a salary,” Larson said. “If you paid room and board and stayed with a family, that cost about $20 and you did light housekeeping. They gave you a dollar off if you went home for the weekend.”

The biggest challenge according to Larson was not having enough time to teach at every grade level. With students in grades 1-8, it also took a lot of time to prepare eight different lesson plan every day.

As a one-room schoolteacher, Larson was also charged with supervision, discipline and everything else. She laughs as she recalls the time a little girl repeatedly came to her and said the candy in her lunchbox was missing.

“The cloak room was kind of where I could see it, and I watched and watched, but I couldn’t see who did it,” Larson said. “So one day we were outside — I’d always go out and play with them at recess — and someone mentioned something about her candy being gone. I thought this was a good time, so I said, ‘Now I know which one of you took that candy. I’m not going to say anything to you, but if it ever happens again, I’m going right to your parents.’ It never happened again and I still don’t know who it was.”

Another time, a handful of boys kept stomping their feet in the cloak room.

“They’d get in the boys’ cloak room and start stomping and it would go on for maybe five minutes,” Larson said. “It would make an awful racket. I didn’t say anything the first day. The next day, they did it again. It was before school and they could’ve been outside playing. So I thought I would just let them keep on. It lasted about a week and then they got tired of it.”

Along with teaching students, Larson was charged with doing janitorial duties.

“I started the fire in the winter, swept the floors every night and carried in the water,” she said. “I typically taught about 16 kids. You’d get kindergarten students once in awhile, too, in the spring. They’d send them in for a few days during the last month or so.”

The Christmas program was one of the highlights of the year.

“You had to have a Christmas program, always, and the community could come,” Larson said. “We practiced for weeks beforehand. You could get books that had little skits in it.”

Larson recalls the children’s love of singing. If the school had a piano, she would play the songs for them.

“One time I didn’t realize that the loved singing so much in the morning for morning exercises,” she said. “They all sat there looking so cross. And I said, ‘What’s the matter?’ They said, ‘We want to sing.’ And I said, ‘OK. We’ll sing.’ So we sang every morning.”

Some of Larson’s former students sent birthday cards recently. Fischer said one of them mentioned causing her mom “a fair amount of trouble,” while another student shared some of the report cards and news clippings he’d kept.

“He was going to come to her (Dec. 2) birthday party, but he couldn’t make it because of the weather,” Fischer said.

Unfortunately, a lot of Larson’s former students have died.

“I still think of them as young,” Larson said. “But most of them would be in their 80s or 90s. So there’s not too many left, even from the last school I taught at.”

One of the three other teachers who boarded with Larson was Virginia Elfstrum.

“Virginia was my future sister-in-law,” Larson said. “She celebrated 100 in September. She’s in a nursing home in the cities.”

Virginia’s brother, Ronald, farmed the land around the schoolhouse in Underwood Township.

“He’d stop over after school sometimes,” Larson said. “(Ronald and I) went to the same church. That was Vesta Presbyterian Church. Later, that closed and we went to the Echo Alliance Church.”

Lois and Ronald married in 1942.

“We were married for 60 years,” Lois Larson said. “We lived four miles west of Vesta, about a mile from Holmberg Orchard.”

Fischer noted that one of the schools her mother taught in was on that property. Along with Fischer, the Larsons had two more daughters — Kathie Cole and Mona Kuehn — and a son, Steve Larson.

“I’m glad I had four children, now when I’m old especially,” Lois Larson said. “They’re good to me. I really feel sorry for people that don’t have any or even those who just had one. When you get old, you really appreciate that. We have a good family unit.”

Larson said growing up, her family had the best of both worlds.

“My parents had a farm right on the outskirts of Vesta,” she said. “In fact, it was so close that our building sit was in city limits, so we had both city and country advantages. I especially like being out in the open. I liked outside work, taking care of the law and garden. I fed the chickens sometimes and picked the eggs.”

Larson said her family was fortunate to have electricity early on since they lived so close to town, but she recalls not having running water or an indoor bathroom.

“She said running water was running to the well and back,” Fischer said.

After getting married, Larson said she spent a couple years without electricity again.

“It had to be hard with little kids, especially washing diapers and having no running water,” Fischer said. “I realize how spoiled we were (having disposal diapers). When I had my daughter, you could choose them for traveling, but at home, you still used the cloth diapers.”

People didn’t shop the same way they do now either. Back then, you went to a general store to purchase everything you needed.

“When you went into the grocery store in those days, you didn’t pick out your own groceries,” Larson said. “If you had a list, you could either give it to whoever was waiting on you or tell them one by one. He’d look at it, go and get it and then look at the next item on the list. You never got behind the counter where everything was.”

Larson said herring came in a keg and that flour typically came in 50-pound bags or more.

“They’d write everyone on their slip and add it up at the bottom,” she said. “If you brought a case of eggs to town, they sent them in the back room and somebody candled them while you were waiting. They had a light and they put the egg in front of it to see if it was good. They wouldn’t credit you for the ones that weren’t good.”

Larson also recalls living through the Great Depression.

“It was so bad,” she said. “My dad would get up and go look at the thermometer. 103 degrees. 102 degrees. He didn’t dare take the horses out to work in the field. But there was hardly any grain anyway. We didn’t have a food shortage because we had chickens, eggs and milk along with the garden. But it was hard on people in town who didn’t have those things.”

There was a shortage of certain products, though, during World War II.

“Gas was rationed and so was sugar, I think,” Larson said.

Larson acknowledged that she was born 31 days after the end of World War I.

“That was on Armistice Day on November 11,” she said. “Now it’s called Veteran’s Day.”

The 1918 influenza pandemic, which reportedly killed between 50-100 million people worldwide, was also in full swing.

“It was terrible,” Larson said. “My parents talked about that.”

Fortunately medical advancements have taken place over the last 100 years. Larson noted that babies were born at home back then and mothers were kept in bed for 10 days.

“It was agonizing laying in bed all that time,” she said. “The seventh day, they let me sit up. By the time I had my fourth child, it was down to five. They just didn’t know any better back then.”

Farming practices have changed immensely as well.

“It was big change going from horses to tractors,” Larson said. “And the things my son tells me about the combines nowadays is amazing, too.”

Today’s technology, including the Face Time Larson recently utilized, is almost unfathomable for her.

“It’s really amazing,” Larson said. “So is GPS. I don’t see how it works.”

Larson continues to enjoy reading and doing crossword puzzles and sudoku every day. After spending nearly 20 years of retirement in Cottonwood, Larson has spent the last 13 years residing at Hill Street Place in Marshall.

“It’s a really nice place to live,” she said. “I’m very happy here.”

Along with a birthday party on Dec. 2, Larson recently celebrated her milestone with about 25 women from Echo Alliance Church.

“They had a meal, birthday cake and honored her by donating 50 Bibles for the Gideons rather than giving her a gift,” Fischer said.

This afternoon, Larson is providing cake, ice cream, nuts, mints and M&Ms for residents and staff at Hill Street.

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