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Farm boy – Joe DeJaeghere — attending country school

Submitted photo Joe DeJaeghere (2nd from right) and the other boys of District #29 at the school in March 1939.

We have been learning about Joe DeJaeghere, who grew up on the family farm 7 miles southwest of Minneota during the 1930s and 1940s.

Public education in rural Lyon County during that period usually meant a local, country school, but Joe’s school experience began elsewhere. His family farmed on the outskirts of Minneota when Joe turned 6, so he began his education attending Minneota’s elementary school.

Joe faced a particular problem as he entered school. His parents had emigrated from Belgium in the 1920s; were fluent in their native Flemish; and spoke it as their principle language. So, Joe learned to speak Flemish as a child and began public school in 1937 with limited English proficiency. His sister, Elodie, who was 10 years older and had attended American public schools, helped him become comfortable with English.

When the family moved to another farm 7 miles southwest of Minneota in March of 1938, Joe’s school changed. He clearly recalled his new school and the route he and his brother, Morris, followed to get there.

“District 29, southwest of Minneota (and) a mile and a ½ or so (from home). We always walked across the field to school. There was a grass waterway we could walk on.”

Joe described his school and teacher.

“It was pretty much a square building with a lot of windows and we had one teacher. She lived about 3 miles from school [and] was my later teacher – my 7th and 8th grade teacher. She was a real good teacher.”

Teacher and students had to pitch in with school chores.

“She had to come to school [and] start up the coal stove with coal in the basement. None of us kids did any carrying of coal or anything, but I can remember the basement being full of coal and dark. There was no electricity. We had a lot of windows, but with no electricity, it was dark in that basement. [W]e carried water from an outside pump. If it broke down, we went to the closest neighbor and got water so we’d have water to drink in school.”

He explained that enrollment at District 29 varied from year to year.

“About thirteen or fourteen as a low to about seventeen or eighteen. Sometimes you had a grade where there was nobody. I can remember all the kids from 1st through 8th grade I went to school with.”

Joe explained that the country school teachers were not the only educators responsible for Lyon County’s public schools.

“Jenny Frost was the County Superintendent. She’d come and visit the schools three or four times a year. I know we all had to be extra good when the Superintendent came,” Joe recalled with a chuckle.

Joe expressed affection for his country school as he described what he liked best about it.

“Well, I loved going to school, for one thing. I guess my best class was probably Geography. We had that through the 7th grade.”

He was quick to add that he also enjoyed the school’s non-academic attractions.

“We had an hour off for noon. We ate and then outside. I always liked that. My mom was really good. We had sandwiches and we always had a little dessert of some kind like Jell-O or pudding. As a kid, I’d start my dessert and with thirteen or fifteen kids, the teacher could see you plain as day. She’d say, ‘Hey, hey. Not dessert first!'” Joe concluded, laughing.

He remembered how the coal-fired stove for heating during the cold months gave the students another lunch option.

“[W]e had this coal burner, you know, and in the wintertime we’d bring a potato; put it on that stove at the beginning of school; and there was a baked potato at noon.”

Joe laughed as he related another country school story that involved its basic, bathroom facilities.

“At the country school the toilets were backhouses, out in the back of the yard. We had a teacher that was kind of hard on us boys sometimes. This one kid got on the outs with her. He was a 6th grader. He raised his hand to go to the toilet and scooted across the field to home. That was the end of his school day.”

Students had to meet state standards to graduate from the 8th grade. Joe explained that process.

“At that time we had State Board Exams we had to pass. We had to pass Math, English, History, [and] Science in the 8th grade.”

Once he passed his State Board Exams, Joe could attend the Lyon County Eighth Grade Graduation. He described that day.

“[W]e had to come to Marshall High School — the old school — in July. I had to be all dressed up — oh, god! (Joe laughed) I’m thinking we had a man give our diploma. I wonder if it wasn’t a County Commissioner.”

The District 29 School did not long outlast Joe’s graduation.

“I got out of school in ’45. ’46 was the last season – the first country school in the Minneota District to close. [I]t sat empty. I remember we’d go to peek in. One time we crawled through the window to see what it was like about three years after and then somebody took it down and used the lumber to build an addition on a farm house.”

Joe’s responsibilities around the farm grew as he did. He explained with a rueful laugh how they interfered with his education, “I never went to high school. I had to work.”

I welcome your participation in and ideas about our exploration of prairie lives. You may reach me at prairieviewpressllc@gmail.com.

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