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Harmelink, Lillian (Mrs. Peter), 1916-1998.


Posted By: Lydia Lucas - Volunteer (email)
Date: 5/15/2020 at 14:26:46

From the Sioux County Capital-Democrat, June 28, 1990:

Harmelink Was Country School Student, Teacher

ALTON—Lillian Vrieze Harmelink wasn’t yet four-and-a-half years old when her parents sent her to country school. “In those days,” said Harmelink, “it was hard to keep the school open. There weren’t enough children.” The minimum required on September 1 was five children.

In the fall of 1920 there were only four kids, so Gerrit and Katie Vrieze sent their eldest. “I cried every day for six weeks,” she said. “I was too young. So my folks said, ‘this is it’ and kept me home. But the school was open” by then.

Fourteen years later, Harmelink walked the same ¾ mile down the road southeast of Alton, as the country school teacher. Now she lives only a mile or two from her childhood home. In 1981, she retired from 25 years of teaching, one of the few married women who taught school in those days.

School, Bread, Washing.

Harmelink, 74, loves to tell stories. She started telling about her mother, who came from Holland at age 16. Those riding her boat were not allowed to see the newspapers prior to boarding, since the Titanic had just gone down. The crew was fearful that the passengers would “cancel out,” said Harmelink. The passengers heard the news later, two days from shore, too late to change their minds. They just hoped they were far from any icebergs, said Harmelink.

Years later Lillian and her three younger brothers came along. She recalls completing her first year at Alton Public School, ninth grade, when her mother got tuberculosis. “She had to stay in bed with the windows wide open, even if it was 20 below.” So the family assumed that young Lillian would stay home from school. But their doctor and landlord, Dr. Gleysteen, pushed her to continue. He said that “everything would work out,” according to Harmelink. “And it did.”

Before she went to school in the morning, Harmelink mixed up the bread. Her mother, in bed, would shape the loaves. Her uncle, crippled with polio and living with the Vrieze family, would fire the cook stove with cobs and wood and bake the bread. Only on Monday nights did she get a ride home from high school. That was wash night. The water would be hot when she arrived, ready for the gas-powered wringer washer. On Tuesdays, she did the ironing.

During nice weather, she would ride horse the two miles to high school. Actually Lindy, named after Lindbergh and his first flight, was a pony, but a smart one, according to Harmelink. “He’d know if a woman was on his back. We’d go up the driveway and come back. He knew we couldn’t boss him. He was so fat, we couldn’t get through the (barn) door on him.” Harmelink would slide right off the pony’s back when they hit the doorway.

Lindy was so smart, she continued, that he would maneuver from the pasture through the barn by lifting three latches, then head for the oats bin. He’d open it and start eating. “No wonder he was so fat.”

Dried Out Completely

After high school, Harmelink stayed home for a year. One Sunday morning, walking across the lawn to Alton Reformed Church, Joe Aberson asked her if she would like to be the country school teacher. She refused. During church, she whispered the exchange to her mother. Her mother responded, “Don’t say (‘no’) so fast.” So Harmelink reconsidered, and headed to college.

“Everybody was so poor in those days. Dad didn’t have money to send me,” said Harmelink. So they borrowed $50 for summer school tuition from the Alton Bank. She took four classes from Westmar, then called Western Union. That fall she taught country school. After a year of teaching, she married Peter Harmelink, a Newkirk guy. She quit teaching, since “married women didn’t work in those days,” she said.

The two had met about three years before. Their first date was at the Sioux County fair. “I knew he was going to ask me,” said Harmelink; she could tell by the way he looked at her. But she was with some other girls at the fair, and she figured he’d chicken out unless he could talk with her alone. So she pretended she was chilly, and excused herself, heading to the car for her coat. It worked.

They were married in 1936, the year “it dried out completely,” she continued. The newlyweds had no crop because of the drought. Besides that, the 125 pullets given from her parents—to produce eggs and earn grocery money—were stolen. Harmelink was sorry she hadn’t kept teaching.

They made it. With a couple of cows, they got a little cream to sell. Some meals consisted of a can of pork and beans. “But it didn’t hurt us,” said Harmelink. “We appreciate things that much more now.”

The two moved five times in six years, then settled into their home southeast of Alton. They gave birth to a daughter, Sharma, and a stillborn son. Now Sharma has three children and lives in Denver.

Through the years, Harmelink got sick, however. Once she laid in bed for eight weeks. “The doctor thought it was my heart.” She had cancer surgery. She had pernicious anemia. “Of course, we had no insurance. No one did in those days.”

So she returned to work to pay the bills, first at Slagle’s Lumber, then as a schoolteacher. The summer of 1957, she was back in summer school, preparing to teach at Carmel that fall. The drive was 22 miles one way. Later she taught closer to home, at Newkirk, Hospers, and Alton. She found herself in the middle of the organization of the Floyd Valley school system, and for a while she drove to Newkirk in the morning and Hospers in the afternoon, teaching two kindergarten classes.

In Alton, she housed her students in the old Bloemendaal Hatchery for awhile. “That was the perfect set up,” with her own phone, bathroom, and water fountain, she said. When Floyd Valley added on to the Hospers building, she returned there.

She spent a lot of time in college during those years—11 years of summer school and night classes, she said. She could have gone on for schooling past her bachelor’s, but “who wants to go to school all your life?” she said.

Besides, she was busy at home too. “She used to be my hired man,” said Peter. In addition to regular housework, she’d rise at 4:30 a.m. to do the milking, before school.

Loved Like a Mother

School has “changed so much,” said Harmelink. “By the time I quit teaching, kindergarten was almost like first grade used to be.” The children did lots of reading, and there was “so much more that (they) made those poor children do.”

She still thinks “a lot of good came out of country schools.” She tells of a student she taught in fifth grade, who became a top notch teacher himself. “He didn’t turn out too bad. You get a lot of one-to-one in country schools,” she continued. “I think classes can become too large. All (children) need to have some individual attention.” Through the years she had as few as 14 children at one time, and as many as 28.

“I loved teaching,” she continued. Kindergarteners “love their teacher like a mother,” she said. “When they’re a little bit older, they like their teacher too, but they’d better not let their peers know it.” They don’t want to be labelled “brown-nosers.”

“A teacher has a great opportunity to help children, not only in their subjects, but in life,” she continued. “It’s an opportunity to lead children in the right way.”

(The article also includes a photo of Harmelink.)


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