Early Schools of Mills County, Iowa
Walnut Grove School
Walnut Grove School ~ "As I remember It", by Francis L. Jensen
Additional Memories of Walnut Grove ~ "They Way it Was", by Amos Jensen
In all the years I attended Walnut Grove with my brothers and sisters there were never
more than ten or fifteen students. At one time there were as few as seven or eight students.
These one-room schools were all done away with in the late 50’s and were consolidated with
bigger schools in surrounding towns.
Walnut Grove School had an oil-burning stove in the middle of the room for heat. The
school did have electricity for lights, but there was no running water. The outdoor toilets, or
two-holers, were at opposite corners of the property. Boy’s toilet on one side and girl’s toilet on
the other, separated by at least 200 feet.
The school didn’t have running water. There was a well on the school grounds with an
electric pump. Every morning two of the bigger boys would have to go fetch several buckets of
water and dump it into a large five-gallon crock that was sitting on a corner shelf in the back of
the room. The crock had a spigot on it. That water was used for drinking water and for washing
hands. A wash pan was on the counter just below the spigot. When it was time for lunch,
everyone would take turns washing their hands. The dirty, soapy water was then dumped into a
“slop bucket” on the floor below the counter so the next kid could wash up.
Every morning a few minutes before school started the teacher, or an older student would
pull a rope to ring the big bell on the roof to let everyone know that school was about to begin.
Everyone within half a mile could hear that bell. If you weren’t already at school, it was time to
start running to get there on time. You didn’t want to be late! Our teacher, Mrs. Sabria Birkby,
didn’t like to start school late.
The first order of the day was to raise the flag on the pole just outside the front door.
Then, inside we all recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Like good patriots we stood with our hands
over our hearts and looked at another American flag hanging on the wall in front of us. That flag
was next to two big, framed pictures of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
Then it was time to get down to business. The teacher would call the first class - for
example: “4th grade Science” - to the front of the room to be seated near her desk where she
conducted the class. Everyone else in the room could hear the goings-on of whatever class was
in session. Sometimes it was hard to concentrate on my own schoolwork, especially if what she
was teaching was interesting to me. Then after about twenty minutes or so with one class she
would excuse them and call another class to the front. I don’t know how she ever got that sorted
out, but she really knew what she was doing.
At lunchtime, after we all washed our hands went to a table in the back of the room by
the coat rack to get our lunch bags. We ate lunch at our desks, but before we started lunch we all
recited a prayer together to give thanks for our food.
There was an old upright piano in the school, and of course Mrs. Birkby could play the
piano. She could sing pretty well too and had no trouble with our music classes. The school also
had a “Library”. It was just a wooden bookcase about six feet wide and six feet high with
shutter-like doors on the front that opened up. All of the books were old, worn and tattered.
At the end of each day we all had certain chores to do. The older boys were allowed to
burn the trash. They were trusted with matches and took all the wastebaskets of paper trash to
the burn barrel at the far corner of the school property.
Someone was assigned to dump the “slop bucket”. It wasn’t really slop, it was just dirty,
soapy water. That was always an older boy’s job too. I don’t know why it was so much fun to
take a five-gallon bucket of slop and throw it off the porch onto the ground. Another two older
kids took down the flag from the flagpole, being extra careful not to let it touch the ground, then
properly fold it, Boy Scout style, and put it on top of the piano. That was all done with great
respect and reverence.
The younger kids had to dust erasers. That was actually one of the most coveted jobs of
all. They gathered up all the erasers from the black boards (real slate blackboards) and took
them out onto the porch and slapped them together until they were standing in a cloud of dust,
but most of the dust was off the erasers. While they were doing that other kids took some wet
rags and washed the blackboards.
The last fifteen minutes of each day was very busy, but nobody ever complained, because
we all knew it was almost time to go home.
Every Friday before school was out the teacher would have all the kids help clean the
floor. Any extra papers or other trash were picked up, and then she would get out a big bin of
sweeping compound that we scattered all over the floor before sweeping it up again. The
sweeping compound was actually just sawdust with some kind of oily treatment in it to help pick
up the dust and also to leave it smelling good, kind of like furniture polish. And then on Monday
morning the whole process started all over again.
Students, 1954-1955: Linda Jensen, Betty McCurdy, Bruce Duval, Kenny McCurdy, Viola Hammers, Carrol Jensen, Fran Jensen, Johnny Dresher, Jay Duval, Allan Jensen, and Mrs. Birkby.
Additional Walnut Grove Teachers and Students: Sabria Birkby–teacher, Peggy Alexander–teacher, Judy Jensen,
Thank you to Mr. Francis Jensen for contributing the photos and narrative for this page, 2018.
Early Photos of Walnut Grove School, 1895-1905
Walnut Grove School, c1890
Teacher: Ms. Burger
Students identified: Grace and Jessie Rodman
Walnut Grove School; Grace Rodman, Teacher
Source: Earlier photos donated by Harry Wilkins, Tabor Historical Society, November 2020