Lola Belle Underwood (second row, fifth from right) attended Webster County’s Oak Hill School before teaching at rural districts.
Not long ago, many Ozarks children didn’t receive more than an elementary education. Youngsters’ hands were needed at home, and at times book learning was a luxury families couldn’t afford. For some, that meant that childhood knowledge had to be enough to last a lifetime.
Cue the Ozarks’ army of rural schoolteachers. Although not officially organized, this group played a collective role in influencing generations of the region’s hill folk.
Lola Belle Underwood is one of those people. Although it was more than 60 years ago, she remembers that first day of teaching with a mind’s eye that hasn’t dimmed with age. “It was quite daunting,” she says of walking into Webster County’s Eighty-Eight School — a day when she wasn’t much older than some of her students. “I had my schedule all figured out, but you just have butterflies in your stomach,” she recalls. “You’re just really uptight, I guess.”
Lola Belle sits inside the Greenwood School, one of the Webster County rural districts for which she taught.
Thankfully, the day went well, launching a teaching career that would span nearly 45 years. But Lola Belle’s introduction to rural schools actually began much earlier. The Webster County native began her school years at the Oak Hill School, a one-room building where she attended with her younger sister Marie. As a child, Lola Belle decided that she wanted to be a teacher when she grew up. The inspiration, however, didn’t tie to her classes. Instead, it linked to her mother.
“She only got a ninth-grade education, but she taught in a lot of different ways,” says Lola Belle of her mother, who was active with students in church youth groups and Sunday school. Similarly, her father didn’t go further than the eighth grade. In spite of this – or perhaps because of it — Lola Belle recalls their support of her education. “My family considered it very important.”
The overarching details surrounding Lola Belle’s early school years are probably quite similar to those of many other rural attendees. There were the commonplace Big Chief tablets and new box of crayons brought on the first day of school, if one’s parents could afford them. She recalls games of King of the Mountain, Duck-Duck-Goose in winter months, and the longtime standby Annie Over. Lunches consisted of anything the family could manage to send. “They might bring a fried egg sandwich,” says Lola Belle. “I remember my husband talking about, I think, a mustard and tomato sandwich.”
Lola Belle also recalls days accented by visits from the travelling nurse, who stressed proper hygiene. “She would check eyes and hearing, as best she could at that point,” says Lola Belle. Then there were the bookmobile’s long-anticipated stops at the school. “That was a special day because I loved to read,” says Lola Belle. The bookmobile was a special novelty as schools didn’t have a lot of money to purchase books, and visits to the library were nearly impossible for many rural residents. “Of course you could swap around, so you had access to several books.”
After finishing eighth grade at Oak Hill, Lola Belle continued her education at Marshfield High School, where she was graduated from in 1954. Lola Belle then enrolled in classes at then Southwest Missouri State College, and was hired the next fall to teach at Webster County’s Eighty-Eight School.
First things first
That first year of teaching taught Lola Belle a lot, especially when it came to her poker face. “One morning, I opened my desk drawer and here’s this little snake inside my desk,” she recalls. “Well, I’m deathly afraid of snakes ordinarily, but you know how your mind works quickly. I thought if I let them know that I’m afraid of snakes, I’ll have this to endure a lot.” So without showing any emotion, Lola Belle picked up the snake behind its head. “And I said, ‘Will the boys that put this in my desk take it out and turn it loose in the pasture?’ So these two young men jumped up, and took it out.”
That was an unusual beginning to Lola Belle’s regular school day routine. Most days, things started the same. “Every day, up ‘til the day I retired, we did the pledge in school,” says Lola Belle. In the rural schools, that was followed by a patriotic song with piano accompaniment as well as a dose of spiritual instruction. Bible readings were commonplace, as were religious songs. “Some of the children brought hymnals from their church, and we sang hymns,” says Lola Belle. “That was a favorite part of the day.”
Then things got down to business. Lola Belle recalls assigning lessons to the eighth grade students first, working her way down to the youngest faces. However, giving ample time to all was a constant challenge. In a way, attending a rural school could be compared to today’s online courses as students often taught much of the material to themselves. “A lot of (techniques) that we hear about now, we used in the rural school,” says Lola Belle. “Only we didn’t know we were advanced.”
Check out these images of other Webster County schools
It’s true that reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmitic were heavily stressed, but they weren’t the only things students in Lola Belle’s classes learned. “We also taught agriculture to the older students, being an agricultural community,” recalls Lola Belle. Teaching so many subjects could be a challenge at times, especially when teachers weren’t always well versed in the matter they were supposed to teach. Curriculum guides from the State Department of Education, as well as other forms of teachers’ guides, provided some information on tricky subjects. If that wasn’t enough, “we did some research on our own,” says Lola Belle.
Challenges of the job
Discipline was handled quite differently in those days. As a student, Lola Belle recalls one particular instance when this was proved case and point. “I remember one time this girl was chasing a boy and he ran up on the woodpile and he said, ‘if you come up here, I’ll hit ya,’” says Lola Belle.
True to his word, when the girl ran up there, he smacked her with a big wooden stick. As soon as the school’s teacher learned of this, she knew exactly what to do. “The older boys went and got a bundle of switches,” says Lola Belle. “She bent him over a bench and gave him a terrible spanking. That’s probably one reason I didn’t paddle very much.”
But back then, such forms of punishments weren’t side-eyed. In fact, “spanking was OK,” says Lola Belle. “And most parents did not object to it.”
In addition to performing a feat of time management, being a teacher in a one-room school offered a variety of other challenges. There was the wide range of ages—but there were other issues that many teachers were woefully unprepared for. “One thing that stands out in my mind from Eighty-Eight is that I had a little boy with a learning disability,” says Lola Belle. Back then, such things were occasionally stigmatized and largely misunderstood. And there really wasn’t any outside help to speak of, so teachers were left to cope for themselves. “At that point, I didn’t know enough about learning disabilities,” she notes. “So had I known what I know now, I would have handled him a lot different. (It was a) challenge not having an education for that.”
Lola Belle (top left) taught the rural Jamison School before transferring to Elkland and ultimately finishing her teaching career in Marshfield.
After spending two terms at Eighty-Eight, Lola Belle transferred the Greenwood School for two terms. She then finished her rural school career at the Jamison School before teaching in the Elkland and Marshfield districts, the latter from which she retired in 1998. In between getting married and having five children, she also graduated with her bachelor’s degree in 1963 and later obtained a master’s in 1981.
Connections beyond the classroom
But even in the days before her family began, Lola Belle liked her kids – school kids, that is. “We were kind of like a family,” she recalls. “Because I spent as much time with the children as some parents did, so you learned your children. You learned the families.” The connection even came through on one of the biggest days of Lola Belle’s life. “I invited all the kids to our wedding, and some of them came,” she says.
Unfortunately, as it so cruelly can, that closeness also led to sorrow. Lola Belle recalls one of these moments, when one of her first graders was diagnosed with a brain tumor. “When he would get tired, one of his sisters and I would fix him a pallet in the corner so he could rest,” says Lola Belle. “The most heartbreaking memory of my teaching career was his death.”
Thankfully, Lola Belle has many more happy memories than sad. Some of those memories were made on Fridays, which were a time for fun – after weekly chores were complete, that is. Early in the afternoon, students helped clean the outhouse, wash the blackboard and dust the erasers. “The kids would almost fight over who got to clean the blackboards and the erasers,” says Lola Belle. “Course to clean the erasers, you got to go outside and just have a real dust storm out there.”
When the chores were finished, those afternoons were filled with spelling, geography and ciphering matches. Some schools even had a baseball team which would compete against other rural schools. When she was teaching at Greenwood in 1958, Lola Belle remembers a county-wide tournament for those teams. “And as I recall, Greenwood won it.”
And, of course, there were pie suppers. “They were the most fun,” says Lola Belle. “We’d get a program up, and put it on for the community. And then after the program, you had your contests.” Such contests included prizes for the prettiest girl (a box of candy or a pretty cake), the man with the dirtiest feet (a bar or soap or a pair of socks) the most henpecked husband (a rolling pen or perhaps even a real rooster) and the most lovesick couple, who got a jar of pickles and fed it to each other. “Everything was done in fun,” says Lola Belle. “I don’t recall anyone ever getting upset because they were the most henpecked husband or man with the dirtiest feet.”
Votes were a penny each, and the money went to purchase items for the schoolhouse. Some of the purchases Lola Belle remembers include a piano, playground equipment and a gas stove. The latter was added while Lola Belle taught at Greenwood and was something she was very grateful for. “The reason we have a gas stove because I could not build a fire,” says Lola Belle. “I grew up on a farm, we had a wood stove, (but) I was never taught to build a fire and I just couldn’t do it.” However, the stove didn’t come along until her second year at Greenwood. “That first year, the neighbor lady came and she would build a fire, and then an older boy named Jerry Bertoldie would keep it going,” says Lola Belle.
1965 was the last year Greenwood held classes. The next year, local rural schools became part of the Marshfield R-I District. But unlike many other one-room schools, Greenwood’s influence wasn’t finished. Lola Belle, along with several other people in the Greenwood area, purchased the building for use as a community center.
Four couples were appointed as trustees of the facility, and have maintained and improved the building by replacing the roof and windows, refinishing the wooden floor and repainting the interior. Today, the Greenwood Community Club meets monthly and has hosted a variety of charity events, including a pie supper reminiscent of the school’s early days.
Although it no longer operates as a school, the building still sees many young faces on annual fourth-grade school tours. While at Greenwood, students learn about the role of a rural school in Ozarks communities. That role is a simple, yet timeless, one.
“It was the focal point of the community,” says Lola Belle. “This was the community’s life, you might say.”