John Slatten was up on the video screen, describing Mrs. McFarlan, the strict mistress of the one-room Lone Tree School he attended back in the 1930s.
The ruler she carried, he said, wasn’t just used as a pointer.
“If you were caught doing something you know you weren’t supposed to be doing, you held out your hands and you got a little whack,” he recalled.
Most of us have heard stories about one-room schoolteachers and their rulers, but the thing that made this telling special was watching John as he spoke, slowly offering up the back of his hands for punishment as though he were quite familiar with the drill. It was a bit of unspoken backstory only video can provide, just like the face of Dewey DeMartini, sitting next to John in the video and grinning as though he, too, had felt the sting of Mrs. McFarlan’s discipline.
The video is “Memories of a One Room School,” the brainchild of Doreen Forlow of the East Contra Costa Historical Society (ECCHS). It was inspired by the recently completed restoration of the Eden Plain School, which was built in Knightsen in 1868 and moved to the grounds of the Byer-Nail Museum a decade ago. The video made its public debut before a packed house at the Brentwood Community Center this week, in a conference room about the size of the schools many in the room had attended.
Inspired to preserve a bit of the past that is gone forever, and is not coming back, Forlow located 10 people who had attended one of the tiny schools that used to dot the far East County landscape. She brought them to the restored Eden Plains School for hour-long interviews that included many iconic East County names such as Slatten, Stonebarger, Giannini, Cakebread and Armstrong, to name a few. Whittled down to a half-hour for the video, their stories provide a first-hand glimpse into the simpler, slower time that existed before the onrush of suburbia arrived.
Memories poured off the screen in a steady torrent, describing a life wholly unfamiliar to today’s students. Even the most basic of amenities simply didn’t exist then.
“We didn’t have flush toilets,” said Verna Cakebread Kruse. “We had the outhouse that hung over the creek, and sometimes had to remove nests of mice and snakes.”
Joe McFarlan remembered recess, especially the baseball rivalries in the sparsely populated farm country.
“We played Byron, Brentwood and Oakley,” he said. “I don’t think we ever beat Oakley. We got our picture taken when we beat Brentwood.”
Dewey DeMartini remembers the baseball, too, and how it taught kids of all ages to play together.
“It was really kind of remarkable as I remember it, because the first graders were playing with the eighth graders,” he said. “You get along together and make do with what you have. We learned a lot of good sportsmanship.”
Linda Rogers Gregory attended Jersey Island School, where her father was too busy with the farm to provide a ride to school. She recalled walking to the school on the other side of the island in the rain, arriving wet and itchy from the peat soil.
“It wasn’t much fun,” she said.
Kids contended with herds of cattle and sheep on their trek to school, picked flowers and swam in creeks during breaks and rode bikes on roads where only three or four cars passed per day. They wore a sign that said cheater around their neck all day if they were caught sneaking a look at a neighbor’s paper and drank from a hand pump hooked up to a cistern filled with captured rain water.
Forlow’s mother, Rose Giannini Pierce, attended Lone Tree School with her lifetime pal, Russell DeMartini. In the video, Forlow recounts how Russell would rush to be the first to the water pump at recess.
“With the first gush of water would come a frog, and as it was then, so it is today - a frog is always good for making a little girl scream and run away,” she said.
Forlow said it hasn’t yet been decided how the video will be distributed. If the money for the equipment can be raised, a five-minute version of it might be played on a loop for visitors to the Eden Plain School. It might also be available on CD, or perhaps as a YouTube link on the ECCHS web site. If and when you get the chance to see it, it’s well worth doing so.
“There’s a lot to be learned from this,” said one member of the debut audience. “I think every student today should see it.”
I agree - it’s not only a record of a time gone by, it’s a wonderful chance to see many of the faces and hear the voices of people who helped shape the East County we now call home.
For more information or to make a donation, visit www.ecchs.net.