Young, naive, and irrepressible, a turn-of-the-20th-century Iowa teacher documented her coming of age in letters home
In these letters, we encounter 18-year-old Elizabeth “Bess” Corey, a plucky schoolteacher in rural Tennant, Iowa, at the turn of the 20th century. Her homespun epistles, redolent with frontier eloquence and rife with misspellings, speak of homesickness and the joys and challenges of teaching in a one-room schoolhouse. “Yes I’d give a ‘lick’ at my piece of candy to be home long enough to can 60 qts of pieplant,” she ends one note to her mother.
Her irrepressible optimism burns steadily and brightly, even as she writes about nearly freezing to death on her way home during a snowstorm. Her enthusiastic, gossipy letter writing gives us an unusual look into rural America at about the same time that the Wright brothers were introducing their world-shattering invention.
Bess makes the best of the limited opportunities facing a young rural woman then. The untimely death of her father in 1905 had left her and her siblings scrambling to keep the mortgage paid on their family’s southwestern Iowa farm. Brothers Fuller and Rob tended the crops and livestock while Bess sought a teaching degree, which she would soon win, although her own education had ended at the ninth grade. At that time, only about two in ten high school–age American youth attended school. She would become a competent teacher, although she wouldn’t earn her high school degree until 1927, more than two decades after she had begun teaching.
Bess’s treasure trove of letters came to Philip Gerber, a professor of English at the State University of New York’s College at Brockport in 1989 by way of Bess’s only surviving sibling, Paul Corey. The first cache of letters was published in Bachelor Bess: The Homesteading Letters of Elizabeth Corey, 1909–1919, edited by Philip L. Gerber (University of Iowa Press, 1990). When Gerber died in 2005, University of Iowa Press managing editor Charlotte M. Wright took over editing the second volume, An Iowa Schoolma’am: Letters of Elizabeth “Bess” Corey, 1904–1908, which will be released this spring, and from which the following letters were taken.
The following documents her first year of teaching, from her first encounter with the school through to her hosting of the year-end picnic with several other schools. At 21, Bess would stake her own claim to a South Dakota homestead, continue her teaching, and write many more letters home.
Bess is an authentic American voice.
—John F. Ross
September 10, 1905
Dear Ma and the rest,
My SchoolHouse is a dandy. it is not quite as large as the one at home. It had a new floor put in last spring and the entire inside including ceiling is wainscoated It has been painted inside and out as I had been told that it would be. It faces the west, has three windows on each side, no halls and it has an organ, globe, a number of good maps and all the oldest seats have been replaced with new ones.
The school yard is fenced with a board fence on three sides but open t’ward the road. There is a well and pump in the school yard but the water will not be fit to drink untill it has been pumped dry once or twice
The coal house which has been well filled the past week is two or three rods from the school house door and the school yard has a good many patches of sand burs which with a number of other things are apt to make my school a “howling success.”
...There are seven girls and twelve boys in my school.
I am starting a class of four or five beginers and have a class who wish to finish the eighth grade next spring I have done some grading and still have twenty eight recitations during the day. The pupils had the “can’t habit” pretty bad at first but are getting over it.
Tennant is about two miles from here but on account of no road and the creek not bridged they have to go five or six miles to get there.
Elisabeth F. Corey
September 17, 1905
Dear Ma and the rest,—
Well I have finished the second week of school and yesterday it rained quite hard all the forenoon . . .
I have twenty three pupils enrolled and the school is keeping up its reputation for absent marks as we have had fourty nine in two weeks If the weather down there is any thing like it is up here I don’t suppose you have threshed yet.
I hope you have though...
My pupils sized me up pretty well the first morning and all I have to do is to start after them and they howl as if their time had come.
I have some mischievous little scamps and I like them better, if anything than the good ones.
There is one boy about nine years of age and he looks enough like Rob Corey at that age to have been his twin. The other day he got into mischief just before school let out so I called him up to the recitation seat to study I then opend a book and placing my elboes on my desk pretended to read but in reality I was watching him between my fingers. Of cource as soon as I put my head down he screwed up his face (just like Rob) and ran his tongue out two or three inches. I straightend up and looked at him and the expression on his face said as plain as words “I’m in for it.” I told him to turn around and make that face for the school to seeHe wouldn’t so I gave him a good shaking. You’ve seen children play roten egg?Well he looked like one that had been shook hard and then broke. The idea struck me so forceably and so funny that I turned on my heel and went to my desk saying sternly take your seat.Oh! how he howled and no wonder for he knew his brother would tell at home and his father would give him a good thrashing. But the strange part of it is that he never attempted to fight me and he has fought every teacher he ever went to school to before
It must be because I was such a bad egg when I went to school but it seems as though I could tell what each one is going to do and how they are going to take things nine times out of ten.
I rode to school with the cream man on muddy morning... One boy came to school with his pants on wrong side out. Another little fellow found a sand bur in school time and exclamed “Get out of this you old sand bur.”
Elisabeth F. Corey.
December 4, 1905
To Mrs. E.O.Corey, Elmdale
I went to the dentist and he said I had three wisdom teeth through alright and the one I had been having trouble with was two thirds through but my jaw was full of teeth with out it and it was coming in farther back so I had to have it pulled he got his hatchets and things ground up then went to work he cut out a piece of my gum about the size of your foot then after cutting the rest of the gum free from the tooth he put that what you call it of his in my mouth and took a hold of that tooth as if it was a bad boy, he wiggled it and twisted it and pulled it untill he got tired of fooling and then he yanked it out. you aught to have heard the exclamation he made when it came out, he said it was an “awful big tooth” he filled one for me while he was at it. Must close so some of you write soon
E. F. Corey
January 7, 1906
To Mrs. E.O.Corey
Dear folks,—Last evening we went over to Wevers—Walter Emma and I we just had a fine time—McKeighans were there too—we played games and ate popcorn and cake—we played cross questions and crooked answers and I never saw answers fit so well—one boys question was “Will you marry me” and my answer to it was “I guess so.”
I will put some of the other questions and answers on the next page
“When did you see Henry last?” “Yesterday at half past nine.”
“Will you be my best girl?” “I’ll tell you tomorrow evening at half past eight”
“Who called on you last?” “Sure Mike”
“May I see you at home?” “Why of course.”
“May I see you home?” “I’ll think about it”
“Did you see John” “No.”
“Who was it?” “MissCorey”
Did you ever see answers fit better than those?
I never did...
I must close for now and answer Alma Johannsen’s letter so good by yours as ever
February 15, 1906
To Mrs. E.O.Corey, Elmdale
It was raining wellMonday evening it turned colder and we had a blizard all day Tues.—don’t know what you folks had. They wouldn’t let Gertie go to school but I went any way—had to follow the fence and then it wasn’t any too safe. I went early and had the stove red hot before half past eight. The threeMiller boys came and that is all the school I had. They had taken some of their books home the evening before and had learned their reading and spelling so we hurried through and got out about eleven I got to Wevers about half after eleven and I couldn’t have gone a quarter of mile farther to have saved my life and if I had attempted to cross the ploughing I wouldn’t be writing to you now I dont think.When I got here my clothes from my legging tops to my waist were wet through and getting stiff so I had to change every dud I had on. I’m alright now though.
Yesterday we opened our Valentine box. It was chuck full—everyone was remembered—I got fifteen I believe it was.
March 28, 1906
To Mrs. E.O.Corey, Elmdale
Dear Mamma,—I most forgot to tell you about my boarding place. I like it just fine I have a heated room of[f ] the sitting room. it is a snug homelike little room 3 x 6 x 9 ft with two windows and furnished with a bed a dresser two chairs two rows of well filled books and my trunk and grip. I find that by setting one chair out side I can turn clear around at the risk of tearing the lace curtain, upsetting the pin tray and pulling most of the clothes off the hooks.And after several experiments I found that by climbing to the farther side of the bed and raising the window I can with much care remove both shoes without much danger to the miror and without loseing my garters in the wash bowl.
April 2, 1906
To Mr. J.Olney Corey, Elmdale
Dear Brother,—Oh! say do you know Teddy? No I guess I didn’t write any thing about him last time. He is a lovely old maid gentleman of Tennant who told my pupils that he would give them a nickels worth of candy apiece if they would throw the new schoolma’am out doors. May the rats get his ornery picture if he didn’t come mighty near making things pleasant fore me.Mrs Shaffer went for him today and asked him what he ment by putting such notions into the childrens heads and he laughed and said he knew they couldn’t
April 8, 1906
I trimed a box for the social while they were gone. It was shaped like a house with white tisue paper put on in tucks for siding and the three windows and one door had green frames. the roof was shingled with brown wrapping paper. It was real pretty and so different from all the rest of the boxes.
...I have to dress “sweller” now I live just half a mile out of town and amquality folks. I got me a new cap and gloves that can be worn all the year around and enough ribbon like the scrap enclosed to make a bow for my hair and a neck ribbon that goes twice around my neck and ties in a—what is it? foreignhand or a fourinhand . You can’t tell much about it from the little piece but it is really the prettiest ribbon I ever saw...
I believe I’m like Margaret and would rather stay at home and “Raise chickens, make garden and slop hogs” than teach school.
April 29, 1906
To Mrs. E.O.Corey, Elmdale
Mr Pingle stopped for the children this evening and I ask him how it was and he said “fine.” I asked him if he was satisfied he said yes he would not complain when things were going so fine so I’ve conquered the Pingles—something no other teacher has ever done so have the bells rung, the horns blown, the tin pans pounded, the fire arms discharged, and sing all the triumphant songs you know for I’ve conquered the whole Pingle tribe.Hurrah!!!! My how it does rain!! and thunder! and the lightening makes the phone ring every once in a while
Yours with love to all—Bess.
May 7, 1906
Sarahs eldest brothers eldest son has taken a homestead in SDakota and wants her to come up, and take one and she wants me to go up and take one too. she says I could clear $1000 in a year up there and I would like to try it. we talk of going up at the end of this term as I will have a week vacation before Summer School commences. It will cost us at least fifty dollars each to file then we can come back here and go up again next Spring and live on it eight months and improve which will cost at least $200 that is counting in the cost of the deed which is $.50 per acre and at the end of a year it will be worth ten or fifteen dollars an acre or more as time goes on—It would be alright if I could raise the money nesacessary this Spring for you see I could come back and teach next fall and winter and raise the money for next spring and perhaps I could get a school up there next spring as they say teachers are in great demand in some parts ofDakota. You might talk it over with the boys some time when you have time and see what they think of it—perhaps they could help me raise the money—you know “grub stakes” mean half
May 20, 1906
Thursday I started to give the exam’s to three of my pupils—don’t think any of them will pass—discovered when it was to late that they knew nothing of square root, cube root and longitud and time—had always skipped that, so they say.Of course they blame all of their former teachers but thank goodness they think I did all that I could for them and if they had not been quite so stubbern they would have learned a good deal more than they have...
Did you have to set the south pasture fence in as you thought you would?Hows the garden and crops?What are you going to name the colt? Yes I’d give a “lick” at my piece of candy to be home long enough to can 60 qts of pieplant .
Yours as ever—Bess.
May 27, 1906
Dear Mamma,—How you vas?We’re so cold we are like the dutchman “shust about so leaf live as die.”
I walked up to Tennant or rather I “went up town” Friday evening to meet the other teachers and make “arrangements” for the picnic.MissMorris didn’t get there and that left it toMiss StewartMiss McFarland and myself There was but one “arrangement” made and that was for me to see to getting the grove cleaned, getting some one to fix seats, getting the use of the church organ and getting some one to move it for us, and see to other small details In fact I— the youngest of the four—have the responcibility of every thing and will get, as I told IdaWever, some of the praisemost of the work and all of the cussing. I wouldn’t mind the work if some one else had the responcibility but as the picnic is in our grove its up to me so I will have to do my best and take what I get. Saturday I scrubbed my head and had my hair dry before nine oclock—when my hair is brushed back the ends just touch the top of my belt I made my black sateen waist—got it all done and its fine I made it with a yoke and full front so it wont get too small. I got a new tie and belt like the scrap of ribbon enclosed to wear with it so you see it wont look so sober. . . .
Elisabeth F. Corey
June 3, 1906
Friday morning earlyMr Brown phoned up that he was going to Shelby and so could not help with the seats at the picnic so I had to get ready and go up early to see about things—I went to see the drayman who stopped in the middle of unloading a car of lumber and hauled two loads of plank for seats—then I went to seeMrMoury and Mr Bartholomew who quit their painting, which they wished to finish by noon, and came and put up the seats and stage for me by that time most of my pupils were there and the other schools had commenced to come and it seemed that “MissCorey” was wanted every where at once.We Schoolma’ams went up town and got the material for lemonade and while we were makeing it the mammas in the crowd put the dinner on and then I waited rather, helped wait on table till every one was threw eating thenMiss Stewart,MissMcFarland, BessieGrauel and I sat down—I don’t know how much we ate.After dinner we began to think about getting the organ over—Ida and I started to hitch up a team but made up our minds we couldn’t get it in the wagon so ElmerMyers, MissMcFarland, BessGrauel, Ida and I went over to the church— MissMcF__ took the organ stool the rest of us took the organ and we carried it over to the grove while the crowd stood with mouths open far enough to swallow us all.We then made out our program, rallied the crowd and commenced. They tried to put reading the program on to me too but I wouldn’t stand for that with all the extras to see to soMiss McF__ who had nothing else to do agreed to read it. I had plenty to see to just to manage part of the crowd.Anna Stewart was down from Harlan butMr Luxford did not put in appearance to present Ruth Myers herDiploma Ruth was one of my pupils last fall and winter and the only one who passed.
The crowd, numbering about one hundred and fifty people, broke up about five oclock all reporting a fine program and good time. I reached home about half after six—tired? well I guess!!!