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Young, naive, and irrepressible, a turn-of-the-20th-century Iowa teacher documented her coming of age in letters home
Spring 2011 | Volume 61, Issue 1
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