A bunch of friends and I were discussing school food last week in an e-mail list. As expected there were a number of horror stories about school food and how it was served. Not where I went to grade school. No horror stories there!
I went to a country school. It was not the oft-maligned one-room-school although the school did start as a one-roomer. The property, about 20 acres, had been bequeathed early in the 20th Century for the school . I remember seeing class photos in the school hallway going back to the 1920s.
At one time, the school was a brick, one-roomer. There were still a couple of out-houses on the property made of concrete and long abandoned. Over the years the school expanded. First another room was added during the 1940s. In the early 1950s, a third class room, indoor restrooms, an office, basement, gym and a coal-fired furnace were added. When I was in the third grade or thereabouts, the school expanded the gym by adding bleachers and two locker-rooms with showers underneath the bleachers.
How could this small country school afford all this? We had an oil well on the school property about 100 yards away from the school. We were NOT strapped for cash. In addition, a twelve acre field was leased to a neighboring farmer who share-cropped it. The remaining eight acres, including a three acre woodlot, was reserved for the school, a play area and a ball field.
Most of the mineral rights in that part of southern Illinois were owned by the coal mines. The mines bought up mineral rights throughout the southern part of Illinois in the early decades of the 20th Century. The school property pre-dated the coal mines, at least the ones that could reach the school’s property line. For some reason, the mines never acquired the mineral rights from the school. When oil was discovered in our county in the 1930s and a well was drilled, mistakenly so I was told, on school property, the money started flowing in. It also lowered the school taxes to just the bare minimum required by law.
My family had a direct affect on that school beyond my attendance. At one time or another, my Mother was a teacher and later the Principal. My older sister was a part-time music teacher, splitting her time between mine and two other small schools in the county. Finally, my Father was on the school board and was the board president during his last term.
I had no privacy at school. Everyone knew me. There was no escape. Later, when I was in high school, it was the same. Every teacher and administrator in the entire county knew me, my mother, my sister and my father. I was on a tight leash.
Getting back to the original subject—school lunches, ours was great. The two school cooks were elderly widows who lived in the school district. Both had children and grandchildren attending the school.
They cooked home style.
I don’t remember the entire menu, but it was different from school menus I’ve seen today. Yeah, there may have been days when hot-dogs or ‘burgers were on the menu, but those were rare, maybe once in three or four weeks. What I do remember was “meatballs.” Think of a meatball about the size of a baseball, some were bigger. Think of the cooked meat balls simmering in spaghetti sauce. This was served with mashed potatoes, a vegetable, corn or peas, I think. Included were a side dish of fruit, apple-sauce, sliced peaches, a peeled half of a pear, or fruit cocktail.
Then there was dessert. Pies, cakes, puddings, all made from scratch. And, once a week, ice cream.
The typical menu included a meat dish, a choice of two or three vegetables (and you had to take at least two of the three choices,) fruit, dessert and milk, either white or chocolate and twice a week fruit juices. On rare occasions, very rare, there may have been kool-aid. I don’t ever remember being served pizza, PBJ or some of the current quick-fix food substitutes I’ve seen on modern school menus.
One reason that we ate as we did is that every food item was from a can. The meats were canned. The vegetables and fruits were canned. Even the ice cream was served in individual servings, not scooped from a larger can. The school had one freezer and two refrigerators. They didn’t have much room for anything that wasn’t canned.
At lunch time we marched down to the cafeteria by grades. Each grade had a particular section to be seated. The next higher grade would be seated next, elbow to elbow on long trestle style tables lined in four or five rows from one end of the lunch room to the other. The room could seat around eighty kids in one session. During the eight years I attended, I don’t think the entire school population, including the adults, ever exceeded seventy people.
After everyone had been served, adults too, we could have seconds. And we did! The meat balls were my favorite. I’d ask the serving cook, one of the two widows, to put the meat ball on my plate first, then put the mashed potatoes on top,ladle some spaghetti sauce on top of that with peas or corn on the side.
We were a bit strange about food mixtures. To this day, I like peas mixed in with my spaghetti. My wife and daughter still think that’s strange.
With the exception of the ice cream, all the desserts were made from scratch. The cakes were baked late in the previous afternoon in large sheet cakes. The pies too. If my mother hadn’t made pies in circular pans at home, I’d never know that a pie was served in a wedge. One pie that I loved was apple-sauce pie. Somehow they were able to make a pie from apple sauce that stayed within the crust when it was served, like a custard. My wife tried to make it for me once and when it was cut and served, all the apple sauce ran out leaving just the crust.
We did eat a lot of beans. Usually navy beans that we’d see soaking in large five gallon pots the day before they were cooked. When the beans were cooked, they would put an entire ham into the pot to be cooked with the beans. Late in the process the ham was removed, cubed and put back into the pot. We loved those navy beans.
When, one time, the two cooks were both out sick, a substitute cook was brought in to fill-in. Big mistake. She served butter-beans.
No one, not even the adults, liked them. I think most of the students and faculty went vegetarian that day. When the two original cooks returned, we bid the temporary to never return.
In the 1960s, there was a big push to consolidate all the smaller school districts into one larger unified district. Our school was included and was particularly sought after because of the oil revenue. They were a bit surprised to later discover a codicil on the original will that created the school. The property would revert to the original family if the school was ever closed. No school, no oil well. Long story made short, the new unified school district did not get the oil money. I’m fairly sure if they’d realized that in the beginning they wouldn’t have annexed my country school into their larger district that covered almost half the county.
In the end, the Hill City School District ceased to exist. The school building, an all-brick and steel construction reverted to its original owners. Shortly thereafter it was sold, minus the mineral rights, to the county. For awhile it was converted into apartments. A few years later, if I remember correctly, it morphed into a youth center.
As I wrote this post, I did a Google search on my school. I’m dismayed how much the record is wrong. In the official history of Franklin County, they say that Hill City had a West Frankfort, IL address. Not when I still lived in the county. Our mailing address, at the farm and at the school was Rural Route 1, Benton, IL. The record also says the school was organized in 1946. That, too, is misleading. The school was “consolidated” in 1946 when the state made school districts more formal. The school existed for over two decades before that “consolidation.” I guess it was too much effort to get the facts accurate when that county history was written.
I haven’t been by the school in several decades now. I think the actual school building has been torn down. Our family farm was sold after my father died in the early 1980s—sold to one of my Hill City school mates in fact.
At its heyday, Hill City School held almost a hundred students in eight grades in three rooms. The first through third grades were located in the original brick building, the fourth and fifth grades were in a room in the 1940s add-on, and sixth through eighth grades were in the last room added in the early 1950. As time went on, the classes grew smaller. The district aged, passed on, and moved away with the closings of the coal mines.
My eighth grade class contained eight students. To the best of my knowledge, only one of my classmates still lives in the old Hill City school district, the boy who decades later bought my father’s farm. All the rest of us have moved on. The other boys, including me, went into various branches of the armed services and wherever we left the services is where we remained. For me that was Kansas City.
I still think of them from time to time…my cousin Donna who died recently, Mary Ann and Silas, who grew up as neighbors and later married, Paul who bought our farm. Mary Ann went to SIU as I did. Silas joined the Marines after graduating high school and he and Mary Ann were married a couple of years later.
I lost track of the others. But, for a time, we were all family.