Christmas at District 54, Winona County


From: Virginia Arnold

It is the Christmas season of 2006 and my thoughts go back to my childhood in the 1920s and 1930s, and especially District 54 school. Also known as the Nisbit School, the land, a portion of the William R. Nisbit homestead, was given to the Winona County school system, and a schoolhouse was built in 1881.

The country school Christmas programs were very special. In those days the school was the center of activities in the neighborhood. The teacher handed out our parts for recitations and dialogues several weeks before the program was scheduled. We would practice every day and sing the Christmas songs like “Silent Night,” “Up on the Rooftop,” “Away in the Manger,” “The First Noel,” etc. These were all in the “Golden Book of Songs,” of which I still have a copy.

The stage — oh yes, the stage! The older boys would bring wood planks from home and build the stage about one foot above the floor so we would be seen quite well from the school desks where our parents were seated for the program. Those planks made quite a rumbling noise as you walked on them! Of course, the boys would make all the noise they could until the teacher, poor dear, had to reprimand them. Can you imagine what a teacher, just out of teacher’s training school, about 19 years old, had to put up with? The children were in grades from primary through eighth grade, all in one little room. The teachers did really well because we respected our teacher, but there was always one or so who tried to get by with something like chewing snooze, but that’s another story! To get back to the program ...

We hung a curtain on a wire strung across the front of the stage. Someone had to pull that across after each performance. We had to make red and green chains from paper, string popcorn, and used silver tinsel to decorate the tree. One family would go off to cut and bring the tree. We had a big red paper bell in the middle of the room with red and green crepe paper streamers to each corner of the room. It looked very festive once it was completed!

An old wood-and-coal heater with a metal jacket around it heated the schoolroom. It did a good job too! Lighting was a gas lantern, which replaced the old kerosene lantern. It gave off lots more light than the kerosene lantern.

We drew names to exchange presents with our schoolmates. This was a secret until the night of the program when Santa Claus would hand them out. The teachers always got a gift from each pupil. Handkerchiefs were usually the gift, or a box of three handkerchiefs all embroidered with lace edges. Very elegant!

Finally, the big night came, usually a week before Christmas day. In those days, early 1920s through the early 1930s, our dads would put their cars up on blocks in the wintertime because they did not drive them in the winter. We had plenty of snow for the sleighs. My dad or Clair Braithwaite would hitch up the horses to the sleigh and away we would go to the schoolhouse, stopping at homes along the way and pick up some of the neighbors. We all bundled up with wool blankets and horse blankets. In case those of you who are reading this do not know what a horse blanket is — it’s a blanket made from the hide of a dead horse with a wool blanket lining. It was a beautiful work of art! We all wore long underwear — how we hated to wear them especially on the night of the Christmas program when we wore our prettiest winter dress. However, our moms thought we would catch a cold, so we had to wear those long-legged and long-sleeved underwear. We did the next best thing — we rolled the legs and sleeves up during the program — guess we thought we fooled them, yeah, I bet!

Clarice Braithwaite Dahl always recited “The Night Before Christmas.” We all sang Christmas songs. Each one of us had a recitation to learn and parts in the Christmas play. I was always Mary because I was the smallest one in the school. I had my mom’s old lace curtain for a shawl and sang “Away in a Manger.” Robert Olson played the banjo and I played the ukulele. We sang together, he did the jig, and I tap danced. Can you imagine going from Mary, the Mother of Jesus, to be a singer and dancer in one evening? And those noisy planks!

After the program, the school bell rang and in came Santa Claus with his “Ho, ho, ho, merry Christmas!” No one was supposed to know who the Santa was, but I think it was Ruben Olson. Santa passed out apples, bags of candy, and popcorn balls to each one there. Our moms made the popcorn balls. We had one family whose popcorn bass were hard as rocks! I think they ate the popcorn and made the balls out of the old maids. The older boys would throw them back and forth to each other. It was the same every year! I wonder if that mom knew they were her popcorn balls.

The old red-brick schoolhouse of District 54 in Winona County, Minn., is now gone. Seventeen of the 24 pupils during my attendance are gone now as well. The seven of us still living are Robert Braithwaite, Austin, Minn.; Merle Knauf, Lewiston, Minn.; Clarice Braithwaite Dahl, St. Charles, Minn.; Margaret Thorbjornson Nisbit, St. Charles, Minn.; Irene Gilbertson Kern, Rochester, Minn.; Robert Olson, Lanesboro, Minn.; Verna Sogla Milde Arzberger, Kasson, Minn.; and myself, Virginia Dent Arnold, Rushford. The memories live on as long as we are alive. It was such a fun, happy time of our lives and I am glad I can still remember most of it!

- Virginia Dent Arnold, December 15, 2006

Today Virginia still remembers the old District 54 school she attended and the classmates and fun times they had there! She is now 102 years young and the only surviving student of that era! (December 15, 2019)


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