It was the custom in rural areas for local families occasionally to invite the teacher into their homes for a meal. Helen remembers a very pleasant family who invited her one evening. This was a religious family, but she was unaware what lay in store for her. After a very delicious meal, it was time for religion to be practised. Helen recalls spending the rest of the evening on her knees. Since that was too much religion for one night, she decided not to go there again. However, she was very happy to learn years later that one little girl whom she taught at that school became a pastor when she reached adulthood.
Helen was born in Spearfish, South Dakota, took her elementary school in Alzada, Montana, and graduated from high school in Hulett, Wyoming. The area where these three communities are located is known as the tri-state area.
She began her teaching career in 1937 in District #29 of Wyoming’s Crook County, where she spent four years in a small rural school. She also taught for one year in a rural school between Sundance, WY, and Moorcroft, WY, and in another rural school between Sundance and Moskee, WY, for two years. For a time, she served as a substitute teacher in Washington State. Her final five years in the profession were spent at Sheridan High School, working in the study hall and the library.
Helen taught in most grades up to grade 8, but her rural school classes were very small, sometimes with only one pupil in a grade. She refers to a little grade 1 girl whom she helped to learn to read. It was different though, when she was a substitute teacher. Her largest class consisted of 42 eager little second graders.
When she taught in the rural schools, she had to arrive by eight o’clock in order to build a fire so that the school would be warm when the children would arrive. Otherwise, she could lose her job. They would be cold after walking from their homes and needed time to take off their wraps and be warmed before she started classes. The source of heat was a pot-belly stove which sat at the front of the room. The teacher’s desk sat to one side of it while the children’s desks were lined in front of it. The far side of the room away from the stove could be cold. She began class at half-past eight by reading to the children to settle them in. They would recite the pledge of allegiance. They did not sing the national anthem as it was difficult and no one could sing. However, she did talk about it. The school day closed at four o’clock in the afternoon not a minute earlier.
Her first school was a humble building an old house. It was plain and it was cold in the winter. One room served as the classroom. Helen lived in a second room while her brother lived in a third one. The two young people welcomed the weekends when they could go home to visit their family.
The classroom was so barren. Her mother made curtains for windows to help brighten the room a bit. She had to make sure that everything was ready for the next day. This included such tasks as cleaning the blackboard brushes at the end of each day. It was necessary for her to clean the school on Friday after classes as she did not have the luxury of a janitor. She also had to make sure that everything inside and outside, including outhouses, was tidy.
When she taught in District #29, she used a heavy kettle that her grandmother had given to her to bake potatoes for her pupils. This was the only year in which she prepared food.
There was drinking water available at every school except the little school that was located between Sundance and Moskee. Thus, each day, she carried a can of water in her car from where she lived about 11 miles away. When she arrived at school, a boy who liked to carry the can into the school would meet her.
She found the parents to be very supportive and, thus, had no trouble except on one occasion. It was her practice to go outside with the students at recess. One day, she neglected to do so as she was not feeling well. Naturally, this had to be the day that something would happen. As young boys are occasionally prone to do, a little boy started to chase the girls. On catching them, he began kissing his prey. Word of this escapade reached one of the fathers, who happened to be a school board member. He was not happy with this type of activity and let Helen know his feelings. That was the only time that she, as a teacher, was reprimanded. To this day, she maintains that the girls did not run hard at all. Maybe they enjoyed the advances of the boy.
At the next school, it was necessary for her to walk one and one-half miles. However, when the weather was very cold, someone took her on a horse-pulled sleigh. During that winter, the snow was very heavy and so deep that, sometimes, she had to walk over fences. She made sure that she wore high-buckled overshoes.
Helen rode a horse to school as a child, but not as teacher. One year, two girls rode horseback to school and kept the horses there during the day. One of the girls carried a box about the size of a shoe box. Evidently, it contained her treasure, which she had wrapped up carefully. She would open it every day to check its contents and then wrap it up again. What were the contents of that box? Although Helen has long been intrigued by the box and its contents, she has never uncovered the answer to the mystery.
Art and music were not taught as neither she nor anyone in the community was able to do so. However, she did teach the main subjects. It seemed that it was almost necessary for the children, consisting of one boy and two girls, to memorize the information taught because they were required to write state board examinations at the end of the year. During this time, the new concept of social studies was introduced. The county superintendent had to be sure that she was not teaching geography, civics, and history as separate subjects but as a part of the new social studies. Helen felt that a loss resulted from the change. She also had to teach agriculture, a new course for her. Because of the small classes, there was no problem of not having enough texts.
The county superintendent, Mr. Seig, came to check on her teaching once or twice a year. Helen learned later that he was more nervous than she was and that he did not like that job.
She tried to impress upon the children the meaning of Adolf Hitler moving into Poland with his armies. With the aid of a map, she discussed the situation with them. A visiting girl was impressed as she listened since she had not understood the meaning before. In her second year, Helen listened to the news over a radio at the home where she boarded. However, the person turned on the radio for only 15 minutes so not to use up the battery quickly.
She had one particular challenge as a teacher not in the classroom, but in her first boarding place. On arrival at the home, she quickly noticed that the wife was pregnant. Therefore, she discreetly asked the expectant mother where she would go for the delivery. The reply was that she would go to Spearfish, SD, for the event; but Helen could stay in the home and cook for her husband and her father-in-law. She eyed the two men. The husband seemed to be all right, but the older man appeared to be a foxy fellow. He was waving his Civil War flag and appeared to have been imbibing in something stronger than pure water. It did not take Helen long to decide that this home was no place for her. Therefore, she left the premises and walked straight to the county commissioner’s office and begged to be allowed to stay with her for the rest of the year. A satisfactory arrangement was set up. She paid $20 per month board from a salary of $70 or $80.
What advice would she give to a young person on entering the teaching profession? The primary qualification is to like people in general and children in particular. If that not be possible, one should not go into the profession. It is the same if becoming a librarian, another profession that deals with people. One should be able to converse with both children and adults and keep a good rapport with them.
Her students still come to see her after the many years. They like to make contact, a fact that she enjoys. The son of a family with whom she had boarded long ago lives in Sheridan and is still her friend. At the time, he was a little boy. She, as both a teacher and a librarian, made a favourable impact upon the people. What better recommendation could she have acquired?
Helen came to the Sheridan Library in 1969 after spending five years at Sheridan High School. At that time, there was no Wyoming Room only a case with a few books in it. Soon, a decision was made to create one. Its first location was in what had been the children’s room before an addition was built. She was adamant that the collections acquired stay here instead of being housed in the state capital at Cheyenne or in the university at Laramie as previous collections had. At about 300 miles, those cities are too far away for people needing to do any research. A start was made by holding on to old city directories and old newspapers. Fortunately, the newspapers had been bound, although they now are beginning to crumble a bit. Eventually, they were placed on microfilm, but the library still has bound newspapers.
The acquisitions director from the University of Wyoming helped her to set up the Wyoming Room. He showed her how best to make the Western U.S. history collection important and also what sources to use to determine good authors. She felt that his spending much time with her to be important in the development of the room. The files are now very comprehensive. In the late spring of 2012 when he was in Sheridan, she met him and had lunch with him. He considers that the Wyoming Room has one of the better collections in the state.
Helen considers the genealogy collection also to be important. It had originally started with the Genealogy Society. This organization became interested in having their work preserved and, thus, commenced with the telephoning to residents to locate information. They went to the courthouse and copied all of the marriage records, discharge records, naturalization records and bought many of the books now in the collection. The Daughters of the American Revolution gave their collection of genealogy books that they had stored in the library for many years.
She tried to insure that, when people came into the room, she helped them. If she did not know the answer to a question, she felt it important to try to find out. After Helen left, Judy Slack became manager of the room. She possesses the necessary technology that Helen did not have at her disposal.
When she came to the library, she was a jack-of-all-trades, working in such areas as memorials, overdues, magazines, and front desk. If she were not there when people brought in memorials, she did not know who to contact about them. Thus, she had to research newspapers for information concerning who were the recipients of the money. She has started an obituary file, which has been a tremendous help..
She compiled a local history, Early Churches of Sheridan County, Wyoming, working with the Genealogy Society. She wrote the book Pass Creek Country after she retired. As she visits other libraries, she is proud of all the collections in the Wyoming Room.
She worked also in interlibrary loan when authors were requesting all sorts of things from libraries. There was no way to obtain the needed references except by postal mail as she could not phone and there was no internet yet. She had to obtain all the information for a wanted book: author, title, and who printed it and when. Then, she could send a request to another library. She hoped that the patrons understood what the library had to do to help them.
Another work which she did that was not related to the library was to go into homes and provide book appraisals for estates. With the use of catalogues and occasionally by educated guess she would set a price on each book in a collection. Sometimes, it was quite difficult to say whether a book was worth $10, $25, or another price. The value of a catalogue was that the current selling prices that a company was using would be listed. A book could cost $20 but be worth $50. One book that was listed as selling for $100 actually sold for $8.75. One client requested that she not place a top price on his books because it would mean more income tax which he would be required to pay.
What advice would she give to a person who is about the retire in regard to what to do for the rest of his/her life? She feels that it is necessary for one to keep active. She explains by telling how she has handled her own retirement. She stays active in organizations. Since she has always liked history, she became a member of two historical societies. She attends meetings regularly and has found that she can be learning something. She has written articles for the local newspaper. After her husband died, she learned to swim, took up photography, and took art classes. The only way in which she could cope with her life situation was by staying active. She stresses that those who have nothing to do usually do not live long after retiring.
Following are some of the awards that have been bestowed upon Helen:
- 1982 Award for services in promotion of literacy by the International Reading Association and Sheridan County Reading Association
- 1994 Certificate for homemaker of the year by the Wyoming Association for Family and Community Education
- 1994 Certificate of Appreciation for outstanding and dedicated service to the Sheridan County Fulmer Public Library for the past 25 years.
- 1998 Award as Community Person of the Week in recognition of outstanding community service by the Sheridan Media
- 1999 Distinguished Service Award presented by the Wyoming Library Association to a librarian who, for at least five years. has demonstrated in actual practice: inspired leadership, devoted service, and unusual contributions to Wyoming libraries and the library profession at large.
Having lived to the age of 94, Helen is still active and alert, and a living witness of the truth of her advice. She has been and still is a productive member of her community.