“How the Good Times Rolled” provides insight, evidence for leisure activities of the past

Sheet music cover, from Liz Bannister Music Collection, Traverse Area District Library.

“Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed” is the phrase the old folks tell me is appropriate for the morning attitude (ugh), but despite how you tackle the day, each of us has our hours to fill. Perhaps you will accomplish some daily chores, get in a little of your paying gig, and generally let the time go to waste. Or, you can take a cue from the new book, How the Good Times Rolled by author and Grand Traverse Journal editor Richard Fidler, and live it up like we once did.

Nostalgia is a driving force behind this work, as well as Fidler’s typical curiosity for the things we take for granted. Fingering modern technology as the culprit, Fidler discusses briefly in the introduction a common lament that is heard on the street, that people seem to have lost the ability to engage in conversation, to have spontaneous fun, or to make time for new activities.

This lament begs the questions, “How were things different ‘way back when’? How did people enjoy themselves?”

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show on parade, Traverse City, 1898. Image from the Traverse Area District Library Local History Collection.

Using a variety of sources, including diaries and other personal accounts, contemporary newspapers, and the archives of various clubs and social groups, Fidler sought to answer these questions. Each chapter provides some brief history about the given subject, from outdoor sports to celebrations. I found his writing to be read easily with children as well, rather lively and engaging. Interestingly, Fidler found “the Traverse region does mirror the social milieu of America generally,” despite the region’s relative isolation and lack of diversity.

The real beauty of this volume is the quality and quantity of photographs used to illustrate this social history. A passing familiarity with photographs taken in the late 1800s to the early 1900s leaves one with the impression that people Just. Didn’t. Smile. But Fidler has plumbed the depths of several amazing collections, from the Benzie Museum and Historical Society, the Leelanau Museum and Historical Society, and the Traverse Area Historical Society collection held at Traverse Area District Library, to reveal a significant truth: people of the past loved having fun!

Ladies drinkin’. Traverse Area District Library Local History Collection.

Some especially notable images are those of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, a traveling attraction that visited Traverse City in 1898; images of people enjoying libations and other vices (even during Prohibition); sheet music covers from the famed Liz Bannister collection, depicting popular dances; and amazing action images of horse racing, bicycling, and sailing (and ice boats, too!)

“Speedboat Race” at Grand Traverse Bay, Orson W. Peck colored photographic postcard. From the Traverse Area District Library Local History Collection.

I recommend treating yourself to the hardcover edition, which contains both color and black-and-white images. Again, this is fun to read with others or alone, and any age group will find something within to marvel at. If you have a summer home around these parts, this would be especially nice to take back to your winter residence as a coffee table book.

Whether you want to learn more about the past, or reminisce about how it was “way back when,” How the Good Times Rolled: What We Did for Fun Before the Digitial Age is the book for you! Available at local booksellers and Amazon.

One-Room Schools a Hundred Years Ago: Of Study Time, Recitations, and Recess

In the early years of the twentieth century rural students attended one-room schools from kindergarten through eighth grade.   A single classroom teacher would teach as many as forty-five children beginning in September and extending until May or June, with only a few weeks of vacation at Christmas, spring break, and a few holidays such as Christmas and New Years.  Through the 1950’s such schools continued to educate children in this manner, and many persons remember them to this day, often with fond recollections of their school days.  Only after the passage of legislation to consolidate rural schools in 1965 did they disappear in Michigan—as they did nearly simultaneously elsewhere (with exceptions for isolated communities).  Now, as memorials to the past, they grace the countryside as unoccupied or transformed buildings, each with a school bell tower presiding over an abandoned schoolyard.

As a former secondary teacher, I became fascinated with the education conducted in one-room schools.   If I felt overwhelmed preparing lessons for five classes of 14-15 year-olds every day with only two different preparations, then how could a single teacher prepare lessons for eight different grades (plus kindergarten) for as many as six different subjects?  What magic would she–the feminine pronoun is intended since most primary teachers were young women–work to keep such a diverse group of children on task for six hours of instructional time every day?  Can modern teachers learn something from practices long abandoned and nearly forgotten?  I resolved to find out.

I identified sources that would help me learn about one-room schools. One of them–oral histories of both students and teachers preserved online–provided glimpses into the way distant memories were recorded and remembered today.  Students would remember the pot-bellied stove, the ringing of the school bell, the outhouses, the games played at recess, patriotic pictures that adorned the walls, and the teacher’s manner of dealing with students.  Teachers remembered starting the fire early in the morning, walking or riding to school on wintry days, the clean-up chores at the end of the day, and interactions with individual students.  Both groups felt a strong sense of belongingness, solidarity, a family-like atmosphere inside the classroom.  Older students would help younger ones, and the teacher as well when it came to doing school chores.  Certainly there were exceptions—it was not a perfect family after all, but in general, it worked: children received an education and the teacher administered the process.

What kind of education was it these children—our grandparents and great-grandparents—received?  In one-room schoolhouses, students were busy doing two things when they were not enjoying an hour’s lunch and two recesses, morning and afternoon: they studied at their desks or they were called forward to recite.  Recitation has a peculiar meaning in school jargon: it is not simply reciting something memorized (such as a poem), but has to do more with demonstrating proficiency in a task given by the teacher.  Recitations could involve reciting a poem, but more often they were about reading aloud, answering questions posed by the teacher or the textbook, working arithmetic problems, displaying an example of good penmanship, or copying out a list of state capitols from a geography book.  Study time was just that: the time spent between recitations in reading, working arithmetic problems, answering questions based on written passages, or practicing penmanship.  Classrooms, while not stony silent, were relatively quiet places with the teacher up front with a group that was doing their recitations, while the rest of the class engaged in the tasks laid out for them.

For the most part, those tasks depended on written passages in textbook readers as well as problems and drills given in arithmetic texts, one for each level.  Some schools were divided up into eight separate grades, a nightmare of organization for the teacher who had to keep each child busy during study time.  Other classes had three levels, beginners, middle, and high level, the highest being for older students who were preparing the eighth grade graduation examination that was required as a salutary end to one’s schooling or else for entry into high school.  For a time the eighth grade tests were written by officials at the county level, but later they came from the State Department of Education in Lansing.  By today’s standards, they were not easy.  Readers will find a comparison of modern and early eighth grade tests here.

How were recitations scheduled during the school day?  Albert Salisbury in his 1911 book School Management proposes 22 of them covering all subjects, each lasting ten minutes.   Beginners receive more recitations than older students because of the urgency of getting them up to speed in reading.  The most difficult subjects come early in the day when the mind is fresh, the less demanding ones later in the afternoon.  A regular tide-like alternation of recitation and study was preferred to create a sense of order.   So it was that groups of students circulated in the classroom, often in response to a verbal or nonverbal cue to call children up to the front for recitation.  It is a wonder that the system worked with such precision and military-like discipline.  Sometimes, no doubt, it did not.

Another source of information about teaching and learning in one-room schools comes from teacher grade books.  I have looked at two of them from Kingsley, Michigan, one recording student attendance and achievement between 1894 and 1902, and another containing records from 1908 to 1912.  In each of them, the elegant handwriting of several teachers tells of pupils’ names, ages, deportment (behavior), and attendance over the course of the year, sometimes giving the reasons for absence.  The later one gives the grade levels of each student as well as her/his academic achievement in each subject,  presented through monthly grades.  Teacher recommendations about promotion to the next grade are recorded in the last entry for the spring term.  These registers provide a rare glimpse into education conducted in one-room schools at the turn of the century.

Examining them carefully, several facts stand out from the outset: students vary in age from 5 to as old as 18; age is not always connected to grade level as it is nowadays—a thirteen-year old can be working at a fifth or sixth grade level, for example; class sizes vary both from year to year and by time of the year; attendance can be erratic with some students missing many days over the course of the year.  With regard to the last point, October and the spring months had the most absences—perhaps because of harvest in the fall and planting duties in the spring.  Some students—especially those 14 and older–tended to leave school in April and May, sometimes never to return.  No doubt they were working, or else had given up on their plan to finish eighth grade.  At a time when work was plentiful for those who had not finished primary school, quitting school was a reasonable decision.

Academic information is not given in the traditional A-F format, but is displayed as monthly scores for each subject.  In general, they indicate fair to high achievement; it is nearly impossible to find scores less than 70.  Younger children—five and six years old—are given assessments through descriptions: “excellent,” “very good,” or “good.”  When deportment is noted in the registers, it is described similarly: it is very difficult to find deportment grades less than “good”—most were “excellent.”  Evidently, teachers were satisfied with the behavior of their students, though an occasional comment such as “Moved away—much to the relief of all” indicates that the children were not all perfect in deportment.

Other comments shine a light on what life in a one-room school was like at this time in our history: “Very bright and faithful student.”  “Exceptionally bright but irregular in attendance because of lameness.”  “Very slow to learn or do anything else.”  “A downright bad girl.”  “Quarantined –typhoid fever.”  “Has St. Vitus dance.”  “This boy was 16 years old the day school opened.  He does not need to go to school anymore.” “Will not come in cold weather—has to walk 3 ½ miles.”  The diversity of pupils stands out from this selection of comments.

What was taught in one-room schools?  For one thing, the curriculum depended on the age of the student—younger ones concentrating on the usual Reading, Spelling, Writing, and Arithmetic—with older ones adding Geography, Grammar, and Physiology to that list.   Physiology was not just about the human body: it discussed various topics relating to health, especially focusing on abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, and drugs.  Students preparing for the eighth grade examinations knew they would be tested on these subjects, and spent study time in class reading from appropriate textbooks. Their success on the examinations would be great source of pride for them and their parents.  In some schools, there were graduation ceremonies from eighth grade that underlined the importance of finishing primary school.

From a modern point of view, it is impossible to deny the advantages of one-room schools, just as it is impossible to deny their shortcomings.  Above all, school is a social enterprise: it informs children as to what things count the most in society, reinforces the socializing influences of the family, and teaches right and wrong.  Moral education, while sounding quaint in modern parlance, underlines the role of the school in this regard.  Even now, while often unexpressed in mission statements, it is seen as an important—some would say the most important function of schools.  For many citizens, it may overshadow the expressed mission of schools–which often has to with academic achievement.

Based upon the memories of those who experienced it, one-room schooling was extraordinarily successful in children’s moral education.  Former students remember older students helping younger ones, the strict rules laid down for conduct, the sharing of resources when resources were scarce, the fun times during recess and holiday celebrations, the strong arms of older boys in loading a potbelly stove that kept the room warm in winter.  The classroom was a family, not always perfect in conduct or in effort, but a family nevertheless, a body of individuals that cared about each other.   By contrast, modern elementary schools consist of a body of students brought by school buses to a location not necessarily close to where children live.  Parental contact is limited to occasional parent-teacher conferences, email exchanges, and rare phone calls.  Teachers do not know families in the same manner they did a hundred years ago.

This is not to say that one-room schooling is a good model for education.  A hundred years ago, academic training was largely built upon memorization and the mastery of skills.  Now we know that children can do more than write neatly, learn to spell correctly, read textbooks, and do arithmetic problems that do not require understanding of mathematical principles.  By eighth grade we ask students to answer questions inquiring about the evidence used to back up an argument, demonstrate the scientific method, and work math problems that go beyond rote performance of skills such as long division.  Schoolwork is not easier than it used to be—in some ways more demands are placed on young people.  Memorizing lists of spelling words during class time is an easier task than identifying the theme of a written passage.

One-room schooling placed inordinate demands on teachers.  Few of them stayed in a position for longer than two or three years.  Not only was the salary inadequate, but the work demanded a commitment to the job few people are able to give.  Relying on young, bright women to staff schools between their high school graduation and marriage was a practice that could not be sustained.  As soon as other jobs opened up for them, they took them, leaving the low salaries, lack of respect, and overwork behind.  In part, the era of one-room schooling ended because of this change in values in society.

Still, we think of the one-room school as a delightful artifact of a bygone age.  We imagine it reflected values that underlie a fair and decent society–caring for the young, fostering independence, sharing resources, accepting discipline, and mastering reading, writing, and arithmetic.  Indeed, in some ways it did, but at a cost of students filling countless hours with exercises in drudgery.  Harried teachers as young as eighteen or twenty rarely reached the high standards demanded today—a few months in normal school would qualify them to teach.  Shoddy buildings and poorly designed instructional materials were hardly sufficient for a fine education.  No provision was made for students that were different—physically, mentally, or emotionally.  Attendance could be sporadic due to the weather, work required at the farm, disinterest in studies, illness and disability.  The United States left one-room schools behind for good reason: they failed to satisfy the need of society for better-educated young people. We should look upon them as but one step along a pathway that leads to a well-educated citizenry, a pathway we are still following.

“Dockaquacology”: Or, the Short Lives of Inland Docks

by Stewart McFerran, Regular GTJ Contributor

Dockaquacology takes place in the anonymity of the cold Spring water of the lakes of Northern Michigan. The dockaquacologist drives the sections from stacks on the shore into place with waders on. The sections are manufactured with precision using exotic metals. They fit together and are leveled to within inches of the water’s surface, they run straight and true for hundreds of feet to that magic ski boat depth.

Worden’s crew assembling a dock in Long Lake, Long Lake Township, Grand Traverse County, Michigan, Spring 2018.

The docks are strong enough to hold the entire family and more. Strong enough to hold up to being beaten with a rock by the dockaquacologist when something gets stuck, but not strong enough to stand up to the crushing force of the Winter ice. That is why teams of dockaqucologists return in the Fall to remove sections and float the hosts. Everything is stacked back onto prime waterfront.

Docks and piers in Northern Michigan were once the center of commerce. Many ships tied up and were loaded and unload at these structures. The pilings that held these piers have been ground to nubs by the ice. Those nubs can still be seen at ghost town locations near Good Harbor, Otter Creek and Pierport.

Worden’s crew assembling a dock in Long Lake, Long Lake Township, Grand Traverse County, Michigan, Spring 2018.

Docks are now the center of recreational activities. All manner of shiny craft are loaded with coolers, water skies, dogs and children. Water fronts are readied for the recreational boaters after the ice melts and before Memorial Day. The dockaquacologist imagines all the activities at the dock as he assembles the family fun land. (I am sure there are lady dockaquacologists but I have yet to meet one.)

I recently interviewed Wes Worden and his crew as they installed a dock with three boat hoists on Long Lake. We met at the Crescent Shore boat launch and boarded the “barge” and took a short ride to the site where the dock was to be erected. Long Lake was quiet that morning and the shoreline had a pristine appearance with only a few docks.

Wes Worden and crew, placing a dock on Long Lake, Long Lake Township, Grand Traverse County, Michigan.

The barge was tied up next to the stack of dock sections and the crew of four: Wes and crew put on waders and got ready for the cold Long Lake water. The barge contained all the tools the crew would need. They started by fitting large wheels into the base of the huge boat lifts and rolling them into the shallow water. Then Wes artfully set the first section of dock into the real estate.

Each section was assembled and dropped into the water legs up to be floated into place. Wes used a level to make sure each section was true. Levy rolled the sections in chest deep water and in legs down position the sections were set in place and bolted. The legs were tamped into the sand and gravel of the lake bottom.

Once the dock was complete, large pieces of foam were tucked under the boat hoist. All four men guided this huge machine into chest deep water where the foam was kicked out and the hoist dropped into place right next to the dock.

“Old school dock” on Ford Island, ca. 1920s. Image from the Traverse Area District Library Local History Collection.

Imagine the shores in their pristine state without the vast array of equipment water front owners deploy with the help of dockaquacologists. Huge white pine and cedar overhanging the banks provided shade for fish to spawn, fur bearing creatures to hunt and fowl to nest. The shores are the most vital and productive areas for wildlife and the most pleasant for humans. We now dominate the shore for our own pleasure with a wild assortment of gadgets. Together these watercraft leak oil and gas into the water and have numerous other harmful effects on the shallow waters of our lakes. (1)

Worden’s crew assembling a dock in Long Lake, Long Lake Township, Grand Traverse County, Michigan, Spring 2018.

When I saw Dockaquacologist Gabe take a ride on a large chunk of foam back to shore I was reminded of Bruce Catton’s description of loggers. Note, Wes and crew were a fine group of men. They did not fight and clearly relished the work on the water.

“But hard living and hard fighting were not the whole story. There were easy stretches on every drive – times when the logs floated smoothly down a steady current, with no tangles, no jams and nothing to worry about. At such moments a riverman would jab the spike of his peavey into one end of the log, light his pipe, look up at the clouds, and let all of tomorrow’s problems take care of themselves. This is the time when he saw the glamor of his own existence, and reveled in it.”  (2)

Worden’s crew assembling a dock in Long Lake, Long Lake Township, Grand Traverse County, Michigan, Spring 2018.

The dockaquacologist has occasional easy stretches where the sections bolt together and level without problem. At such moments the dockaquacologist sees the glamor of his own existence and revels in it in a way that those with shiny toys tied up to the dock will not witness.

(1) The Effects of Motorized Watercraft on Aquatic Ecosystems. Timothy R. Asplund, University of Wisconsin

(2) Waiting for the Morning Train. Bruce Catton

Stewart A. McFerran is a former deck hand with Lang fisheries in Leland MI. Leader of the Antioch College Great Lakes Environmental Field Program and Innisfree Naturalist.

Professional Wrestling Arrives in Traverse City, 1908

What follows is an account of professional wrestling and boxing arriving in Traverse City in 1908 from the Traverse City Evening Record.  At that time,  150 pound wrestlers had a place in the sport!:

Frank Burns, champion welterweight wrestler of the south, won the contest with Joe Burns, champion welterweight wrestler of Detroit, in a pretty contest last night in the Grand opera house in two rounds.  Times, 16 minutes and 55 seconds.

As the men stepped into the mat and touched hands, almost immediately they were locked in a full nelson, which Frank Burns gradually worked into a half nelson.  This round lasted 14 minutes and 50 seconds.  Frank Burns dropped to his knees and Joe Burns clinching him four times with his famous crotch and wrist hold, which, however, he was unable to continue, his opponent wriggling out of his grip.  The men gradually worked to the edge of the mat and Referee Henry forced them to take the center of the mat each time, taking the same positions.  Each man seemed to think the other one responsible for the working toward the mat, but they willingly obeyed the referee.

Olympics Wrestling, 1912 Sweden. Finnish wrestler Alfred Johan Asikainen and Russian wrestler Martin Klein. Image courtesy of Dave Taylor’s Michigan Wolverine Athletics website, original image not attributed, http://mwolverine.com/.

A little sparring was indulged in during this round, which seemed to the spectators an attempt to each man to bring on an attack by the other. Watching his game and a chance to grapple his opponent.  Although it is almost impossible in a well-matched team to foretell the outcome of a wrestling match, it looked at first as though Joe Burns might win with his wrist and crotch hold.  Frank Burns, however, gradually worked his man into a half nelson, and assisted by a combined roll and barlock held him down to the floor and time was called.

End Came Soon.

After an intermission of 10 minutes the men again met, but this round was finished in 2 minutes and 5 seconds, Joe Burns showing fatigue and Frank Burns seemingly good for twice the work he had already accomplished.  Frank had Joe in a half nelson and body hold, which he worked into a double nelson from the front, and gradually bore him to the mat, amid the loud applause of the spectators.

Referee Earl Henry, in introducing the wrestlers, stated that in professional wrestling no strangle holds were allowed and in the contest none were attempted.  It was good clean sport throughout, and the contest was watched with intense interest, even the gallery gods being too much interested in the outcome to show any uneasiness or disorder whatever.  There were times when the dropping of a pin could have been heard in the house.

Joe Was Heavier.

When interviewed after the contest for a Record reporter, Joe Burns stated that he was not in condition to win, although he had been sanguine of the outcome being in his favor had he been able to have worked his famous wrist and crotch hold on his opponent.  Both men were weighted before stepping onto the mat.  Frank Burns tipping the scales at 150 pounds and Joe weighing 162.5.

“My weight was against me, “ said Joe Burns.  “My normal weight is 145, but I had not been able to reduce to normal weight.  Consequently I tired easier than I would had I been to proper condition.”

Bulgarian-born Turkish wrestler Kızılcıklı Mahmut a.k.a. Youssouf Mahmout. October 1908. Image made available from Library of Congress.

When asked what the hold was that Frank had won from him the championship, he said: “I don’t know what he calls it.  I have been in the business for 14 years and have never yet been in a grip like that.”  When told that it was called a double nelson from the front, he acknowledged that it might have been that from the front, but he was not in a position to see what it was.

However he was well satisfied with Referee Henry and believed that everything was clear and above ground.  He had no complaint to make whatever.  Before the game he stated that he would either win or lose in 5 minutes as he realized his overweight would not permit him to continue the contest much longer.

Accepted Challenge.

Previous in the contest,  Manager John Blacken read a letter from Ed Conley of Napoleon, Ohio, in which he challenged the winner of the Frank Burns-Joe Burns contest agreeing to throw the winner two falls in one hour for any amount of money they would put up.  Conley stated that a traveling man had given him the names.


Two boxing contests were put on as preliminaries, the first being between Fred Gokeu, the “Cuban Wonder,” and Bluy Griffin, “The Stockyards Champion,”  the Cuban Wonder winning the honors of this bout.

Gokey was not at all aggressive and was content to let the other fellow make the attacks, which he succeeded in staving off, giving Griff a bloody nose.  Gokey was free and easy throughout the contest, and swatted his opponent apparently with little effort, but with effect.

The second contest was between Lou Harkness and Billy Floyd, in which the honors went to Harkness., Floyd receiving a bloody nose in this contest.  Harkness had the advantage in being the taller of the two, but his opponent was adept in dodging , but could not escape the long arms of Harkness who landed a few on his nose, which bled profusely.

Both these contests were watched with interest by the spectators and their efforts were received with hearty applause.

As the wrestling match is the first professional match that has been carried off in this city for about 10 years, it was not expected that the interest manifested by those who were present is indicative of the character of the performance.  The sporting blood of Traverse City received a quickening, and it is probable that this is the beginning of a revival of similar affairs.  Frank Burns is planning to remain in the city this winter and no doubt there will be many such contests during the coming year.

A number of ladies in the audience last night watched the performance with interest, and had it been more generally known that ladies would be present, there would have been many more in attendance.  There was nothing in the affair to offend the most refined tastes, and the few ladies who attended evinced as much pleasure as their gentlemen friend.