The lessons that Florence Hertel Farek learned at a two-room country school in Freyburg, Texas, still make her smile. In the 1930s, the Schulenburg, Texas, resident, who turns 95 tomorrow, lived on a farm in the rural South Central Texas community. Most of the kids, who spoke only German or Bohemian at home, learned English in the first grade.

In 1936, Florence and her two older brothers were students in the Freyburg Common School District #35. At country schools like Freyburg, one teacher taught multiple grades, so the older students typically helped the younger ones with their lessons.
Florence – 1936

Florence says the pupils not only learned reading, writing and arithmetic, but also valuable skills for living.

Lesson 1 – Develop grit!

“They didn’t raise any sissies in those days,” Florence says.

“My two older brothers, Melvin and Nolan, and I walked two miles to school and back to our farm every day. The ruts on that road got knee-deep. Sometimes the rains made them virtually impassable in the winter. Then Dad would hitch up the buggy and drive us to school.

“My brothers did a lot of puddle jumping while I walked around them. Some of my classmates missed days of school because the roads were so bad that they couldn’t get there.”

Florence remembers the girls wore dresses or skirts and blouses. Elastic garters held up their long cotton stockings.

“If it was really cold, you couldn’t feel your knees by the time you arrived at school,” she adds. “We’d race in to warm up at the big round heater.”

Rural schools like Freyburg didn’t have indoor plumbing, so quick trips to the outhouse on the edge of the schoolyard were necessary at recess and lunchtime. “My first-grade teacher, Audrey Bailey, sprinkled some good smelling stuff in the girls’ outhouse, so we always let her go first.” 

Students were prohibited from speaking anything but English on the Freyburg School grounds. Monitors (informers) were appointed to turn in those who didn’t follow the rule.  A couple, Albert O. & Vera Bartram, were the teachers in 1937-38.

Lesson 2 – Find your comfort zone!

During Florence’s school days, the Freyburg community consisted of a cotton gin, dance hall and small store, Methodist and Lutheran churches and their respective cemeteries and public and Lutheran schools. These buildings were spread well apart rather than grouped in the rolling, partially wooded countryside.      

Several years before Florence started school, a new three-room wooden structure opened on Sept. 24, 1928. This new schoolhouse had two classrooms with an open space between them that could have served as a third had enrollment warranted it. The structure was the pride and focal point of the community. Folding doors opened to make one large room for special events.

Freyburg’s modern 1928 schoolhouse was a vast improvement over the first one that was constructed in 1876.
Florence’s older brothers, Melvin and Nolan, were among the first students to attend the new school in 1928.

The children hung their jackets on hooks in the cloakroom and put their lunchboxes on the shelf above. In November 1929, a sanitary drinking fountain consisting of two bubblers was installed in the new school. The following March, a paper magazine rack, a bulletin board and something called a sand table were added to the Freyburg School. There was also a flagpole on the grounds.

The school got a piano in 1930. Some years later, after taking lessons from her teacher Florence enjoyed playing for Christmas concerts. There was always at least one play in the evening event attended by the entire community.

The Hertel family had a piano at home, but Florence’s mother, Callie, could only play the black keys. Florence wishes she had thought to ask her parents where the piano came from and why her mother only played the flat and sharp keys.

Standing directly behind the kneeling boys, Florence poses with her classmates and their teacher, Otto Banik, in 1941. Few students went beyond the ninth grade because they lacked transportation to attend Schulenburg High School.
Florence – 1941

Lesson 3 – Make the best of it!

“My lunch pail rarely held a surprise. In the winter months, Mother would pack a slice of ham or a sausage and some bread. We’d have jam sandwiches in the fall and spring. She had to make do with whatever she had on hand.

“Sometimes the pickings were very slim. A few of the kids had to settle for lard sandwiches because their mothers had nothing else,” she adds.

During the dark days of the Great Depression, Florence remembers one great excitement when the government sent a big box of raisins to the school. The tasty, unexpected allotment was doled out in cones that the students and teachers fashioned out of sheets of paper.

Thinking about the years when Mr. Bartram taught at Freyburg reminded Florence of a certain incident.

“Mr. Bartram would bring all the classes together on Friday mornings and we would sing. One morning, I was participating like everyone else and then I woke up on the floor. I had passed out cold.

“I, along with the rest of the students, had no idea what had happened. Mr. Bartram picked me up, sat me in a school desk and everybody went back to singing. No big deal!”

Lesson 4 – Be a good sport!

At recess and after eating at lunchtime, Florence and her friends looked forward to rushing outside to play games and run off pent-up energy.

“There was Red Rover, chin-the-bar, tag, playing on the see-saw and other games that we made up. We learned to have fun indoors, too, like making tractors out of empty thread spools that we raced,” Florence recalls.

Team sports always had been important for the area’s country schools. The students called themselves the Freyburg Tigers. Baseball and volleyball tournaments were significant events, especially the playoffs against area schools such as High Hill, Abbots Grove, Rock Ridge and Scott.

Florence remembers that a huge dust storm blew in during one of the long-anticipated events being played at Freyburg School, putting a damper on a special day.

“Those sports days were a holiday for the students. Moms and Dads came, too, and brought the little ones who were too young to go to school,” she recalls.

Lesson 5 – Don’t embarrass the teacher!

A good student, Florence caught on fast and didn’t find much of her schoolwork a challenge. As she got older, she was regularly called on to help other students. Occasionally, she even filled in for a teacher who was absent for the day. Florence took that responsibility seriously.   

One day, Florence drew the teacher’s ire because she solved a math problem on the blackboard that he had had difficulty completing. When she got home from school, the teacher’s car was parked in the Hertel’s yard and he was speaking to her father, Edmund. 

“I don’t know what was said because I went around back and came into the house through the kitchen. By that time, the teacher had driven off. My dad never mentioned what they’d talked about and I never asked,” Florence says.

With a wink, she adds, “But you have to remember that I was Daddy’s girl!”

Mr. Hertel, who had served on the school board a long time, was accustomed to soothing ruffled feathers. Jeanette, Florence’s sister, was eight years younger than she was, so Mr. and Mrs. Hertel had kids at the Freyburg School for about 15 consecutive years.

As time marched on, country schools began to close due to decreased enrollment, improved roads and greater educational opportunities in centralized town schools. Freyburg School was one of them. After becoming part of the Schulenburg Independent School District in 1946, only six grades were taught at Freyburg School.

In 1952, the buildings, students and teachers all moved to Schulenburg. (Florence notes the closing date currently pasted on the school marker with silver stick-on letters is incorrect.)

Lesson 6 – Never stop learning!

Florence, a loving wife and mother, and avid community volunteer, never had the opportunity to graduate from high school. Nevertheless, her country education took her a long way.

In 1998, with skill, courage and determination, Florence published World War II Memoirs. It is an extensive collection of first-person interviews with Schulenburg and area World War II veterans.

A chapter written by Florence’s sister, Jeanette, is dedicated to their older brother, Melvin. Tragically, he died when his plane crashed into a lake in France on Nov. 11, 1943. Tech Sergeant Melvin Hertel was one of several former Freyburg pupils who lost their lives over a short period in 1944-45 in World War II.

Although Florence’s priceless collection of war stories is now out of print, a few copies are available online or in area museums.  
Florence – 2002

When I asked why she gathered the veterans’ stories, Florence replied, “Somebody needed to.

“These men fought their way through the dust in Africa, knee-deep snow in Europe and the steaming jungles of the Pacific. The stories are as varied as the men who told them.

“Some of their memories are quite vivid; others had dimmed with the passage of time.”

Florence went on to author several other non-fiction books, but World War Memoirs is her finest effort. The veterans she featured and their families were thrilled. In 1999, the American Legion and Auxiliary Post 143 and Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5623 in Schulenburg presented her with a commemorative plaque expressing their thanks.

Lesson 7 – Never stop helping others!

When I was approached about writing more local first-person veterans’ stories in 2013, I turned to Florence for counsel.

Our conversation was reminiscent of the old country school tradition where the older kids helped the younger students with their work. Florence sat me down, gave me a pep talk and, with her blessing, suggested I get busy. So that’s what I did.

Florence is my mentor, but more importantly, she is my friend.

With Florence’s backing and support, I compiled stories from Fayette County veterans and women on the home front. Charlie Ripper, who encouraged me to do so, is pictured above with me.

Happy birthday dear Florence!

Readers, will you join me in wishing Florence a happy 95th birthday? Perhaps Florence’s memories remind you of a country school story.

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You might also enjoy some of my other posts about rural Texas life:

Elaine Thomas
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