Interview with Lillian Mathews, BSU graduate and Shevlin School teacher
by Janet Kelly Moen
The life-story of a woman that encompasses an entire century is by necessity one that reaches back not only into another time, but into another continent as well. The changes over this period of time were staggering, and involved new lands, new technologies, in the context of different cultures and languages. All of these changes were mediated through family life, in a time when families were both extended and large, and deeply imbedded in the special environment of their particular place.
Lillian Mathew’s father, Lars Larsen, immigrated to the United States in 1891, at age twenty-one, from Aarhus on the east coast of the Jutland Peninsula in Denmark. Moving westward, as land and opportunities opened, across America from New York City, he took a job working on a farm in Avoca, Iowa. There he met, fell in love with, and was married to Anna Dorothea Olsen. At the turn of the century, they moved north into Minnesota to settled on a piece of land about two and a half miles south of Leonard, a small railway village in Dudley Township, in the north central part of the state. They obtained 80 acres, ‘grubbed’ the land so it could be farmed with oxen, and erected various building and sheds. Starting with a small shack while building a larger one to inhabit, they passed the smaller place on to livestock. It was a life requiring dawn to dusk labor and, as well as work off the farm as necessary to make ends meet.1 Here Lars and Anna raised their family of ten children; six older siblings were followed after a time by four younger children. Lillian was the youngest child, born April 3, 1918.
True to their Danish roots, the family valued education, and Lars was a long time member of the school board, continuing to serve long after his own children were out of school and gone. He also served as township chairman, taking care of both the infrastructure and the welfare of the community. Their homestead was a site of regular visiting by neighbors and served as the site of 4th of July celebrations involving potluck dishes and ice cream made in the shade.2
Lillian, as the youngest, received the usual attention older siblings pay to the youngest child. As she was left alone while they were at school, when she was about five years old, she would walk over to the nearby school every afternoon. She would enter the classroom on tiptoe and sit in one of the double seated desks with one of her sisters, or one of the others girls who vied for her company. She was very quiet and observed intently. The teacher welcomed her to the classroom, and would find something to give to her before she left for home with her sisters. In this manner, Lillian created her own special ‘kindergarten,’ and was encouraged to do so due to the relative flexibility of the country school. She also began a life-long love of school, of teachers, and of learning.
When she was ready for first grade, she went to the local country Hendrickson School, built on land given by her uncle (this location was later called the Pond school). Lillian went to ninth grade at Leonard for one year, and completed high school over the next three years at Clearbrook, graduating in 1939.
At that time she knew that women had essentially two choices of a ‘profession,’ either teacher or nurse. As a student who had very much enjoyed school herself and liked her teachers, she decided on teaching; and also, she says, due to her slight aversion to blood. She went to Bemidji State College (now BSU) and took the two-year program to qualify her to teach lower elementary, which prepared her to teach grades one through eight, although she taught mostly first grade. She taught in rural schools near Clearbrook.
This was a fascinating and innovative time in the development of the country school, the proverbial one-room schoolhouse, or some variant thereon. The history of the social organization of these small country schools attests to both a desire for education for the children of the settlers, as well as a primer in a localized form of grassroots democracy.3 In the decade during which Lillian was born, families would gather in one of the larger homes in formally recorded meetings to advance the necessary decisions for the formation and maintenance of these schools. One of those gathered might donate a parcel of land, one was assigned recording functions, people volunteered to gather to clear the land on a specific day, votes were taken on details such as the size of the school, funding was secured and official school boards were elected. This dynamic grassroots history has been well documented in a number of well-researched local sources.4
In this formal, yet simultaneously informal process, schools were authorized by the Beltrami County board of commissioners (and subsequently those in Clearwater County after the split in December 0f 1902), and the schools often changed names. For example, in School District #31, organized in 1914, the building was called the Mogster School, based on the ownership of the donated land, and was then called the O. M. Johnson School. It was later known as the Gorze School, after a school board member who had all of his children enrolled there. The building in District #39 was called the Grammar School, followed by the place name, Riverview, and finally the Renner School, after a local family.
In addition to being called different names, buildings could be bought, sold and moved around in an area. The building of District #23 was sold for sixty dollars in 1915 to District #39, and hauled on a sled pulled by horses to its new location. In the same year, the ‘Pond School’ building was pulled from section 20 on long skids by horsepower supervised by local men, to the southwest corner of section 21.
The school boards were responsible for everything from the size of the building (one noted to be 24 x 25 feet), the securing of a contractor, or the actual group building of the school, the length of the term, and the hiring of the teacher. Teachers had to insure that wood was obtained to heat the building, as well as starting and maintaining the fire in cold weather, hauling of water into the building, and all of the general chores. Scrubbing and outside maintenance may have been allocated to a janitor. The salaries of those early teachers ranged from about $25 to $50 per month.5
It was in this general atmosphere that Lillian was teaching in the area around her family homestead. While she found teaching rewarding, she also wanted a family of her own, and that would put a temporary end to her teaching. When she was twenty-two, Lillian married Russel Simenson, who was a neighbor and classmate. His father and mother, Theordore and Marie Simenson, were noted in a local history as ‘progressive farmers.’ Their family had arrived in section 22 of Dudley Township in 1926 from Hawley, Minnesota.6
Lillian and Russel purchased a farm not far northwest of Shevlin. Over the next two decades, then had six children, and while much effort went into the every-day life of maintaining a farm, Lillian made time for reading and informal education. Her love of learning was such that half of their children also went into the field of education. The oldest son Gary became a teacher, the next daughter Constance became a teacher and then worked for the Cooperative Extension Service, and daughter Bev is now retired from teaching. Of the younger children, daughter Winnifred became an LPN, and there were twin sons, Bruce, who works for the telephone company, and Brad, who went into business.
She was quite busy raising children and with the demands of farm life, especially as they were living in a smaller house with limited amenities, Nonetheless, she also found time to keep taking classes during the summer and at nights, until she obtained a four-year degree from BSU. The College encouraged the continuing education of teachers, and BSU faculty even came out to Bagley to offer courses in education.
When her children were grown, Lillian went back to teaching, for a year at Pony Lake in the early nineteen sixties. She then took a position at the yellow brick, two-story Shevlin School, where she remained for the next 21 years. Shevlin was a district which had an impressive history of education.
As we have seen, in the earliest years of settlement, families with larger homes had set up ‘schools’ in their houses or on their property, or donated land to create the type of school that Lillian herself had first attended. As more families moved into the area, attracted by the timber companies and the incipient retail services, a felt need to have a proper school arose. A piece of land in the village of Shevlin had been donated in the summer of 1899, fifteen hundred dollars was allocated to build the school, and it opened in mid November of that same year. One teacher was hired to teach approximately forty-five children; the next year two teachers were hired, dividing the lower and upper grades between them.7
Community members met at the village hall in 1902 and set in motion a process which resulted in the creation of an Independent School District #1, and a Board of Directors (School Board) was elected. Within two years, at the end of 1904, they applied to the state for a loan to build a larger building to accommodate the growing population. This two-story building was built around 1905. With one large room on each floor, it was photographed in 1907 with two teachers and nearly fifty students. Unfortunately, this frame building burned down in 1911.8
A new yellow brick structure was started in 1911, built in a piecemeal fashion, with the classrooms on the second floor completed by 1917. Necessities like electricity, plumbing, and ultimately, steam heat, were added as funds became available. Children in the upper grades went to the class in the fire hall, until everything was in place on the second floor. This abbreviated history shows community commitment and provides a concrete example of the fact that members of this particular community were determined to create a school which would last, and were willing to take some risks to create the best structure they could for the education of their children. They had their eyes on a bright future.
Today, this solidly constructed school, worked on over a period of six years until completion in 1917 (a year before Lillian was born) is home to the Museum of the Clearwater County Historical Society. The School is the cornerstone a charming set of buildings which have been moved to this location as an ‘open air’ collection of historic buildings. Included on the site is an old log school from the 1880’s, another school built in 1936 by the WPA, an 1890’s two story log cabin, a Great Northern Railroad Depot in the ‘box car’ style from the early 1900’s, an agricultural exhibit building, a replica church with religious artifacts and a military exhibit.9
Returning to the history of the school, and Lillian’s role in it, she noted that once completed, the Shevlin School had four rooms, two downstairs and two upstairs, and four teachers. The janitor (as they were known at the time), Edwin Kildal held his position for 25 years, and added to the mix of the staff. The Superintendant of Schools, Mae Barness, who held her position almost continuously from 1918 until she retired in 1974, would come out at least two times a year.10 She would bring record-keeping work, make observations around the school, and speak to and with the teachers. She was known for her dedication, and Lillian noted that she was ‘flowery,’ and that she and the other teachers loved her visits.
Teaching in the early schools required a great deal of flexibility. The elementary curriculum was the proverbial 3 R’s (reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic) core. Generally, Lillian’s basic class schedule, modified at times, was reading first period, followed by math. The first graders had reading again after lunch, perhaps with a story. The other periods of the day involved language, which included grammar and also literature, penmanship, and science, music and art were components of the curriculum.
The teachers would sometimes double up classes as a means of balancing class sizes. So while Lillian was teaching first grade, she might select about five students or so who were second-graders, and bring them into her classroom to teach them reading and math. She selected students who would fit more easily in with the younger students. She then taught reading and math for each ‘grade level’ separately in the morning, and put the entire group together in the afternoons. The teacher who had the third grade would likewise take in some of the fourth graders. In this way they were able to informally address the particular needs of student learning, and even out the work loads.
All of this was possible as the class sizes were generally manageable, at about 18 to 20 students. All of the students had workbooks, and that allowed them to practice writing about the material they had been studying. The workbooks coincided with the readings. Lillian would put instructions on the board, and the students would quietly do the work at their seats, while she worked with another group of students at a different level.
The teachers used what was at hand. For science, they might take trips around the school yard to observe and discuss. They would go into nearby woods, where they could see even more diversity in the environment. They had measurement devices such as thermometers, magnifiers, and the like, and could record and discuss ‘data.’ There was a built-in emphasis on immersion and raising awareness of the surroundings, and building observational skills, followed as well by discussion and analysis.
Lillian’s enthusiasm for her work was expressed sincerely as well as enthusiastically. “I loved every day. I like to teach. It was a farming community and I don’t believe I ever had an obnoxious child, just talkative,” she noted.
She reflected on several stories about students. The Red Lake Indian Reservation is in the northern part of Clearwater County, and after she had been teaching for a few years, a native child named ‘Beaver’ was brought to her classroom. She was told that they wanted him to be with other children, and his father brought him to school every day. Someone from Bemidji State came to work with him every day. In the absence of his mother, he stayed close to Lillian’s side whenever possible. One day he put all his books on her desk and pronounced “I quit!” She said she would be sorry, and quietly and rather easily convinced him to stay. Ultimately he did leave the school, and she has often thought about him, where he might be, and how he is doing.
Another little boy, she remembers with a laugh, would usually arrive about ten minutes late to school. When he appeared at the door, he would roll head-over-heels to his desk. As Lillian felt this was to gain attention, she felt it was best to simply ignore his behavior. It was not very long before he realized that he was not getting the desired attention for his rather extreme efforts, and began walking to his desk and taking his seat.
Another student, missing her, would call her up after she retired. The problem was that he called collect. Eventually, she lost contact with him as well, but said she ‘got a kick out of that.’ Her stories show a keen sense of psychological insight about children. Moreover they demonstrate the goodwill that she brought into her classrooms over the years.
One of the highlights of the school year was the annual Christmas Program. This was an elaborate affair, for which much preparation was made; one of Lillian’s contributions was a painted wall mural for the back of the stage. She could draw fairly well, and created a background, including figures like a camel, the city of Bethlehem, and other relevant motifs. It became expected that classes on the lower floor did the fun things like Santa Claus, and the upper level did the music and the singing. One year, she said she would do the music, and they put on “The Drummer Boy.” It was memorable, but they went back to the old system in the following years. Whole families attended these events. For many farm families it was the one time a year that they went out to ‘see a good play.’
The school had an active Parent Teachers Association (PTA), which met in the evenings. One of the parents presided, and the teachers attended the meetings. There were also parent-teacher conferences twice a year, which involved keeping close track of the progress of each student, and the use of good interpersonal skills in communicating with the parents about the academic and social growth of their children.
While being at school with the children, and having a varied, if demanding, schedule, the portion of ‘teaching’ needing to be done after the school day was another story. Grading and planning lessons usually required working well into the evening. There was planning and gathering supplies for special events and projects, as well as other tasks. This was especially demanding when she had a class of 27 students. After teaching at Shevlin for some years, Lillian moved into Bemidji after she and her husband build a new house on some wooded acreage in Bemidji at 1918 Lakeview Drive. She and a fellow teacher made arrangements to ride with various teachers from Bagley, who dropped them off in Shevlin and picked them up on the way back to Bemidji.
When she retired at age 65, she felt it was time to do so, as she was tired. Lillian took stock and collected herself, and her adventurous spirit and love of learning returned. She subsequently remarried, and she and Charles Mathews shared many adventures together.
She and her husband travelled all over the world. They went to every country in Europe except Scotland, across the Mediterranean to Morocco, and as far to the ‘East’ as Constantinople, where they saw the city where ‘East meets West’. They also went to South America, including Brazil, and took a memorable trip through the Panama Canal. In addition to those travels, they went to Alaska five times, where she found that she loved the quiet and peacefulness of sailing along the glaciers, sometimes catching the glaciers ‘calving.’ She went on her last trip to Alaska with her daughter, Bev Hiatt, to share her love of that particular environment.
Remaining very active into her nineties, she decided to sell her home and moved to an Independent Living apartment at BirchHaven Village, sometime around 2012. Her spacious apartment is filled with her crafts and projects, including duck decoy and bird carvings, rosemaling, and other types of painting and art projects as well as music. She has maintained a busy and involved life, taking classes, keeping up with her continuing love of books and reading, and maintaining vital ties with her family. She regularly attends First Lutheran Church, and takes in various community activities, especially concerts.
This lovely woman, started out by inventing her own creative educational opportunity as a little girl. Blessed with positive experiences from teachers, she followed her mentors to become a teacher herself. As someone who loved teaching, her lived experience demonstrates a kind of ‘case history’ of what education was like embodied in a meaningful life that spanned a historic period of dramatic changes.
Alert and lively, in her own centennial year, Lillian Mathews is also a woman who is a true inspiration and a model of grace and style indicative of a curious and active mind, a love of learning, and a life of familial and public service.
- George & Winifred Boorman (compiled materials), The History of the City of Leonard, Dudley Township (Gonvick, MN: Richards Publishing Company, Inc.), 80.
- Boorman & Boorman, 81.
- Counties may have published histories of their rural schools. See, for example: Louis Marchand, A History of the Rural Schools of Beltrami County (Bemidji MN; Loonfeather Press, 2006).
- Some examples include the following: Shevlin: Recalling Our Heritage 1899-1999 by Debra Harmon (Shevlin Centennial Committee: Shevlin, MN, 1999); works by Ralph A. Larson, including History of Education in Clearwater County (1951) and The Story of Clearwater County, 1902-1952 (Farmers Publishing Company, 1952); and The Clearwater County History News, published regularly by the Clearwater County Historical Society (now in its 28th volume), P.O. Box 241, Bagley, MN 56621.
- Boorman & Boorman, 36-37.
- Boorman & Boorman, 112.
- Viola Gagen Arneson, ‘The Story of Shevlin Independent School District #1’ in Daisy Luggar and Linda Wallin (eds.) “Shevlin Memory Book, 1899-1991” (Clearwater County: local committee, 1991).
- Arneson, 3.
- photo courtesy, Minnesota Historical Society, http://www.mnhistoricnw.org/museums/county-museums/clearwater-county/ and text from “Welcome to Clearwater County Minnesota: Headwaters of the Mighty Mississippi” (Explore Minnesota –eight-page foldout pamphlet).
- Debra Harmon, ‘Mae Barness: Superintendent of School legendary figure,’ in Bagley: A Celebration of a Century, 1898-1998 (locally published book to commemorate Bagley’s Centennial, July 3-5, 1998), 86.