Farmer Boy...Fight Club?
October 1, 2020 1:29 PM   Subscribe

I'm reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's book, Farmer Boy, which is supposedly based on the real life of her husband, Almanzo. But unlike Little House in the Big Woods which is basically about 50 different ways to skin and eat a bear - which I mostly believe to be true, though I'm sure there were quite a few artistic liberties- this book has a really weird opening. How real was it? Warning: violence involving children

In the book, Almanzo is attending a one-room school house, and he is nervous because some "big boys" are going to "jump" the teacher. They've apparently done it every year, scaring the teachers away, and one year they even killed a teacher. Somehow they are not in jail? So the new teacher, gets a whip and then uses fancy footwork to whip the kids out the door - and others fearing the teacher, jump out a window. To be clear - the teacher didn't pull out a whip and whip the boys - he used the whip like Indiana Jones to trip them and fling them out the door.

This was an unexpected turn of events on many levels, given that the description of this book EVERYWHERE is that it is a description of Wilder's husband's life growing up. It's not meant to be fantastical.

So my questions are:

1. Was this a thing, where older school kids could harm school teachers (even killing them) and there were no repercussions?

2. What's with the whip? Totally made up? Any semblance of truth?

If it helps, this takes place in mid-1800's upstate NY. Internet has not been helpful.
posted by Toddles to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
This r/AskHistorians post suggests it probably is more of an embellished anecdote, but that schools in the early to mid 19th century really were quite different to the way we think of them now, and were specifically coded as "masculine" and aggressive spaces.
posted by assenav at 1:41 PM on October 1, 2020 [8 favorites]

LIW buff here; I coulda sworn that she witnessed, or heard about, a similar thing happening while living in Burr Oak, Iowa, and then used it in her Farmer Boy manuscript. But the internet is not being helpful, as you say.
posted by Melismata at 1:44 PM on October 1, 2020

Ah, ok: According to "The Iowa Story" by William Anderson:
[In 1876] Mary and Laura, and perhaps little Carrie, who was six, started attending the Burr Oak school, which was across the street and up Spring Street from the hotel. The secondary teacher and principal, William Reed, who boarded at the hotel, was only sixteen when he was in charge of Burr Oak's brick school. When winter approached, a group of bullies in their twenties started attending school for the purpose of fighting the teacher and driving him from town.

Before Christmas, the troublesome students were disrupting the whole school. One morning, the ringleader, Mose, approached Mr. Reed, expecting a fight in which he would win. But instead, Mr. Reed tripped Mose, laid him across his knee and started whipping him soundly with a ruler. "We young ones sat still, watching and hardly breathing," Laura recalled.

When Mr. Reed finished with Mose, he and his friends left the school-room permanently, all the town laughing at them. School then proceeded quietly. Laura used a similar incident in Farmer Boy.
posted by Melismata at 2:11 PM on October 1, 2020 [5 favorites]

As Melismata suggests, this anecdote is told in a slightly different form in Laura Ingalls Wilder's original unpublished autobiographical manuscript "Pioneer Girl", which was finally published with a ton of research and annotations in 2014. (Highly recommended!)

In Pioneer Girl (starting on page 101), she tells the story as happening in Burr Oak, Iowa, during the time she and her family lived there. She doesn't claim that she was in the room, and she could certainly just have heard it as a tale going around.

In this version, the big boy is named "Mose", and the teacher Mr. Reed trips/pulls Mose so he lands face-down across Reed's lap, and then Reed spanks him with a "large, flat, very strong ruler he had just had made." All the other big boys laugh at Mose, and Mose leaves the school and never comes back.

The editor's footnote mentions the appearance of a version of this story in "Farmer Boy" and says LIW might well have adapted it. All of the Little House books were crafted and shaped and fictionalized, even Big Woods...reading Pioneer Girl and the footnotes can help add perspective to the issue.
posted by theatro at 2:12 PM on October 1, 2020 [2 favorites]

Well...when I was in school in Toronto in the 1970s, there was The Strap. It hung on a peg in the hallway and it had a chair underneath it where the bad boys (always boys) sat and had to wait for the principal to come out and solemnly strap them.

In class, my grade 1 teacher, Mme Davidson, applied a metre stick (yardstick for you Americans, but it was NEW at the time) over the bottom of Nicole i-think-her-last-name-was Petit, having pulled her skirt up and exposed her underwear. The teacher broke the stick.

In grade 2, corporal punishment was outlawed, The Strap disappeared, and Mme Davidson had to take a year's leave of absence, probably to retrain. I had her again in grade 4 and instead of the metre stick I remember her screaming at Keith MacDonald "you are a pig! A slob! You will never ever amount to anything! You are garbage!"

I have and had no trouble believing in the verisimilitude of Farmer Boy's account, and I read it obsessively as a kid.
posted by warriorqueen at 3:56 PM on October 1, 2020 [5 favorites]

...I would actually have liked it if some older boys had chased Mme Davidson out of town.

I was teacher’s pet and complicit, for the record.
posted by warriorqueen at 4:00 PM on October 1, 2020 [4 favorites]

Just as a meta-note, much of the LW books aren't true, as in reported facts in sequence that really happened to the girl Laura Ingalls. Her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, served as her editor and had a lot to do with how the books came together. Working on her mother's books turned out to become her main source of income. Rose embellished, added, omitted, and shuffled times and places to a great extent. Lane was an avowed Libertarian and has caught a lot of criticism for things like, as an example, omitting mentions of times when Laura's family accepted benefits from the government. Her life (and this work) is really well described in the book Ghost in the Little House.
posted by Miko at 4:47 PM on October 1, 2020 [11 favorites]

I just recently read Prairie Fires: the The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder and while I don't remember specific details of the writing of Farmer Boy, I can say that it was made clear that LIW took quite a bit of artistic liberty in telling her tales. to say that they were "loosely based" on the "lives of some pioneers" would probably be charitable. the workaday farmlife seemed very much based on the life that she led, but the "stories" were a patchwork of details that made for good reading.
posted by OHenryPacey at 4:47 PM on October 1, 2020 [2 favorites]

It’s not exactly the same, and offhand I’m not sure of how contemporaneous they are, but there’s a similar scene in Caddie Woodlawn—two big bad boys attempt to wreak havoc in the young, small teacher’s classroom, until she snaps and asserts Her Authority with a ruler (I think). It’s different, of course (Big Bad Boy reforms eventually as well) but there’s definitely a feeling in the scene similar to the idea of “rough kids kill a teacher and get away with it.” There’s no oversight in the little one room schoolhouse, and no hope of parental or community interference—it’s just Teacher Vs The Bad Kids. Now I’m wondering if this crops up in other historical kids fiction!
posted by pepper bird at 6:21 PM on October 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

I studied history of US education extensively, but it was a long time ago. I do remember reading that male teachers did occasionally get ejected from schools by students in colonial, early republic, and antebellum one room schoolhouses.

Here's one link:
Barring teachers.
posted by mareli at 6:34 PM on October 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

I went to boarding school and some of the boys large enough to look like grown men harassed and intimidated a petite, sweet, unpopular teacher. One of the thing s I particularly remember, because I was in class, was spraying her through a window with a hose. They got a slap on the wrist. Not even a suspension or cut from "fun" field trips. No extra classwork. No apologies. She was nervous and rabbity and not pretty or well-dressed and thus not popular with the administration either, and not hard-nosed enough to protect herself. The harassment surpassed that and was a long campaign that year and she quit. I caught her in tears a few times.

I guarantee you this kind of stuff happened on a larger scale in small communities even longer ago. It's naive in the extreme to think it didn't.

You also have to realize that corporal punishment was never thought of as "violence towards children".

And I can see local adults in a community not respecting or standing up a male teacher who couldn't stand up to students. It happens today. Back in that day there was way less oversight and harder standards for masculinity.

Anyway, this particular story is repeated and written dramatically by a daughter (did rose wilder write that one?) of a man who probably played up a childhood memory for his wife and child. You have every reason to doubt the absolute truth of this particular memory.

But your naivete in thinking something similar couldn't happen needs a wake-up call. (Edited a typo)
posted by liminal_shadows at 3:43 PM on October 5, 2020 [1 favorite]

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