Memories of rural life and school in pre-war Vermont
The former Canoe Brook School in East Dummerston is now a private residence.

Memories of rural life and school in pre-war Vermont

Janice Martin talks about one-room schoolhouses, farm life, and how World War II changed her and her family’s lives

VERNON — At the age of 95, Janice Martin is spryer than many others half her years and has a memory like a steel trap.

“In September 1932, at the age of 6, I started school in the one-room schoolhouse called the South School, located in Vernon, Vermont,” she says.

“It's still there and is now the home of the Vernon Historical Society,” remembers Martin. “I had my picture taken by the old wood stove in 2015.”

The former Janice Pratt was born in Brattleboro Memorial Hospital in 1926 and moved to Vernon with her parents, Nelson E. Pratt and Leona (Whitney) Pratt, when Martin was 2 years old.

Her father, a farmer, took a job on A.A. Dunklee's farm, a position that provided a house for her family, across the street from the farm, near the Massachusetts state line.

The South School was one of five one-room schoolhouses in Vernon. The dirt road that would eventually become Route 142 was traveled mostly by old automobiles and the occasional horse.

Martin remembers that it was not the often-traveled road as it is today, as the population at the time was around 600 people.

South School was built in 1848, with a wooden addition built at the back in 1924. When Martin attended, there was neither electricity nor running water. One student would be designated to bring a pail of water to school each day.

Behind the schoolhouse were two privies (outhouses), one for the boys and one for the girls. The only light came through six large windows on the south side of the building, as a lantern was considered too dangerous to use in the small room.

“Heat came from a wood stove, cornered off with a jacket around it so that if you got near it, you didn't get burned,” says Martin.

“There were no school buses in those days (and only a few cars), so we walked to school and all of us went home for an hour and half for lunch, then walked back to school,” she says.

“Every weekday was a school day as school was never cancelled for snow,” Martin recalls. “I had to walk for about a half-mile to reach the school.”

At 9 a.m. “we were seated in our assigned desks and ready to be led by the teacher in the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag and reciting the Lord's Prayer. A few Bible verses were then read by the teacher,” she adds.

Students in younger grades would be called up to the front of the room and seated in a semicircle, while older students would do their work quietly at their desks.

“There certainly was no kindergarten in those days,” Martin recalls. “I never even heard that word. I was in first grade and there were three of us, two boys and me.”

“There were wooden desks in various heights because the seats were attached. There were small ones for students like me, right up to almost man-sized ones as the school went through to eighth grade,” she says.

“They weren't bolted to the floor, so they were moved around frequently. If you didn't behave, you were asked by the teacher to bring your desk up front,” Martin says. “I never did that.”

“The naughty ones were mostly the boys. I do remember one time when the teacher made a big boy put his hands flat on the desk so she could hit the back of his hands with a wooden ruler. That was scary for a small child to see!”

Girls were required to wear dresses and tan, cotton stockings, held up by a harness on the girl's chest that ended with a button to hook the stockings on to.

“In the warmer weather, girls would roll the stockings down around their ankles because they were so hot,” remembers Martin with a smile. “In the winter, we wore 'ski pants,' made of wool, and rubber boots with hooks on them, which were referred to as galoshes.”

“We would tuck our dress down inside the ski pants on the way to school so that our dress wouldn't get wet,” Martin recalls.

“There was a cloakroom in the front of the building where we would hang our coats and leave our galoshes,” she says. “Occasionally a naughty child would have to sit out in the cloakroom until they could be better behaved.”

Only one teacher, Eleanor Brown, taught Martin and her 25 or so schoolmates.

Martin remembers that her teacher decided to marry and that she was required to give up her teaching license because Vermont law did not allow a teacher to be a married woman. The Jan. 11, 1934 issue of the Brattleboro Reformer noted that Brown left for a teaching position in Warwick, Mass. that was “more remunerative.”

Either way, it was crushing.

“She had been my teacher for two years at the time,” Martin remembers. “It was difficult for me to accept that she was leaving.”

A move to East Dummerston

In 1932, Martin's father purchased 100 acres, a farmhouse, and a barn on Canoe Brook Road in East Dummerston.

“He wanted to own his own land,” she says. “The [previous] owners had rented out the farmhouse to a family who was still living in it. My father was a fair man, and he wanted the children in the farmhouse to be able to finish out their time in school.”

“On Thanksgiving Day, we were visiting family for the holiday. We received a telephone call that the house was on fire,” she says.

The Dec. 2, 1932 issue of The Vermont Phoenix reported that “the flames lit up the sky with a lurid glow and attracted a large number of people from Brattleboro and other towns.”

“By the time we got there, there was nothing left,” Martin recalls.

The newspaper reported that the cause of the fire was undetermined and estimated the loss from the fire at $5,000.

“My father's life savings had gone up in smoke,” says Martin.

Her father would gradually rebuild a house there. By 1935, he built a camp across the road from the ashes of the farmhouse. There, the family stayed for one winter in its one room, with a floor and a wood stove, but no running water and, at first, no electricity. The house was completed in 1936.

Martin, then a fourth grader, was enrolled in Canoe Brook School, just five minutes from their home.

“It was convenient, having school so close,” she says.

“I was the person who became responsible to bring the water to the schoolhouse every day, though at least a third of it fell out of the heavy pail on the way there,” Martin says with a hearty laugh.

Canoe Brook School was much smaller than the one in Vernon and served only 10 students, but was in much the same state, with no running water or electricity, and a wood stove for heat.

“In the winter, the road that connects Canoe Brook Road with Miller Road was not plowed by the town since there were no houses there at that time,” she recalls of the area, where 25 houses have since been built.

“However, the people that lived on that end of Miller Road had two or three boys going to Canoe Brook School,” she says.

There were no snow days. “Their mother brought them with a horse and sleigh down to school when the road was especially bad and heavy snow was coming down,” Martin recalls. “She would spend the day with my mother instead of making two round trips.”

As was the case in the other school, students would go home for lunch. Per the custom of the day, the biggest meal - “dinner” - would be served at noon. An hour and a half later, children would return to school until 3 p.m., when they would walk home again.

“Mom had dinner hot on the table, and Dad came in from the fields. We ate quite a bit of chicken as we raised them. Mom would butcher them, take a big kettle of boiling water to scald them to pull out their feathers,” she says.

“My father had a pig or two, but I was never very interested in meat because of how it was stored,” Martin recalls.

She describes cooked pork in large crocks in the cool of the cellar, stored in fat melted and placed between the slices of meat to keep the meat fresh. To serve the meat, it had to be fished out of the fat, something Martin found too greasy for her taste.

“My father used to pack the root vegetables, carrots, parsnips, onions in sand to keep them fresh all winter. And my mother canned most everything we ate. Most people did in those days. You ate what was in season, or what you had stored yourself,” she recalls.

“My mother canned jars and jars of food: blackberries, blueberries, all the vegetables and fruits that we grew or picked,” Martin recalls. “She even canned the chicken meat. And we kept the potatoes in the cellar as well.”

The Depression, and a move to Brattleboro

The Great Depression began in 1929, but Martin doesn't recall its effects arriving in Vermont until around 1932.

“We were self-sufficient,” she recalls. “I don't remember a lot of conversations about the Depression in my house. I didn't even realize there was a depression. That's just the way we lived.”

“We got along with what we had,” she continues, noting that the closest grocery store was the Putney General Store.

“Occasionally we would drive into Brattleboro, usually on a Friday night,” Martin says. “It was a social time; people stood on Main Street and would visit with the people going by. You always saw someone you knew.”

As she grew older, “on a very special occasion we would go to see a movie, but not often, because it cost 10 cents. The car didn't leave the garage every day. That's for sure.”

The fall after Martin finished the eighth grade, it was time to go by bus to Brattleboro for high school in the building that is now the town's municipal center.

“I was terrified!” remembers Martin.

“When I left Canoe Brook School, there were still 10 children in attendance,” she says. “I was the only child in my grade.”

And then, in Brattleboro, she was one of 90 students in the class of 1944.

“Ninety!” she says. “With the other grades, the entire school held around 350 to 400 kids!”

“It was awful,” Martin says. “I hardly spoke.”

The bus went through Putney first, then picked her up. It drove down Putney Road, at the time a sleepy little two-lane road lined with the Thomas and Chickering farms on either side of the road, with one gas station and a couple of restaurants including The Stone Fence Inn, and Wright's Grill.

As Martin settled in, she began to meet other farm kids. She made friends with students from Vernon, Guilford, and Putney.

“I had friends, but we didn't live close enough to go to see each other. That was rural life in Vermont at the time.”

The war years, and a family trauma

Martin remembers hearing President Franklin D. Roosevelt speaking on the radio addressing a joint session of Congress about “a day that will live in infamy” - the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 which led to the U.S. Congress voting to declare.war on Japan the following day.

During her senior year, as World War II raged, Martin's father, Nelson Pratt, left the farm to work at a defense plant in Springfield, Vt. on the night shift, as factory jobs were plentiful and had good hourly wages.

On Feb. 11, 1944, on the way home in the morning, a co-worker driving them home, Bert Gerry, hit an icy spot and struck a tree.

According to Martin, her father was in the passenger seat and took the brunt of the impact, owing to the fact that there were no seatbelts at that time. The door flew open and its handle hit Pratt in the eye.

“Every bone in his face was broken, and all his teeth were fractured,” she says.

“My father's brother came to school and asked in the office to get me to come down,” Martin recalls.

She heard her name over the loudspeaker, along with the command to “come to the office and bring your books with you.”

“I was so petrified; I'd never heard the loudspeaker used to call a student to the office before,” she says.

When she got there, her uncle told her, “You need to come with me to the hospital,” Martin recalls.

“Then he explained that my father wasn't expected to live,” she says.

At the hospital, Martin's mother kept asking why the doctors and nurses weren't doing anything to help her husband. “No one wanted to tell her that they weren't working on him because they thought he was going to die,” says Martin sadly.

The family moved to Washington Street in Brattleboro. As it turns out, Dr. Joseph Baker, the man who was going to purchase the family home in Dummerston, was an oral surgeon. He was summoned to the hospital.

Dr. Baker began taking tar and debris out of Pratt's mouth and urged the doctors to begin treatment.

Her father was in the hospital for 41 days.

“He ended up with a cast that went over his head and had wires that came out from the front of it,” Martin recalls. “They wired his teeth together. He could only take what he could sip through a straw to eat. His face was disfigured for the rest of his life.”

A full life

Several of the members of the class of 1944 joined the service by lying about their age, and many more were called up after graduation. Martin remained and graduated. She went to Hanover, N.H., to join the Cadet Nurse Corps, where she was paid $15 a month for one year of training to become a registered nurse. She eventually graduated from what then was the Thompson Training School. She said the program was rigorous.

“My class started out with 26 women in school; only half of them graduated,” says Martin.

While working at the stationery counter at Woolworth's on Main Street in Brattleboro during her high school days, she met her future husband, Henry Martin. Their wedding took place in 1946, the year after the war ended.

She had a full career as a nurse; Henry was a printer and moonlighted as a TV repairman. Post-retirement, they owned and operated Martin's TV.

They were together for almost 66 years, until Henry died in 2012.

Today, Martin remains in Brattleboro in a life that belies her age, surrounded by friends and a large extended family that includes three children, nine grandchildren, and 16 great-grandchildren.

She is still very active in the First Congregational Church of West Brattleboro, where she and Henry were married. She bakes her own bread every week and continues to can and garden. She bought herself a new car a couple of years ago. She can carry her 4-year-old great-grandson on her back for short distances. She's on Facebook.

“Really, all of this doesn't seem like all that many years ago,” Martin says.

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