Editor’s note: This is a re-print of an article by Ellen Miller-Goins that appeared in the March 4, 1999, Sangre de Cristo Chronicle. Although it is written in the present tense, many of those interviewed have since passed away.
Everyone has heard the cliche, “when I was a kid, I had to walk 5 miles through 4 feet of snow to get to school,” but in the case of some Moreno Valley residents, it was quite often true!
School days in the ’20s, ’30s, and even the ’40s, were definitely rougher for the old-timers who attended the Moreno Valley Consolidated School, located about 6 miles south of Eagle Nest on U.S. 64 on the west side of the road (There’s a little bait shop nearby where Bob Rollins now lives). The school is only a memory now. It burned to the ground in the fall of 1952.
Six former pupils — Elliot Andreoli, Leo Arko, Billie Burk Wilkins-Jack, Richard Johnson, Ernest Swanson and his sister Louise Swanson McBride — along with their spouses Gina Andreoli, Lorene Arko and Janet Arko Johnson, met at Leo’s mid-valley home Tuesday, Feb. 23, to reminisce about the school.
The Chronicle also interviewed Red River residents Bob Prunty and Johnny Brandenburg as well as Moreno Valley rancher Philip Mutz and long-time resident Joe Gherardini about their memories at the old school.
Ernest Swanson remembers when there was a one-room schoolhouse at the same location before the larger building was built around 1928.
The school was built from logs and rock by parents and members of the community, and Joe Gherardini says it “probably had three or four rooms” plus a “little matchbox gym which we played basketball in.”
The school also had a kitchen and according to its former students, the building burned in 1952 when some girls were baking pies. The old timers believe a chimney fire was the cause. Since it was the first day of elk-hunting season, all the men were hunting so there was no one to help extinguish the blaze.
‘Good morning to you…’
The Moreno Valley group says they started every school day with the Pledge of Allegiance and the song “Good Morning Dear Teacher.”
Billie: “I can still remember the opening song” though it’s been over 60 years since she attended elementary school: “Good morning to you, good morning to you. We’re all in our places with sunshiny faces.… ”
Louise Swanson: “We had a Pledge of Allegiance and then we had a prayer but we had a teacher by the name of Jones, and we’d sing “Old Black Joe,” only we’d say Jones. We didn’t like Jones.”
Joe Gherardini says the school’s curriculum stressed the basics: “arithmetic, literature, history, algebra, typing and smidgen of geometry.”
A 1938–39 yearbook belonging to Johnny Brandenburg states, “Moreno Valley School offers Vocational, Commercial and College Preparatory courses. The vocational offerings consist of agriculture for the boys and home economics for the girls. The commercial department offers bookkeeping, typing and shorthand.”
Courses consisted of “three units of science, four units of English, two units of mathematics, two units of Spanish and four units of social science.… Practically every student is in one of the glee clubs and several are taking piano lessons. The percentage of students taking part in athletics and dramatics is especially high.…”
Philip Mutz: “We didn’t have a lot of resources. We didn’t have a lot of advanced math, trigonometry or geometry, but we got a fairly good education out of it. We had a good school with lots of extra-curricular activities, basketball, intramural, glee club, school plays….”
Billie: “They even used to lock up the whole school and take us to Raton once a year to see a movie and buy a Coke in the drug store soda fountain.”
“Elliot: “Every Christmas we had a Christmas program and the means of transportation was a sled. Your dad would hook up the team and then pick up everybody and you’d get in the open sled. If your feet got cold, all you’d do is jump out and hang on and run behind the sled to warm your feet.”
The basketball team
Their basketball team, The Polar Bears, car-pooled to games from Raton to Ojo Caliente and everywhere in between. They took fourth in the district one year. The team was always small, so nearly everyone got drafted.
Ernest: “I wasn’t much for playing basketball. I didn’t like it. I still don’t like it. I played, but not very good. The two Andreoli boys were the basketball players.”
Joe: “There was no seating. You had to stand on the sidelines to watch those guys play basketball.”
Johnny: “The ceilings were lower so to make a long shot, you had to be pretty good. Anytime we had visitors we’d always win. Their ball would hit the ceiling! The visitors were used to making long shots and it wouldn’t work.”
“Tal ‘Junior’ Neal could take a ball down the court faster than anyone I’ve ever seen.”
Winter protection? Legs wrapped in gunny sacks
Leo remembers walking “about a mile and a half” to get to school but harsh winter weather made the trip a little more arduous. During a storm, sometimes the only way they could find their way home was by following the fence line.
Louise: “That’s right we did, the Andreolis and the Swansons. We’d grab one another’s coat tails and the leader would lead us up along the fence. That’s what our parents told us to do.”
Gina: “When they were walking to school they used to have to wrap their legs with gunny sacks because in those days they didn’t have overshoes like they have nowadays to keep warm.”
Leo: “They had overshoes, but you couldn’t afford to buy ’em.”
Louise: “My father had a way of fixing the gunny sacks. He’d bring the corner up, then he’d wrap around on each side, then he’d tie it with a binder twine and we had to get those back on before we’d come home.“
Gina: “It looks to me like the gunny sacks would have absorbed the snow and got wet and made your feet colder.”
Louise: “I know, but they kind of froze on your feet.”
Elliot: “My feet didn’t get cold at all.”
A hearse for a school bus
According to the group, their first school bus was a dark blue hearse with no heat or seats. They rode to school by squatting down in the back, but Elliot says, “ that beat walking all the way.” Their second bus was a truck with benches and a handmade cab over the back.
Billie: “The first school bus, Henry Bell drove it and he had a partition down through the center. The boys had to sit on one side and the girls had to sit on one side.”
Johnny: “Emil and Maggie Mutz had the contract to take kids from E-town to the Moreno Valley School. I was a junior in high school and I drove the ‘bus,’ which was an International pickup they used in the school year as a bus and in the summertime as a pickup.
“All the boys wanted to ride on my bus ’cause they were all smoking. All the girls rode John Haddow’s.
“One year a blizzard was coming in so Creecy (Carson Creecy, the school principal) dismissed school at 2 o’clock. We didn’t get to Eagle Nest until 6 o’clock. It was about 51/2 or 6 miles. All traffic was stopped but we kept going.
“When we hit those drifts, I’d back up and all the boys would get out and I’d gun it to make new tracks. They would all get behind the bus and push it. We got to Eagle Nest an hour before the big bus. They were handicapped — they didn’t have any boys to push the bus.
“We had to stay in Tal Neal’s cabins in Eagle Nest. There were six boys in our cabin and that night, Tony Jr. (the son of Tony and Tillie Simion of Red River) and I stole a couple of blankets off the top. We woke up later and they were all kneeling on their beds to keep warm. T.D. Neal’s cabins were not insulated.”
Clearing the road
There was a gravel road in the valley back then, with plenty of dips.
Philip: “Sometimes when the weather got snowy, we’d miss a day or two, but they did a fairly reasonable job of keeping the roads open. The roadway had a lot of dips in it and they’d fill up with snow or in the spring they would sometimes get impassable because of the mud.”
Joe: “At that time they didn’t have the road machinery to handle the snow like they do today. There were times when the roads were blocked for a week at a time and we didn’t go to school. I was maybe a little disappointed — there wasn’t anything to do.
“We had big snows the latter part of fall and big storms in January and February. It’s all settled down now. It doesn’t snow that much anymore.”
Ernest: “My brother Harold worked on the highway when they hired men to shovel snow for 50 cents an hour!”
Red River students boarded in Moreno Valley
Brandenburg and Prunty say going back and forth to Red River would have been too much of a challenge so they found places to stay in the Moreno Valley during the school year.
Johnny: “Tony Jr. and I lived with the Mutzes in the bunkhouse at the ranch during the school term. The cabin we lived in had cracks in the walls so we kept a tarpaulin on our bed to keep the snow off our bedding.”
Bob: “I stayed at the T.D. Neal Camp (in Eagle Nest) in one of the cabins. I’d come home sometimes on the weekends. Once in a great while mom would come over and stay with me for a week. I had to do my homework there by kerosene lamp.”
Work and school
The Moreno Valley used to be more of a farming community with area residents growing cabbage, lettuce, peas, carrots, onions and potatoes.
Leo: “When we went to school they used to serve us onion soup….
Louise: “Or potato soup. You know I don’t care for potato soup to this day. It didn’t have any seasoning in it. It was just milk and potatoes.”
Philip: “A lot of the older male students worked at home, especially in the fall of the year. The Moreno Valley was agricultural at the time and in the fall of the year when we had to move the cattle around, we’d miss school for a few days.”
Elliot: “We used to take off to pick potatoes. We’d get one sack for every ten sacks we picked. That was our pay.”
Leo Arko remembers getting up at 5:30 or 6 a.m. to milk cows and do chores before they walked to school.
Louise: “Well, I milked cows and we used to set our cream cans down along the highway. A truck would come along and pick it up and it was shipped to Trinidad, Colo., to Jacobson Creamery.” In later years the mailman picked up the cream.
A tight-knit group
Philip called the students of the Moreno Valley School a “fairly tight-knit group” (there were seven in his graduating class), and the rest of the former students definitely agreed.
Billie: “Leo was always very protective of the younger children. They didn’t pick on me too much because I’d run to Leo.”
Gina: “They all had nicknames. Elliot had the nickname ‘Boots.’”
Louise: I think Leo had the nickname ‘Poldo,’ short for Leopoldo.”
Bob: “I remember Helen Blades. She was a tall, slender gal and we guys got to calling her ‘High Pockets.’ They mostly called me ‘Curly’, ’cause of my curly hair, or ‘Curly Bob.’”
Leo: “We used to call Tony Jr. ‘Rubberneck.’”
Billie: “I can remember that, because he would go around and stretch his head like a turkey.”
A whacking at school, a whacking at home…
As the Moreno Valley old- timers say, corporal punishment was common at their school, or as someone said during the group interview, “In those days if you got a whacking at school, you got a whacking at home, too. That way the kids behaved themselves pretty good.”
Elliot: “They had a paddle.”
Louise: “And they used it.”
Richard: “At my house, if it was minor serious we got two shots at it and if real serious then you got three shots (from the school, mom and then dad). So you got three shots to get it indelibly implanted in your mind that you didn’t want to do that again. That was the tier system of punishment.”
Elliot: “On April Fools Day the whole school played hooky. We just all got to school and decided, well we’ll leave. Everybody took off but one girl, Maggie Vuicich, she stayed home. She was afraid to go…. ”
Elliot says they all hid near the Arko’s house. “Then, when it was time to catch the bus, we all went back to school and the principal called us all in the room there and said, ‘Everyone that went on the hike today, we’re going to give you failing grades for one month.… And I’ll get a note to your parents, let them know what went on…’
“He talked and talked and talked and kept watching us and just before it was time for school to be dismissed, he says, ‘Well, you had an April Fools trick today, but I had a bigger one. April Fools!’”
Billie: “One Halloween they took a wagon apart and put it back together on Pat Gallagher’s house (he was school janitor). That was about the meanest thing that was done then, but Pat was good natured. Everybody loved Pat.”
Billie says she also remembers an encounter with the game warden.
“We had caught a bunch of fish and were coming back over to the school. We were going to give them to the teacher and she was going to cook ’em. We saw Tommy Holder, the game warden, coming so we crammed it all down prairie dog holes. And after he went on we went back and got them out of the prairie dog holes.”
Escaping the game warden was quite a feat since Ernest remembers that game warden Holder “arrested his own father!”
They even admit to one bout of cheating…
Elliot: “A bunch of us got together and we just all walked down to the school and found one of the windows open and got in there and got the answers to the test we were supposed to have the next day. And so the next day we gave it to everybody, but Maggie Vuicich. We gave all the class the answers but everybody was supposed to miss at least one and we weren’t supposed to miss the same question.
“We took the test and after the results were in, the teacher said, “I can’t believe this. Everybody made a better grade than Maggie did!’”
…And to smoking in the schoolyard
Johnny Brandenburg says all the boys took blacksmithing “so we could sneak outside and have a smoke.”
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