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Reminiscing experiences at East Grand Plains School

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The 1924 class at East Grand Plains School. (Photo courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico)

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

Morgan Nelson is one of our favorites around the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico. He has always been a great supporter of the museum and archives and also shared his extensive knowledge, water engineering, library, memorabilia and other topics. At 98 years old, his memory and storytelling is still great.

An undated photograph of Morgan Nelson, who is now 98 years old. (Photo courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico)

Morgan Nelson was born in the Roswell area in 1919. He joined the service in June 1941 after graduating from New Mexico State University with a degree in engineering. Nelson recently shared some of his experiences of going to school at The new East Grand Plains School, built in 1912, and knowledge of the changes since. Thank you Nelson, for sharing your life at the farm school.

With the population growing, the old one-room adobe school was overcrowded and outgrown. Oliver Pearson offered 5 acres of land near a well. The new school building was built in 1911 and the school moved over to its new location during the Christmas vacation. The new school started in January 1912, the same month New Mexico became a state. It was on the present location of East Grand Plains Elementary School.

The original one-room East Grand Plains School. About 300 students attend the present school, which is the third building constructed on the same site. (Photo courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico)

The 1912 new building was a two-classroom stucco school house with a bell tower. It had a porch, an entry hall, two cloakrooms, a belfry and two well-built outhouses on the back of the school ground. The two classrooms were divided by a partition that rose vertically to allow one big room to be formed. The large room was used for community affairs such as church, plays, box suppers (meals auctioned to raise money for schools or organizations) and other programs.

The partition had two blackboards on either side and was counterbalanced with two heavy weights. When it was removed we ended up with one of the weights and used it on the vie in place of a man. It took two men to move it.

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At times, boys were required to enter the attic and raise or lower the partition. According to Bill Lang’s story in the school scrapbook, “the boys would refuse to return to the classroom or couldn’t get down until school was over.” The partition was not soundproof and the teachers constantly reminded us to keep quiet and not disturb the other room. It was later replaced with folding doors that were equally as unsatisfactory. This is what really caused the urgent need for an auditorium.

There was a stage on the east side of the east room. The bell was from the original school. It was used to call the students in from the playground for classes. Sometimes a vigorous pull on the rope would cause it to turn over, then some of the older boys would have to climb in the bell tower and put the rope on right. It is now implanted in cement on the school grounds in front of the present building.

Halloween tricks

Emory H. Whitney best tells this story in the autumn of 1983 issue of “Old Timer’s Review” published by Clarence Adams. The event must have caused quite a stir in the community. The new school building was being used and occupied, but not completed. Halloween was around the corner and was always a period for pranksters. On Halloween night, farmers guarded their outhouses as though they were valuable treasures because they were subject to being overturned.

This is the story by Emory Whitney with a few corrections by his brother Ellis.

The perpetrators of this Halloween trick, squatted down under the window of the office of E.V. Wiseman, one of the teachers in our school.

Unknown to them, Wiseman was in the office and overheard the scheme they were planning. Their first thought was to steal the school bell, which had been removed from the old school house and placed on the ground, prior to it being installed in the belfry of the new building. That idea was soon abandoned as the bell was too heavy to move rapidly. There was a neat stack of chain-0link fencing nearby, that the school board had purchased with which to fence the school yard. The boys then conceived the idea of rolling it around the school yard and securing it in strategic places so no one could enter the building.

Wiseman, boarded at the Eccles home while teaching school, (Eccles was secretary of the school board) so Wiseman took him into his confidence, and told him about the boys planned trick. They decided to foil this dastardly trick and took Hank Ramey into their plan help. Ramey worked for the Eccles and also boarded with them. Although he wasn’t a student at the school he was friends with some of the older boys.

The plan was that Bill Eccles was to take his double-barrel shotgun, and he and Wiseman would hide in the shadows of the school house. Hank Ramey was to go along with the culprits but would lag along behind while they were approaching the school. All went as planned, and the signal was given. Eccles fired his gun in the air and at the same time, Wiseman threw a handful of gravel at the boys. Hank fell down screaming at the top of his voice, then, at the second shot he shouted, “Oh, they got me!”

Attempting a hasty retreat, one of the boys tripped over Hank and fell down and skinned his face. The rest, taking off through the field to the south, forgot about an open drainage ditch about 4 feet wide and 5 feet deep with about two feet of water in the bottom. Of course, they plowed right into it head on. Needless to say, by the time all the boys had clawed their way back to terra firma, they were in no mood to continue their Halloween trick.

Word got around fast about the episode and the next morning the pupils all seemed anxious and excited. The culprits finally showed up and the mystery was eventually unraveled.

Another prankster was Sam Pruit, who was a great tease. His favorite trick was to get a romance started with one of the young teachers and a young man who was a real bore. Sam knew that she was most definitely not interested and tried to avoid him whenever possible.

He would tell the poor young man that a certain teacher really had a crush on him. The teacher got tired of his advancements and the young man was rebuffed. Sam was the only one who really got to enjoy what he had done.

The PTA and Coterie

The PTA and the Coterie Social Club were the two main social organizations of the community. Many times school would let out early so that the teacher could attend Coterie. They kept the community entertained and the school supported. The PTA was strong and active. They didn’t wait around worrying about the community base or how they would raise money, they rolled up their sleeves and came up with ideas. They were strong and active, not only in support but in actually doing things. They kept the school busy and supported.

The improvements they supported and created were the gymnasium, then, the greatest ambition, the school lunch program. The teachers generally supported their PTA in return, by short plays, readings, music, and such.

Special days were celebrated. They gave a break in the school year for special days such as Valentines Day, with the PTA sponsoring a party with everyone exchanging Valentines.

School classroom additions around 1924

A third room was added to the east for the first and second grade, and a fourth room was added to the west for the seventh and eighth grades. New modern running water restrooms were included in this addition. The boy’s were on the west side and the girl’s on the east.

By 1934, the last room was added to the school building on the north side of the east wing. During the WPA (Works Progress Administration) days, about 1939, a bond was floated to build the gymnasium-auditorium west of the classrooms. This gave East Grand Plains the first such facility for a grade school in the county. Above all, it allowed the old partition to be abandoned. Raising that partition or opening the folding doors had become the most hated job in the community.

More classrooms were needed after World War II and on Jan. 27, 1950, the community petitioned for a third building, the present day yellow brick. The old school was razed one section at a time, and a new section at a time replaced them. In 1961 a new modern cafeteria was added with the latest kitchen equipment and a large eating area. Before that, the children brought sack lunches to be eaten in the gymnasium.

Nelson’s recollections

I recall on my first day in school the system that we had for drinking water. There was a little trough with six spouts going upwards. The valve was on the south end. This was the only thing attached to the well, and the water pressure was the natural pressure from the well that was enough to force the water at least 4 feet in the air. The drain water ran out on the schoolyard always leaving a mud puddle, which I managed to fall into regularly. There was a small concrete apron around the trough. The water was generally adjusted low, but when we little kids were kneeling over to drink someone always managed to turn the valve on full force to get us wet.

This system worked fine when the well was shut off, but when they were irrigating the pressure was so low that it would hardly run. When the school got electricity in 1929, they installed an electric pressure pump and indoor plumbing.

In 1925, utilities were gasoline lamps for lighting at night and the only running water was furnished by the well on the Bridges place, just east of the school.

One part of the building program, central heat, was put in the schools with the furnace and the radiators. The furnace room was put in the back on the north side of the original two rooms. It was a semi basement and was put in before gas and electricity reached here as it had a big coal room. The problem developed when the water table was extremely high here. It rose nearly to the surface during the winter months, and the basement would fill with water. It had to be pumped out before the furnace could be used. My father got that job and he got the job of trying to seal the basement, too. This was never accomplished entirely satisfactorily until the water level finally dropped to a point that it was no longer a problem. I think the boiler had to be in a basement so the condensate could drain back properly.

When electricity came to East Grand Plains after 1928, the school house was wired. The light fixtures had frosted glass globes over them. Many people were skeptical that the light could get through the frosted glass because the globes were opaque. They were not disappointed. The night the lights were to go on there was a meeting at the school to celebrate the coming of electricity. The lights had been turned on and they gave only a dull glow. Plenty of the “I told you sos went out,” but the next day the problem was overcome and the lights shone brightly. Knowing what I learned later, the legs on the transformer had been hooked up wrong and it only gave half the voltage it needed. For many years, any storm would bring a disruption in the electrical service.

We got natural gas service in East Grand Plains before the line went to Roswell, because the gin would convert its power to natural gas by installing a huge one-cylinder engine and the school converted the coal burning furnace to gas. We got gas many months ahead of Roswell. I suspect there was a greater problem there as Roswell was served with manufactured gas. Southern Union Gas Co. furnished gas here. Roswell’s system was operated by Southwestern Public Service, the local public service, as was the electrical system.

Consolidation

When Walker Air Force Base was active, the base school was in the county system. They brought in a lot of “in lieu of tax money” and many of the Air Force kids went to the county schools. When the base was moved, this money was lost and the county schools consolidated with Roswell. This was supposed to be great and give the county schools so many advantages. It was not that beneficial to our school because of the loss of control, and interest in the school and the farm community was lost. The farm community as a social interest does not exist anymore.

The school buses

In 1923, the first school bus was run to take the rural kids to high school in Roswell. Before that, the kids had to find a place to stay in town or ride a horse to school.

Mr. Albert Hobson drove the bus for many years. To aggravate him, and it wasn’t too difficult, the kids in the back of the bus would start swinging from side to side in unison, the bus would then start swinging from side to side. Yes it was dangerous, but the kids thought it was fun. S.M. Wiggins was the next bus driver but he was harder to aggravate.”

Credits go to James Shinkle’s book on Roswell schools, and Billy Lang’s history, Ellis Whitney, Laura Stilwell, George Ross and Louise Duvall, for some of the information included here. And a special thanks to Morgan Nelson.

Janice Dunnahoo is an archive volunteer at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or by email at jdunna@hotmail.com.