Schoolhouse Tales from Layton, Oklahoma
by Gloria Hawkins"Sure, you're welcome to come to the school--the museum isn't open until 10:00 tomorrow morning, but I'll open the padlock on the gate so you can get in," was Tim Poteete's genuine response to a request for our unscheduled visit to Blue Beaver School.
"Just drive through the parking lot and around behind the museum, you'll see the schoolhouse," he instructed. As we carefully maneuvered our way through the construction sites, we encountered a crew of workers restoring an old train depot, and then Brian Smith, the carpenter for the village. Chatting with him about the school, we discovered that the original iron and wooden desks were no longer used in Blue Beaver's programming. "The desks, part of the museum's collection, were getting too much wear and tear from the student use. We replaced them with tables and benches that I built," he told us. Later in our visit Tim Poteete confided that, "Brian can build just about anything. He copied our tables and benches from an old photo."
As we continued into the village on this very warm day, we were greeted by Tim coming out of the fort. He was dressed in full period costume consisting of felt hat, long sleeved shirt, herringbone wool vest, heavy pants and boots--with wire-rimmed glasses completing his transformation back in time. Despite the heavy attire and the Oklahoma heat, Tim's enthusiasm for sharing the school's history didn't seem to be dampened.
"Blue Beaver School #61 opened October 13, 1902 and was used as a school until 1938. Later it was used as a community center. When the school closed the land reverted back to the farmer, the original land owner. The farmer's family called us and asked if we wanted it. Yep, sure did! So, in January of 2000, Blue Beaver #61 moved to the museum." Tim continued with his the story. "After we refurbished and refitted the school, exactly 100 years to the day of its original first class, we opened as a living history museum with our first class."
Tim's personal involvement with programming was obvious as he talked about Blue Beaver's Christmas on the Prairie program. "Children not only decorate a Christmas tree, but they also have the opportunity to choose it and actually cut it down."
In early December, Tim goes out to his brother-in-law's farm and cuts down 10 or 15 cedar trees. When he returns to the village, he trims the trees, then shims each one up in a short piece of pipe that has been previously concreted in the ground. Leaves are used to hide the trunk and pipe.
"The tree is chosen by vote, each child casting his vote by standing next to the tree they like the best. The tree with the most kids next to it gets cut. Nearly always you have some of them who want to cut down the biggest tree, but you have to remind them that they are doing the cutting and carrying and that they have to get a tree hat will go through the schoolhouse door." Tim explained.
"We show them how to hold and use a bow saw safely. Chores that the farm children would have been responsible for at home are also explained. The older boys in a farm family would have done all the chopping of the wood. We then allow the older student to cut the tree for our school," he continued.
When questioned about safety, Tim assured me, "Safety has never been a problem. We have never had an accident or lost any fingers. I always ask the students, 'Do you know why we need our fingers? (to call attention to the dangers of the saw)...and I get all sorts of answers." One visitor answered, "If we didn't have fingers we couldn't write or play the piano!" Then much to the dismay of the schoolmarm, Tim's sense of humor emerges and he tells them, "No, we need fingers for scratching and picking!" He says the boys love it and the girls cringe, but they always remember to be careful!
The program includes activities that vary by age. The younger students uses a piece of tin foil and a walnut to make a tree ornament--and Tim tells them that foil would have come from liners of tobacco cans or candy bars. The older students string popcorn and Tim added that, "No one has been stuck yet!" They also make paper chains and cut snowflakes from construction paper. They pass around oranges and cloves to smell and then use them to make pomanders.
"We discuss how candles were used on Christmas trees, show them old candle clips and talk about how the candles represent stars," Tim added. While candles were eventually replaced by electric lights, he teaches the visitors the dangers of live flames and tells them the sad story of the Babb Switch School.
Babb Switch School was about a mile from Blue Beaver School, a one-room school destroyed by a tragic fire on the night of the school's Christmas program. Someone brushed the Christmas tree knocking over a candle on the tree. The students and families rushed to put out the fire and knocked the entire tree over. In a panic to get out, people rushed against the inward opening doors and were trapped inside. Thirty-six people perished.
"We use lots of modern materials in our program," Tim said, "but we always tell students when we do and why. The whole program is intended to compare Christmas and its decorations, then and now. It is hands-on and very popular. It's funded by businesses in Layton, so the materials are free, and the free admission helps its popularity, I'm sure."
At this point, Tim's unending supply of information was interrupted by a costumed re-enactor dressed as a Native American. Questions needed to be answered and we needed to be on our way, so we said our good-byes.
Tim's extensive historical knowledge of Oklahoma and the Blue Beaver School was enlightening and entertaining. His sense of humor and animated storytelling captivated my husband and me, and certainly all the students who visit the Blue Beaver School at the Museum of the Great Plains.
* Tim Poteete is an Oklahoma historian and living history interpreter at the Museum of the Great Plains in Layton, OK. For more information on the museum, access the link below.
Photos: Top to Bottom: Tim Poteete at the Blue Beaver School; Carpenter, Brian Smith; Interior schoolhouse and Brian's hand-made desks; Interior and Brian's handiwork; vintage photo of a Blue Beaver class; Historian, Tim Poteete.
For more information on the Babb Switch School Fire of 1924:
Gloria Hawkins is a member of the Board of Directors of the Country School Association of America and a professional photographer. She has photographed hundreds of one-room schools across the United States. We appreciate tales from her extensive travels!