Brilliant wildflowers carpeted the fields, interrupted by scattered woods ablaze with dogwood and redbud. The aroma of tilled soil wafted through the window. It was spring on the Illinois Prairie, and April 9, 1927, was a lovely day. Somewhere between Joliet and LaPorte, an old Model T puttered eastward – well it wasn’t that old, they’d only been made since ’08. In the car, two young schoolteachers returned from Joliet. Ethel snuggled closer to Harold; he smiled and patted her head. They were happy but hid a secret. Nearing LaPorte, a car approached. It was a friend and fellow teacher. Afraid to seen, Ethel sunk low in her seat. The car passed – their secret was safe, for now.
“What was their secret?”
Good question. This was ninety years ago, the same timeframe depicted on Downton Abbey. Society was much different. For the contemporary observer, what I am about to reveal may be unbelievable, but it is true; I heard it from Ethel herself, and Grandmother would not fib.
You see, Ethel was a schoolteacher, as was Harold. He was six years older, in fact, when Ethel graduated from Union Township School, he was the Principal. Ethel studied at Indiana Normal School, in Terre Haute, and then she began teaching. She taught in a one-room school near Puddington, which was twelve miles from her parent’s house. Ethel lived in an age caught between the horse and auto. For the young teacher, the twelve miles to her home was too far to walk. Since she had no car, she lived with a local family during the week and returned to her home on the weekends. A teacher in a one-room schoolhouse had to attend to every need; cleaning, heat, water and her students. It was hard work, but Ethel loved her job, loved her students, and loved Harold.
Harold was a widower. In ’25 his wife, Arzella, died in childbirth. Now Harold was alone with the infant Jane. This terrible blow fell barely a year after they had lost infant twins. Devastated, Harold moved in with his sister Mary, and her husband, Russell. Two years younger that Harold, Mary cared for Jane while the men taught school. Ethel was Arzella’s younger sister, and after the tragedy fell in love with Harold. They wanted to get married but had a problem – the township trustee.
In Indiana, before we elected School Boards, the township trustees ran the schools. Each trustee ran their own little fief, from road maintenance and poor relief to the township school. He maintained the buildings, controlled the budget, and did the hiring and firing. Trustees were farmers or local merchants. Nearly all were men with the belief that a married woman could not be a teacher.
Their line of reasoning went something like this: Since a married woman had a man to support her, she didn’t need a job and would be taking it away from a man, who needed the job to support his family. Besides, she should be home taking care of her family. Yes, this is idiotic reasoning. Unfortunately, it persisted until well after WWII. Since Ethel wanted to teach to the end of the school year, what were they to do?
Well, after much soul-searching, Ethel and Harold slipped into Illinois and did it; they got hitched. Only Mary and Russell knew of their intentions. The young lovers made an ingenious plan. First Ethel told her parents that she planned to visit Mary; they were to attend a Sunday school party. Since the party, scheduled for Saturday night, was expected to last too late for Ethel to return to her home, she would spend the night with Mary.
Next came a bit of misdirection. Saturday morning Harold and Ethel drove her father into LaPorte and dropped him off for a day in town. Our conspirators then continued to Joliet. In Joliet, they were married in the parsonage of the Methodist Preacher. After the ceremony, they drove back to LaPorte, picked up her father and took him home. Finally, our adventurers returned to Mary and Russell’s house. That night, as if nothing had happened, Mary, Russell, and Ethel went to the Sunday school party. Harold stayed home with Jane.
For the next two Monday mornings, Harold drove Ethel to her school. They made the trip early in the morning, so early that it would be unseemly for a unchaperoned single woman to be in the company of a man. To avoid detection, Ethel would duck down in the seat, as she had done on that fateful Saturday. Whenever Harold spotted a familiar car, he sang “Bye, Bye Birdie.” That was the signal to duck.
Which brings us to the logical question. Since the school year was almost over, why didn’t they wait two weeks to get married? Timing – as soon as school was out Harold had to leave for IU to start his Master’s degree.
By the time Grandmother told me this story, Grandfather was gone, and I was married. Yes, I was surprised when I heard it. Grandfather and Grandmother were upstanding pillars of the community. How could they have kept such a secret? Then I remembered that they were young, times were different, and their generation often kept such personal things close. Come to find out, they were not the only ones to trick the trustee. The first car they ducked belonged to Virgil Emigh. Grandmother learned later that he and Ada had done the same thing.
Harold and Ethel were a good match, and they raised my mother Jane as if she were Ethel’s daughter. In time, Jane had a brother and two sisters. The four children formed a tightly knit family. Jane would be in her twenties before she learned the truth – that her mother had died in childbirth and that the women she called Mother, was her aunt.
Why did Grandmother and Grandfather keep the news from Mom? Who knows. I suspect it was too hard to explain such a thing to a 2-year-old, and then by the time she could understand, they probably feared to upset their tight-knit family. Then again, Grandfather’s mother was an orphan, fostered to strangers when she was twelve. Perhaps that had some bearing. I don’t know. Ninety years ago society was nothing like it is today, and it is impossible to fully divine their motivations. Unlike today, most were raised on farms with no electricity, no phone, no car, no mass media, their childhoods little changed from frontier life. There were no antibiotics so a simple bacterial infection could spell death. This was the generation that saw the dawning of the technological age and fought WWI. They were a stoic generation that often kept their memories safe from the picklocks of history.
David L Dahl.
Many thanks to Aunt Doris Miller, Her book was a great help.
Leave me a comment, follow me on Twitter @buggasbooks, or like me on Facebook.
Read more about Olivia’s Story here – http://www.buggasbooks.com/book/olivias-story/
Read about my other books here- http://www.buggasbooks.com/other-works/