Back to basics
Backcountry teaching in Idaho’s Salmon River Country
In 1916 Katherine Wonn Harris ventured into Idaho’s Salmon River country to teach at a backcountry school. Her journey from Boise to the schoolhouse took three days, and she traveled by train, stagecoach and mule. At just 16 years old, Harris tried to look 18, which was the minimum age requirement for teachers in Idaho. In her memoir Topping Out, Harris writes of her experiences teaching in the rugged country at a tiny schoolhouse. Harris continued country teaching for seven years, teaching at river schools, mining camps, short-term summer schools and tutoring families where public school was not possible. Following is an excerpt from Topping Out, describing a day she met her new pupils in the Salmon River country:
Thumping sounds from the schoolhouse indicated the center of activity and thither I made my way to find Bess
Garrter pulling down a pack rat nest from the attic, a sodden and odoriferous mess which dripped nastily through wide cracks in the ceiling. Hearing me below, she clambered down.
“Them danged rats,” she observed, her tawny mane disheveled and hanging down in her eyes. “Every winter they set up in this attic. I gotta scrub this place from top to bottom.” …
[I] gathered records and returned to work at the cook tent table. Here I laid out an overall campaign for four months of intensive attack on the mother tongue, studied the school register for a preliminary survey of my seven charges, and composed a glib and lying letter to my mother describing my pleasant quarters in the summer home of a cattle baron. As an extra embellishment, I transformed the stolid Riley to a handsome Palomino, which I would ride to school each day, or on suitable occasions canter down to the boat landing to pick up mail left by the Lewiston boat. My mother must not know, must never know, how my present situation surpassed her wildest apprehensions of “that wild Salmon River country.”
A washbasin bath in the girls’ tent and the unpacking of my shattered belongings completed the early afternoon’s activities. The airy frocks I had brought for my summer school sojourn were here an absurdity. I laughed aloud at the high-heeled footwear, so hopefully packed, and was moved to further merriment at the sight of the crumbled leghorn straw with floppy brim and wreath of mangled daisies. What I now needed, and badly, was another stout riding skirt, boots and a supply of long-tailed blouses. The tailored tricotine suit which graced my first appearance on the Salmon River and had been little seen since, was packed reverently away accompanied by the hope that it might present a creditable appearance “outside” at the end of my four month’s incarceration.
“Only thing you need to do outside school,” Bess Garrter informed me as she prepared our late dinner, “is to decide on each day’s grub and see to the cuttin’ of the meat.” Slicing steaks from a large chunk of beef, she continued. “You won’t lose no meat if you keep it stacked close and slung high.” To illustrate this point, she slipped the hunk back in a stout muslin sack, tied the end securely and hoisted it high by means of a rope flung over a branch of the Ponderosa.
“Me and Miss Mac bake up light bread for the school camp every week, so the main thing is to make out the day’s grub list and see them two girls cook it right and serve it decent,” [she said.]
Them two girls, it developed, were her own Easie, barely 11, and Maryadee MacDeen, one year her senior. Both, she insisted, could cook good when they’d a mind to.
“Our young Jim,” she told me proudly, “will be your big help at the school camp. Bein’ our oldest, he’s always taken
the brunt of things. He’s a sight like his pa, always ready to do for folks. Him and Clem, that’s MacDeen’s oldest, do a good job lookin’ after the horses, packin’ and keepin’ the gear in order, getting out wood too, if it’s too much for the little fellers.”
“There’s another MacDeen child,” I said, consulting the school register.
“Little Johnnie,” she broke in. “Same age’s our Eulie. Neither of them topped out enough to know if they’re goin’ to be much account. But they can carry wood and water and help keep the camp picked up and clean.”
“What about Bib?” I asked again scanning the official list. “Bib Garrter. Is that his real name?”
“His name’s Alfred,” stated Bess. “But he don’t come to it, so we call him Bib ‘cause he’s always rippin’ the bib off his overalls. Don’t take to bib overalls like the other younguns. He’s a sight, o’ boy, that Bib. Lively as a colt and smart as a whip. That’s why Jim gives him plenty to do at the school camp.”
Going over the duty list, I saw that Bib had indeed drawn a full program. For him was reserved the janitor duties at the school, daily cleaning and liming of the toilet, garbage disposal, together with all out cleanliness of the grounds. Bib had enough to keep two boys busy, but such precautions did not deter him from other highly disturbing activities, as I was to later learn.
With increasing uneasiness I awaited the arrival of the Garrter-MacDeen fry, feeling that much of the success of this peculiar arrangement depended on impressions of the first day, and as the minutes passed I began to fight a sort of wild panic. … Soon they streamed into camp: five saddle horses, two carrying double, two heavily loaded pack horses and two dogs. With proper dignity, I greeted each child by name, thankful for the briefing given by Bess Garrter.
Young Jim, a slim, dark lad with his father’s steady eyes, aided by fattish Clem of the MacDeen clan, proceeded to the task of unpacking and caring for the horses with occasional shy glances toward me. I felt the covert scrutiny of Maryadee’s alert dark eyes as she extracted her belongings from the packs, accompanied by bossy orders to Essie, a shy, awkward child with flaxen hair braided in tight pigtails. Miss Maryadee MacDeen, I decided, should be put in her place this first day.
The two little boys were indeed far from being “topped out” and after an interval of regarding me questioningly, they were off like lively chipmunks to various spots held dear by association of the previous summer.
The only one of the seven who examined me with unabashed candor, accompanied by a series of wide grins, was Bib. … It was his hat which compelled my fascinated gaze: a scarred gray Stetson of great girth which rode his ears, spreading them wide and giving his face a distinct gargoylish cast. It was brim-rolled in a nonchalant V, adorned with a band of rattlesnake skin, and its crowning glory was an additional band of rattles in varying lengths fastened in a tight row above the repellent band. They rustled sibilantly when he moved. Later I was to learn that there were 44 of the sinister trinkets, and Bib had a story for every one of them. He was altogether as fearsome an example of the 10-year-old American urchin as has ever been portrayed by brush stroke or pen.
Precisely at nine o’clock I rang the little hand bell. Schoolin’, plus manners, morals and diet, was off to a flying start.
© 1972, by Katherine Wonn Harris. Published by Aldyth H. Logan. Copyright owned by Hudson Logan.