Wisdom & Grace: Little schoolhouse on the prairie


November 4, 2019

Forgive me, Lord. The other Sunday at church I was looking around the congregation instead of honoring You with my heart and mind during the music worship time. I couldn't believe who I saw across the way! So, I impetuously left where I was standing and walked around to the center aisle to get a better look. I recognized her sister, who regularly attends, but I still wasn't quite sure. Closer I went and finally I blurted out, just below the volume of the worship music, but so that she could hear me, "Mrs. VanWechel ... is that you?"-

In her prim and proper voice, she politely answered, "Yes, Ila. It's me." Realizing it wasn't the best time to renew our acquaintance, I responded, "Wow! I'll talk to you after the service."

Donna VanWechel was my third-grade teacher at Staton Coulee School. She was back in Havre to visit her sister Tudy Cowan.

It started me remembering the wonderful years I spent at Staton Coulee School, two miles northeast of my childhood home and about 20 some miles north of Havre. Memories welled up within me. A deeper appreciation for my teachers and fellow students poured forth.

My first-grade teacher was Esther Naber. We had eight students total in the school: Howard Harden and myself in first grade, Nancy Harden in third grade, Cynthia Couch in fourth grade, Delbert Whaley (my brother) and Sharon Johnson in fifth, and Myrna Whaley (my sister) and Phyllis Couch in the eighth grade.

Two things stand out when I remember my first grade. We didn't learn to print as most first-graders do. Instead we went directly to writing in cursive. Right or wrong, Mrs. Naber believed printing was a useless avenue to proper cursive. A wonderful gift I was given that year was a love of reading. Every day after noon recess, Mrs. Naber would have a quiet time and she would read to us such books as "The Boxcar Children," "Little House on the Prairie" and "Little Britches." All the students loved it and we would beg her to keep on reading. Listening to those wonderful stories was so much better than math or phonics.

Mrs. Naber was also my second-grade teacher. Myrna and Phyllis went onto high school and Nancy and Howard moved to town. But Marcia Johnson and Calvin Couch were first graders. Memories of that year include square dancing, our Christmas program, and ice skating in the ditches when a Chinook wind would melt the snow and then freeze again.

Third-grade brought a new teacher, Donna VanWechel. She was young and trim and beautiful. During morning recess, Mrs. VanWechel always had the same treat for herself: a cup of hot coffee from her thermos and a candy bar. When the weather was too bitter cold, we would stay in for morning recess and I remember staring in awe at her coffee and candy bar and believing, "being a teacher must be the very best job." To have a candy bar every day for treat was unbelievable!

Mrs. VanWechel drove a small Hillman car to school. During recess, on winter days, we would tie our sleds onto her car and away she would pull us down the section lines. "No teacher in their right mind would do that these days," she remarked on that Sunday. But oh! How fun it was.

Fourth-grade garnered another young teacher named Dorothy Foubert. She was from the state of Washington, had come to college at Northern and married a local dairy farmer. She attended the same church as we did. Although this would be her first teaching position, she fell into it with ease. Her daughter Terry stayed in town for the eighth grade, but sons Mike and Tom came out with her. Mike attended school most days as a kindergartner and Tom stayed with my parents. The school did have a teacherage and she stayed there some and drove back and forth the rest of the time.

Gayle and Roger McIntosh joined us as first-graders and with Mike Foubert, we totaled mine students.

Christmas programs were a huge event for our country school. For months prior to the big event we would practice and practice, rewriting them for the number and abilities of the acting students. On the day of the occasion, excitement was high and we hurried through our assignments so we could do the last-minute necessities for the upcoming program that night. Parents, grandparents, siblings and neighbors were invited for the big show. And we couldn't wait!

Then a dreaded telephone call came from my parents, "Take a look outside. There's a blizzard. We can't get to the program and the kids can't come home. The roads are closed." The same call soon came from the other parents.

There we were: heartbroken children. "Do we have to cancel our program?" we asked Mrs. Foubert.

"Of course not," she answered, "we'll just postpone it."

We were there for the evening and the night until our parents could come and get us for Christmas break. Mrs. Foubert wouldn't allow us to feel sorry for ourselves as the long evening progressed on and the blizzard wailed outside. She found something for us to eat (I believe it was macaroni) and Cindi and Sharon made a box cake with just water since we didn't have any eggs handy. Mrs. Foubert allowed us to open the individual Christmas gifts that she had wrapped for each of us. They were games like Parcheesi, Bingo and Checkers.

Before we knew it, it was time to go to sleep. The storm was still raging. Between the teacherage and the props for Christmas program, we found plenty of blankets to keep us warm. The oil stove did its job and we fell asleep still disappointed, but happy we were together and safe.

As vicious as the storm had been the day and night before, the next morning bloomed beautifully white and tranquil. It was decided between Mrs. Foubert and our parents to have the program that afternoon. Certainly not as many spectators came as what we had been planning for but we did our best, knowing that we had just survived an event that we would remember every Christmas for the rest of our lives. It wasn't what we expected or wanted, but it was good.

The fall of 1962 Delbert and Sharon entered Havre High School. Marcia moved to town. The school bus started running on the Wildhorse Trail. It was decided to close our dear little schoolhouse on the prairie. I started riding the bus and entered Devlin School in 5th grade.

Thank you, Mrs. Naber, Mrs. Foubert and Mrs. VanWechel. I am eternally grateful for your care, your wisdom and your love. God bless you!

"Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it." Proverbs 22:6


Ila McClenahan is a retired chaplain and activity director living north of Havre in the Amos Community where she was raised. She spends her time speaking for Christian events, volunteering for community organizations, and chauffeuring grandkids.


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