Retired Hempfield teacher to step into past as schoolmarm
Rules hanging on a wall of the Harrold Schoolhouse No. 8 in Hempfield might surprise some young visitors on field-trip day.
“Bring firewood into the classroom for the stove whenever the schoolmarm tells you to do this chore.”
“Respect your schoolmarm; obey her and accept her punishments.”
“At the end of class, wash your hands and face. Wash your feet if they are bare.”
Their writing tools — slates and chalk, quill pens and small pots of ink — cause confusion and delight.
“They love that. They’ve never written with ink before,” new “marm” Kathy Vollrath said.
And the dunce cap in the corner? Someone is likely to don it before each day ends, she said.
Vollrath, 67, retired in 2010 as a third-grade teacher with the Hempfield Area School District.
She recently was hired as schoolmarm for the district’s one-room schoolhouse, replacing retired teacher Donna Eicher, 70.
Each spring, the district leases the red brick building owned by the Baltzer Meyer Historical Society, and sends about 20 classes of third-graders back to the 1880s for a day.
They dress in era clothing: girls in bonnets, skirts and aprons, boys in vests.
The garments are made by Hempfield family and consumer science students.
Vollrath’s attire includes a floor-length black skirt, sensible black shoes, a white blouse clasped at the neck with a cameo pin and a fringed shawl. A blue and white-checked bonnet covers her head.
“I’ve always been interested in local history,” she said. “It’s a nice fit.”
Eicher retired from teaching in 2006 but offered to serve as schoolmarm as the district worked to renovate the schoolhouse at that time. She became the original marm in 2008.
“I agreed to one year, which turned into nine,” Eicher said. “This was just enough to keep my hand in (teaching) a bit. I’ll miss not doing it.”
Vollrath gained a little prior experience, subbing for Eicher one year when the district hosted two grades at the schoolhouse.
A tornado in 2011 damaged the building, not far from the Hempfield Area High School complex. It did not reopen until 2012 — meaning an entire class missed their turn to visit.
Vollrath assisted Eicher with shepherding an extra year’s worth of students — then fourth-graders — through their field trip.
“I really enjoyed it,” she said.
The schoolhouse experience is one the district wants to preserve for students, said Tammy Wolicki, the district’s assistant superintendent of elementary education.
“I think any time we can take advantage of such a local historical venue where our kids can not just read about history, but experience it firsthand … It’s certainly better than reading about it in a textbook. It provides an authentic experience,” she said.
Vollrath’s prior experience and a recommendation from Eicher led Wolicki to reach out when it came time to find a replacement.
And the timing was good.
Vollrath and her husband, George, a retired Hempfield teacher and former principal, until June operated a free clinic in Greensburg for people lacking medical insurance.
The need decreased recently as more people qualified for Medicaid.
“That kind of folded, and this opened up,” Vollrath said.
School days of yore
In the late 1880s, Vollrath said, students typically were needed to work at home and attended school only a few months a year.
Schoolmarms of a century or more ago taught students of all ages. They had to be unmarried and were expected to clean the school daily, historical references note.
Vollrath said Eicher told her she based her presentations to students on a strict disciplinarian schoolmarm model.
“That isn’t my demeanor,” Vollrath said, laughing. “I’m going to have to up my game.”
Eicher is convinced that will not be a problem.
“(Vollrath) is just perfect. She has the personality to do it, too,” Eicher said. “It’s a lot of fun.”
Vollrath is working on a curriculum, which will include the McGuffey Reader series, history, science, math, spelling and grammar.
Students will bring their lunch to school and head outdoors for recess in good weather.
“They play games like marbles and jacks and jump rope,” Vollrath said.
The teaching gene is apparently a family trait. The Vollraths’ son, Chad, is a University of Wisconsin professor, and their daughter, Lindsey, teaches third grade in Thailand.
Vollrath looks forward to her spring return to the classroom.
“I’ve always missed teaching. I loved my job. It brought such joy to my life,” she said. “This was the grade that I taught. It will feel very natural, I think, stepping into this age group.”
Mary Pickels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5401 or [email protected].