A Teacher to Remember
By Rita Maisel
Teachers generally spend the last day before school starts hard at work on lesson plans, meetings, and in anticipation of the class that will arrive tomorrow ready to begin a new year. This year family and friends of long time Cavalier County teacher, Elsie Schrader, took time out on the last day before school starts to attend her funeral or to stop for a memorial moment in her honor. Always a step or two ahead of the game she had left a few suggestions for this day which were followed. There were scripture readings with rules of life and lessons to live by. The flowers were in her favorite color (shades of purple) and she wore a special blouse purchased by her sister that she had treasured. Some who knew her taste in beautiful shoes even wondered about her purple shoes – a question left unanswered. It might be safe to assume a younger generation will treasure the favorite pair of heels she wore for very special occasions like the day when she was inducted into the Langdon Educator’s Hall of Fame in 2000.
If she had lived three weeks longer her family had been making plans to honor Elsie on her 100th birthday. Thanks to the fact that this was an organized lady who documented special events in her books, we know that she began contract teaching in the fall of 1937 and paid or not, she never totally quit sharing her knowledge. One of the favorite remarks has always been that Elsie Schrader could turn anything into a “teachable moment”. In fact many of those teachable moments are well illustrated in one of the books she wrote, titled “Year After Year,” which was published in 2000. Two other books, combined into one volume under the title “Sisters from Sarles,” told the life stories of her sisters Florence, and Wilma. That volume came out in time for the Sarles Centennial in 2005. Both books are available in the Cavalier County Library as well as in homes in the area. She also wrote for anthologies about teaching in North Dakota, for newspaper and magazine publication, and often mentioned a book in progress which I have not seen in print (yet). That book had to do with the missile years as seen through the eyes of people assigned to work on the construction of the missile base.
Elsie was born at Concrete, ND, where her parents and grandparents lived at that time and was quite proud of the Dennisons (her mother’s family) coming from Thornton-le-dale in Lincolnshire, England. Her grandmother was Emily Warwick Dennison, and on a very special trip back to the area Elsie and her daughter, Val, had a chance to visit Warwick Castle and other sights remembered by the family menbers who had come to America. Guided by her mother’s suggestions, Elsie had a list of cemeteries at Milton, Oaklawn (near Concrete), Clyde, Sarles and elsewhere that she visited each Memorial Day for the Dennison/Cilley sides of her family as well as the Zion Cemetery east of Langdon where generations of her husband’s Schrader ancestors are buried.
Because Elsie’s father, Clarence Cilley, worked for the railroad the family moved from time to time, and each of the three sisters was born in a different location. All of them went to school in Sarles and graduated from Sarles High School. Because of the years of the Depression they each had jobs to earn the money for additional education: Florence became a nurse, Elsie a teacher and Wilma a beautician. But the lines of their choices overlapped a bit. In telling about her ambulance work, we remember Elsie saying how much she had learned from Florence so when the Langdon Ambulance asked for volunteers in 1970 she was one of the first in line and continued to be on call for many years and enjoyed training for the emergencies.
Somewhere along the line there was a memory that Elsie had taught Hay #3 for three years but until re-reading her book it did not register that the years were not consecutive. By the summer of 1937 she had signed a contract to teach Hay #3. Unfortunately the school caught on fire (lightning) and burned one night. At that time we lived one mile south of the school with our bedroom window on that side of the house so a very early memory is of watching the fire from afar while family, who could assist in fighting the fire, raced up to the school. My aunt’s diary tells us the school officers met in our kitchen quite often discussing what to do. The solution turned out to be the church next to where we lived. Grandma had been the church custodian ever since the church was built in 1899 but had died recently so family members took over cleaning the church each week and children went along even if we did not help. What a surprise to find desks and books in the basement of the Zion Church! Whether those items had survived the fire or were obtained from a closed school at a later date is not known, but several pre-schoolers learned the words “playing school” long before we could attend in person. In short order a decision was made to move the Hay #1 school to the Hay #3 location and to make it usable for the winter months – that work took until December so the new teacher (Elsie) started her teaching career in the church basement, and her book about teaching tells that she had to keep the area neat for church activities like services, Ladies Aid Suppers etc.
Not being school age at the time, I don’t remember knowing Elsie until later. Teachers were often included in communnity events and as it happens, Elda Schrader and Ben Wendlandt got married a short time later. 1930s weddings were relatively small with sometimes a shower or a chivaree held for new couples. The party for Ben and Elda was held at the home of her parents and because Elda was my mother’s cousin; our family and all the Schrader relatives were invited. At this event the women gathered in the front room making a quilt for the couple while the men were in the kitchen with all the children as close to the new groom as possible. This was because Ben wore stripped bib overalls with lots of pockets which he stocked well with peanuts, candy and even sticks of gum which he liked to share. Another cousin on the Schrader side arrived and noticed there was a pretty lady in the living room – someone he did not know. Ernie announced loudly that he was going to marry her! Their wedding was the next fall and they initially lived with his parents a mile or so from the school.
Schools hesitated to hire married women since marriage was considered a full-time job so the fall, they got married, Elsie did not teach. However, she needed one more year of teaching to get her life certificate so the county superintendent suggested she be assigned to a school in Fremont Township to accomplish that.
Ernie had been farming with his dad and brothers, but as the brothers married some moved to their own farms, and in later years Elsie and Ernie lived on the south side of Highway 5 possibly two miles west of the church. With war approaching teachers were being drafted and by 1940 Elsie was again teaching at Hay #3 with a lot of her original students (Dunfords, Bowleses, Lois Anderson, Bob Wenzel, and Al Balsdon families) as well as the VanAckeren children from Hay #2 which closed in winter, a second family of Balsdons, Flatens and Berglands. I was enrolled in Langdon, but with wartime restrictions coal was in short supply so the following spring Langdon school closed for a week. I was sent to the farm where the aunt living there had her hands full with her own children. In short order I was added to a car load of children going to Hay #3 where Elsie was the teacher. The younger students sat two to a seat, and by my count there must have been 30 children enrolled that year. We brought our lunches (at Langdon you walked home for meals). It was the most school fun I can remember! Several of the children rode horses to school, and there was a small shed for the school barn. They played ball (unheard of in Langdon!), had swings, a merry-go-round and even a closet called “the library”. Since this was the “home school” it might have been the one where Ernie sometimes brought Elsie to school on the stone boat. Other rural schools she taught were in Manilla and Harvey Townships.
After their daughter, Valerie, was born Elsie and Ernie moved to Langdon to live with her parents who had purchased a house in Langdon and that became their permanent home. Following the death of her father, various Dennison and Schrader relatives also lived with them – sometimes for winter months and sometimes for longer periods. In the late 1940s Elsie taught several years at Clyde and learned to call the airport for a ride home when roads were blocked. There were also several years of teaching in Nekoma before she was hired to teach in Langdon in 1957 and remained there teaching her beloved Life Science classes until retirement after 38 years of full-time teaching.
Included in her memories are classes large and larger, the need for new buildings brought on by the closing of the rural schools, the missile years, the many facets of science she taught and totally enjoyed as well as the interesting people she had a chance to know as co-workers. Her retirement years included politics, travel, grandchildren, serving on various boards and committees and of course being able to say yes when the schools called for a substitute. From time to time she would invite me to come along to interesting events and every time the adventures became a learning moment for me.
Elsie was a very special lady, a good friend and mentor and had a special knack for helping students of all ages understand difficult subjects. After open heart surgery, which she used as a personal learning situation, she was advised to slow down. One problem was temporarily losing her driver’s license. The test to get it back was difficult but having been on the Sarles Basketball team in the 1930s she nailed the required free throws!
Some of the stories and questions from her funeral had to do with three couples who seemed to always remain close friends:Ernie and Elsie Schrader, Ray and Muriel Schrader and Harold and Larry Wenzel. The men had all been born in Hay Township and attended Hay #3, attended Zion Church and participated in each other’s weddings. Muriel had been one of Elsie’s first students, and most of the children got to know Elsie as a school or Sunday School teacher. Larry had met her husband while he was visiting at the home of Elsie’s sister in Minneapolis. The ladies each had their own style and color, but their fashions were individual and often unique. As of last fall one member of each couple was still living and all were in their mid to late 90s. In June 2018 Ray Schrader and Lauretta Wenzel were buried a day apart in Zion Cemetery. Elsie joined them this week.