Lilies of the Field and Country Schools

The roadside or ditch lily fell out of favor with more “discerning” gardeners some years back because of their low maintenance, friendly nature, and ability to spread from one spot to another, some have called them “invasive species” status.

Sometimes considered “pass-along” or “friendship plants,” these colorful harbingers of summer–botanical name Hemerocallis–originally came from Asia, where they were a staple of Chinese diets for many years. Arriving in the New World with our first colonists, daylilies quickly spread across North America. Not a true lily–true lilies grow from bulbs, these from tuberous roots, daylilies have been popular for centuries.

There were orange lilies in the rural ditch across the road north of the American Foursquare Iowa farmhouse I grew up in. There still are.

Penn No. 4

There was a country schoolhouse, Penn No. 4, on that corner north of our house south of Dexter. The school was torn down and the area is now part of a cornfield. But the lilies still announce that once there was a one-room school there.

Penn No. 4 as it looked in 1950.

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Kids at Penn No. 4 in 1927. Penn No. 4 School, Madison County, Iowa (four miles south of Dexter on Old Creamery Road), 1927. Front: Harold Jobst, Charles Davidson, Fred Morford Jr., ____ Linn, Darlene and Dale Wilson (1st graders), Marjery Wolf, ____ Linn. Middle: Donald Wilson (6th grade), Lee Barr, Paul Willrich, Robert Davidson, Ivan Barr (peeking around Darlene), _____, Doris Wilson (only one in 3rd grade), ____ Linn. Back: Delbert Wilson (6th grade), ____ Linn, teacher Hazel Wetrich, Howard Davidson, Ray Thrailkill, Ilene Jensen, ____ Linn.

If you drive around rural Iowa, you’ll find patches of the cheerful old-fashioned lilies in the ditches. And if they’re near a corner, likely as not there was a rural school there 100 years ago.

When counties and townships were platted, rural children walked to school. Townships had nine school buildings so that children didn’t have to walk more than two miles to school.

My grandmother’s mother, Laura Jordan, taught country school until she married–and traded her “teacher watch” for a cow.

Prairie College country school

The Goffs moved about 1898 to a farm south of Guthrie Center, along a hilly dirt road that was later hard surfaced and named Highway 25. They moved the pioneer house built by Laura Goff’s grandfather, Ephraim Moore, and evidently added to it. Daughter Leora was seven then and walked about ¾ mile to her country school called “Prairie College.” Officially Valley No. 7, it was there she heard her first “talking machine.” The rest of the family was too tired to go, so they let her take their little dog Fanny. Her father told her that Fanny would take care of her.

Fanny wasn’t allowed in the house, but she followed Leora right into the schoolhouse and stayed at her feet under a desk. In her memoirs, Leora remembered that several people came and they had to take turns using earphones, so her turn to listen seemed so short. Leora “wasn’t a bit afraid” walking home in the moonlight with Fanny.


Decades later my mother and I used Leora’s memoirs for clues, searching for the places where her stories may have taken place. We traveled along Highway 25, turning off onto a gravel road to get our bearings, and surmising where the house might have been–back when her brother Rolla was born, and when she heard her first talking machine.

Along the road near the highway was a ditch full of glowing lilies–a common remembrance of where a country school probably sat. We think we may have found where Guthrie County’s “Prairie College” was, so the old Moore/Goff house must have been less than half a mile from there.

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Prairie College school, 6 miles south of Guthrie Center, Iowa, about 1898. Back: Milly Moore, Forest Crawley, Mable France, Mattie Eweing, Bessie Crawley, Carl Crawley, Elsie France, Etta Moore. Front: Verna Davis, Ida Moore, Isaac Moore, Lonnie Crawley, teacher Clara Davis Olmsted (a student of Laura Jordan at one time), Guy Olmstead, Luella France, Ray Eweing, Leora Goff. Seated: Wayne Goff, Merl Goff.  Kids are barefooted.

Melville No. 2

When Goffs lived in Audubon County from 1906 to 1911, the children attended Melville No. 2 school. In April 1908, the County Superintendent called for a day of house cleaning for the schools, with community help–floors, walls, windows, yards, outbuildings.


Frog Pond School

Leora Goff grew up and married Clabe Wilson, who went to Frog Pond School southeast of Monteith.

Marker at Tank Avenue and 270th Street in Guthrie County, Iowa.

Neal Sisters–Country School Teachers

During the 1940s Dad’s sisters Nadine and Betty Neal taught country school.

Their youngest sister Marian Neal was taught by Helen Cook at Union No. 5. I guess Marian liked her as a teacher as Helen later married Marian’s older brother Bill Neal. Bill and Helen’s oldest daughter Judy was our only cousin to start school in the country. Helen Cook also taught at Jackson No. 2 and Union No. 4. 

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Betty Neal taught at College Corners, northwest of Dexter in 1942. She married Mervin Wells but kept it a secret so she could teach an extra semester.

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I think that the school marked in section 21 of this 1930 map is Union No. 5 where Helen Cook and, later, Nadine Neal taught. Haven’t figured out where “College Corners” was.

Nadine Neal was hired to teach at Dallas County’s Union Township No. 5 school in August of 1943 for $90 per school month.

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Ditch lilies probably still silently announce where College Corners was decades ago in Guthrie county, and where Dallas County’s Union No. 5 used to be. Lovely reminders.


  1. Isn’t it sad that women were supposed to give up teaching once they married! Day lilies remain favourites of old gardens in this country too.

  2. Yes, it sure does not happen these days. I love the stories you are writing about and the time it was happening.

    • I’m amazed at the way Grandma’s stories plus Mom’s stories come together in surprising ways. I’m so heartened that the Penn No. 4 bell made its way back to Iowa last weekend!

  3. I love so much about this post from the wonderful lesson on day lilies (love them) to Fanny going to school, the reading books photographed on the old typewriter, the detailed supporting evidence that has stood the test of time ….the glimpse into history through your posts is outstanding ~ Sharon

    • Bless you, dear! I’m amazed at how some stories just come together–and I’ve got Mom’s pictures and also her mother’s–and their stories. It’s such fun weaving them together and discovering things. I wish the old typewriter had come from family, but my husband found it somewhere. It was in the garage for several years, but the last time I mentioned hoping it would make its way into the house, he cleaned it up and I’ve so enjoyed using it as a prop!

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