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A Tribute to the Early Day Teachers

Newspaper article about three early De Smet, Dakota Territory, schoolteachers.

I wish to pay a tribute of appreciation to three such outstanding teachers in the De Smet schools in the 1880s and early 1890s: Miss Minnie M. Barrows, Miss Elgetha Masters, and Professor V.S.L. Owen. – Neva Harding, 1951.

Neva Whaley Harding (1872-1977) was an early resident of De Smet Township. She wrote this tribute to her – and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s – early teachers in 1951. A handwritten copy of this tribute used to be on display on a flipchart in the old Laura Ingalls Wilder / Rose Wilder Lane Home and Museum in Mansfield, Missouri.

All De Smet folks are proud of their public school, and with good reason. Many may not know that you also had a good school some sixty years ago, one of the best small-town schools in the state. De Smet was one of the first to offer work beyond the 8th grade. For some time only two years of high school, to be sure, however, the essentials of education were so thoroughly instilled in the pupils that many were able to secure a 1st grade teacher’s certificate upon finishing and those who entered state college were put into the sophomore year. This high standard was the direct result of our good fortune in having teachers of exceptional ability in even those early times.

In looking back over our school days we all can recall some one or two teachers who influenced our lives more than all others, teachers who gave us something more than bare facts out of textbooks, whose personalities were an inspiration to us, whose precepts pointed us to ever widening horizons of thought, to higher ideals of life.

I wish to pay a tribute of appreciation to three such outstanding teachers in the De Smet schools in the 1880s and early 1890s: Miss Minnie M. Barrows, Miss Elgetha Masters, and Professor V.S.L. Owen.

Personally, I did not come under the direct influence of either Miss Barrrows or Miss Masters, as my brother did, but I know of the splendid work they did.

Miss Barrows, a teacher of superior ability, devoted many years to the Primary grades. She was also a wonderful disciplinarian. Besides class work, she trained the children to sing. Never have I heard little children sing better, nor seen them put on more perfectly trained public programs. Her pupils worshipped her and all their lives have held her memory sacred in their hearts.

These well disciplined children were passed on to Miss Masters where it is so necessary to give patient drillwork to secure a firm foundation of essentials. Her careful, conscientious instruction, as well as her gentle gracious personality did much to form character and secure for her a lasting place in the memories of her pupils.

Then as Principal of the school there was V.S.L. Owen, another inspirational teacher who taught us more than was found in the textbooks. I recall particularly in English, how besides the rudiments of grammar, we were given special training in sentence analysis so that we might read and write with understanding. How in all subjects we were required to stand erect by our desk when called upon to recite, to give our answers in complete, correct sentences, in a distinct voice – a fine training for public speaking. How in writing out themes, not only must we use good English, but stress was laid on the ethics of procuring our information; we must so digest the subject matter than we could write it in our own words and not just copy from some book. Honesty in all things was his slogan. It was not only wrong to cheat in exams but also wrong to help someone else cheat. He gave lectures on good citizenship, on respect for the rights of others. Mr. Owen was a builder of character as well as a teacher. Such teachers are rare and should be held in the highest esteem.

We were so glad he could be with us, the first class to graduate from High School in 1889; Alma and David Davies, Florette Bonney, daughter of the Congregational minister, and myself. I was also glad to receive a letter from him last winter about the time he wrote to De Smet folks. He is 93 years old now, but his letter indicates his mind is still young and active. His wife, also, is still living at the age of 90.

It might be appropriate at this point to recall to your minds that Laura Ingalls Wilder, who was the first to put De Smet on the map, got all her literary training from Mr. Owen. In one of her later books I think she mentions that he was the one to find in her theme literary merit and urged her to make something of it. Today her books on early days in De Smet rate as modern classics for children. I have exchanged several letters with her during the last year. She is 84 years old now, still living at her farmhouse near Mansfield, Missouri. Her husband died last fall. She told me she never had any training in writing after she left De Smet. She began by writing articles about the farm for farm papers. She is the only one left of her family except her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, living somewhere in the east. I am one of the few who can say I knew them when, but all De Smet will want to join me in this tribute to the first one to bring literary honor to the Old Home Town.


“A Tribute to the Early Day Teachers”
     De Smet Cemetery tour info for BARROWS