Thursday, October 27, 2011

My Favorite Assignment


When I was a junior in high school,  I was in a History/English class that was intended for college bound students, so at times we had some unique classroom assignments.  During this particular assignment, we were asked to talk to someone about the depression.  The closest people I had to talk to were my grandparents.  I don’t remember many classroom assignments from high school or college for that matter – but I’ve never been so glad that I had that assignment so long ago.  My eyes were opened to the past and living history that we had around us.

My grandmother was born in 1911 on Grouse Flats, Wallowa Co., OR.  Her parents moved to Pomeroy, Garfield Co., WA in the early 1920’s and to Lewiston, Nez Perce Co., ID in the last 1920’s.  Capitola (aka Grandma Cappy) started high school in the brand new school that had just been built.  It is the same high school that my mother attended and that my siblings and I attended – but in 1927 – it was brand new (I might have the actual date off a year or two).  Capitola’s mother believed that girls should have their own money and be able to support themselves, so after high school; my grandmother went to the Lewiston Normal School – today, known as Lewis Clark State College. 

Going to school wasn’t an easy proposition – there was a lack of money and transportation.  Pop Friddle (Grandma Cappy’s father – David Carl Friddle) butchered and sold a hog to pay for tuition and books and Grandma Cappy would ride her horse to school.  Mom Friddle (Sophie Dollar Friddle) and Capitola spent three years picking lettuce to buy an old piano so she could learn how to play music.  The thought was that she would have more opportunity for a job if she could also teach music.  After two years of school, Cappy graduated and got her first job as a schoolteacher – a one room school called the Snow School – about twenty miles south of Lewiston, ID in the Waha area.

I’m sure she had a lot of idealistic notions before she began her first day of school.  Cappy was to live in the small room in the back of the school – her boyfriend at the time was also conveniently nearby.  During those first few weeks of school, she saw her students come to school with bare feet and nothing to eat.  Even during the worst of times – Capitola’s family always had something to eat and shoes when needed.  She might not be able to do much about the shoes – but she certainly could do something about the food. 
Taken in 1933 - Capitola is standing on the left side in the back.
Capitola went to her parents’ home in Lewiston and gathered as many vegetables as she could take from the garden – her boyfriend (later her first husband, Richard Tannahill) poached a deer and she started to make a soup for the children to eat every day at school.  The wood stove that provided heat was also a good place to have a soup bubbling away during the day.  She continued to add to the soup every day and provided for those kids probably their only hot meal of the day. 

Both of my grandparents explained to me that the depression wasn’t so bad for those who had gardens, animals and knew how to do for themselves.  They might not have had sugar – but they never went hungry.  Maybe it took the selling of a hog so my grandmother could go to school – but she at least had that opportunity.  My step-grandfather, Gwen Shearer, wasn’t able to go to school.  He got a job as a butcher to make a living and started his own small sawmill.  Both of them made the most of the opportunities that presented themselves at the time.

Many years later – my grandmother returned to teaching after not working for about 15 years.  I think she truly loved teaching, but it was also a way to bring some money into the household.  Her husband, Gwen Shearer, was trying to build a new lumber mill in Elk City, ID when his current lumber mill in Orofino, ID burned down.  They actually went bankrupt for a short time.  However, they both worked hard and sacrificed and were able to recover to build a successful logging operation in Elk City, ID.  Grandpa Gwen was deeply involved in the Idaho County School District #241 and my grandmother continued to teach at the small school in Elk City, ID.  Education was an important part of who they were and they wanted to provide opportunities to kids who were willing to work hard.  When they retired in 1978, they began the process of building a scholarship program for the kids in Idaho County.  Each year, one student from each high school would get a full ride scholarship to the University of Idaho.  These kids were usually some of the best students, but they were also involved in extracurricular activities and needed the money to continue their education.  At any one time, there were around 12 students attending the University of Idaho on the Gwen and Capitola Shearer Scholarship.  My grandparent’s experiences in the depression made them want to provide opportunities for young people to follow their dreams of education.

My grandparents provided the same opportunity for their grandchildren.  We didn’t all finish college, but the opportunity was there for us.  My grandmother didn’t live to see any of the first scholarship students’ graduate – she died in 1985.  My step-grandfather Gwen, however, was able to see not only his first grandchild to graduate in 1986 from college, (my brother Russell) but also see the first of the students that received that scholarship graduate.  Grandpa Gwen died in January of 1987.  I graduated in 1989 with a B. S. in History and minor in English and in 1990 with a B. S. degree in Secondary Education.  I am no longer a teacher – but I use my education in my job and everyday life.  I don’t believe that education is ever wasted!
Gwen & Capitola Shearer - Taken about 1965

That long ago assignment gave me the opportunity to learn something about my grandparent’s lives that I never would have probably known otherwise.  My mother even told me at the time that there things I  learned that she didn’t even know.  It is important to ask our older generation about their experiences  - there is a wealth of information and knowledge that would be lost otherwise!