It’s here again. This is the traditional “back to school” week in the Twin Cities.

A lot of students returned to classes at the end of August, but many older residents will recall summer vacation lasting just past Labor Day — and we made the most of every minute of the fleeting summer.

These residents will also remember a number of schools throughout the cities, and they have memories of favorite —  and not-so-favorite teachers — but none of these residents are old enough to recall “Aunt Ora.”

A Lewiston Evening Journal reporter of 100 years ago interviewed Ora Davis, who taught the first public school ever kept in old Auburn.

“I moved over here the year after the first bridge was built, and the next year, I think, they came to me to teach the school,” Aunt Ora said. “Lots of the old pioneers went to school to me. Among my pupils were Col. E. Keene, Dana Goff, Hosea Manley, Col. Nash and others. William Little and Maria Little (descendants of Edward Little) both went to school to me.”

The reporter asked, “Did you have to discipline any of these estimable men in their school days?”

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“Yes, indeed,” Aunt Ora replied. “I remember I punished Bill Little every day for six weeks, one time. His folks had hard work to keep him in school.

“I remember I had to ferule Dana Goff once,” she continued.

A ferule was a rod, a stick or a ruler that teachers used to slap the palm of an irresponsible student.

“My brother’s house stood on Main Street, near where Roak Block is now,” Davis said. “He finished off a room in the lower part of his house, and I kept school there. I was paid by the town. I think they paid me one dollar a week and my board, which was considered pretty good wages in those times when everything was cheap. I think I had about 30 scholars.”

Before taking on that first public school assignment in Auburn, Davis had taught at two other schools in the area. She recalled a particularly sad situation.

“I commenced one term with 60 scholars, and they were reduced from 60 to 11 in two weeks by death,” she said.

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An epidemic, supposedly influenza, had swept through the countryside.

“After I left off teaching, I went into the millinery business,” Aunt Ora said, and she became very successful, earning and saving enough money to buy a large home near Auburn Hall on Court Street.

Auburn’s school system grew quickly. Within a few decades of that first public school, there were several larger schools in town, and a number of small, often one-room, schools in rural areas. One such school was called “Little Brick.”

Built in 1857, it was Auburn’s only brick rural schoolhouse.

A story by Bertha Field Seymour in the August 1915 pages of the Journal’s Saturday Illustrated Magazine Section described that school. Officially, it was the Gowell District schoolhouse and was “in the corner opposite the Mount Auburn cemetery property on Mount Auburn and Park avenues.”

Her description said, “There were four rows of broad combination benches and desks. The floor was of soft wood and constructed of the broad planks still found in the older houses. There were separate entries for boys and girls, with entrances on the left and right, respectively. The boys’ entry was finally taken for a wood shed.”

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The first teacher was Laura Robertson, and her desk was built in, just as the pupils’desks were, and it occupied the center front of a raised platform. From this vantage point, the teacher could easily view both the boys’ and girls’ sides of the room.

“The boys’ side, we are told, however, was not much used in those days, because it was a school famous for the large percentage of girls in its attendance,” the writer said.

So few were the boys in the district that from 1865 to 1868, the winter term was held in the fall, because there were no boys to shovel the paths and do the janitor work, “which was obviously too hard for the girls.”

That’s a brief glimpse of an early Auburn schoolhouse. No doubt, it was a similar situation in towns throughout Maine and New England.

Speaking at a time when classrooms with computers and video screens could not be imagined, one of the writers commented, “Some of the boys and girls” of a century ago “have but a faint idea of how the pupils and teachers once had to rough it.”

Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and a native of Auburn. He can be reached by sending email to [email protected]


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