O U T   H E R E   I N   T H E   R E A L   W O R L D


Keeping Warm and Carrying Water

Memories of teaching school before electricity

by Eva Murray


“You can’t go there!
They kill people
out there!”


“We didn’t have any modern utilities!” Betty laughed as she began her story. “That’s for sure!”

I had the opportunity to go for coffee recently with a former Matinicus teacher from the days before the schoolhouse had electricity. Betty (Carleton Thompson) Heald, 81, was eager to hear about Matinicus these days. We compared notes and figured that she had taught on the island at least 54 years ago. I began by asking whether she had ever been to the island before, or if she had much of an idea what she was getting into when she applied.

“No, not really. I’d just been out to meet the lady I was going to board with.”

That would have been Julia Ames. “Boarding the teacher” is, to be sure, a relic of the old days, but with workforce housing in extremely short supply on many of the islands, it may be an old idea that is forced back into reality soon. In any case, I can only imagine what it must have felt like to be the new teacher in an unfamiliar and storied community and be living in somebody else’s home. Our island historian likes to remind us that if you go back a few more generations, there was competition among households to board the teacher, with the honor going to the lowest bidder. Sounds like the food must have been wonderful! (Of course, I know better, because if there is one thing the people of Matinicus Island can do, it is produce good food.)

Betty described the teacher’s housing. “I started off boarding with Julia. She had a couple of little grandsons in school. Then, they put me in the parsonage. That was nice because I had my own place. At one point I remember staying in what they called ‘the red house’ (they still do, even though it hasn’t been red in years). It was so cold in that house over the winter that I sent my young son back to Camden to live with my mother, because I was worried he’d freeze to death!”

Jumping to the present for a minute: on Labor Day weekend 2017 we welcomed another new teacher to Matinicus, and a few days later, a cheery back-to-school photo of Mr. Johnson and a small cluster of little kids appeared on the local social media pages. He’s renting the parsonage, at least for right now, and although the front two rooms downstairs have been taken over by the United States Post Office and the kitchen has recently been renovated, much would undoubtedly be familiar to Betty. Some aspects of the job and the lifestyle will have changed a great deal since 1963; others, not so much.

“It was a nice community!” Betty assured me. We had been talking, both in fun and seriously, about the swashbuckling reputation of Matinicus and how our mainland friends weren’t at all convinced our new posting was a great idea.

When I moved to the island to teach in 1987, a co-worker from the hardware store where I worked exclaimed, “You can’t go there! They kill people out there! They throw you overboard, and when you try to climb back aboard the boat, they pound on your knuckles with a bait iron!” I’ve told this story before but I repeat it because I think it’s fairly hilarious. Betty explained how her mother kept asking, “Why are you doing that?” as though working on Matinicus was akin to working on Mars. “Even then, there was the rumor that the fishermen all shoot at each other. I shut everybody down, including my mother,” said Betty. “I’d always wanted to live on an island. I had Edna St. Vincent Millay in mind. I have always said I preferred the smell of mud flats to the smell of cows and horses and chickens anyway. Also, I’ve known since childhood that I wanted to be a teacher. The idea of a one-room school didn’t scare me, even though it certainly wasn’t the norm.”

“The people were very nice,” she continued,” and they were helpful. The parents – well, if you had a problem with a child, they’d come and talk to you, listen to you. They really cared; they didn’t have a chip on their shoulder and come ready for a fight because the teacher dared say something about their child.”

“Even though the fishermen liked to act rough and tough and encourage that reputation, I never saw it in the school kids, even the fellows bigger than I was, like Clayton” (one of Betty’s students who still lives and fishes on Matinicus, and who stands a good deal taller than many of us). “The kids were brought up in a respectful environment.”


Our stoneware crock
held the drinking water.


This year, Mr. Johnson is starting with five students, two of them having joined the class at the last minute. I had roughly one of each grade when I taught in 1987-88, although several of my students came and went through the year. This transiency is normal these days, and very common, as sternmen with families are often seasonal residents. It is not true that islands are closed communities, and that you can estimate a kindergarten class five years hence by counting babies. Betty told me she had students in every grade her first year, with roughly 20 kids enrolled. She was surprised when I told her that the largest student body we’d seen in the 30 years I’ve lived on Matinicus was 13 kids, the year my daughter went to kindergarten, and that twice in the past couple of decades we’d had years with no students.

A year with zero students does not mean the school is closed, by the way. “Closed” is a permanent legal status any islander who thinks about it would wish us to avoid.

I asked Betty about working in a school without electricity or running water. “I’ll admit, that was different. I had never had to deal with mantle lamps before. You know, they’re so delicate. I asked the school board for a hand-crank mimeograph machine (an old-style copier) but I didn’t get it. Doing without water wasn’t too hard, you can carry water, but being without electricity was a little bit strange. You get used to it. Going without didn’t hurt anybody. I bought my own generator for the parsonage after a while.”

“That big old furnace (in the school) I never did mess with,” Betty laughed. “Charlie Pratt came up every morning to start it. I didn’t want to touch that! The outhouses were connected to the building so we didn’t have to go outside in the winter for that. The school didn’t have a well, so every day or two I’d send a couple of the older kids over to the neighbor, Ervena Ames’, for water for our stoneware crock which held the drinking water.”

Her mention of carrying in drinking water reminded me of an experience described to me by one of those students. Jeanette Young and another girl – maybe Evelyn Ames – had been sent for water, and when they returned to the school a few minutes later, they could see that everybody was visibly rattled. Something serious must have happened in a very short time to get teacher and students all so upset and concerned. This was November, 1963; the school had a recently-installed telephone, but it was scarcely ever used. A phone call came in, itself a startling occurrence, with word that President Kennedy had been assassinated. I asked Betty what she did then.

“I took the children out to the flagpole and we lowered the flag, and stood in a circle. I don’t remember what we said, but we said something, maybe it was the 23rd Psalm, something like that. We had a somber moment. I remember that we weren’t supposed to be praying in school at all, that was an issue then, but I figured if anybody complained, well, I didn’t think that would happen.”

Betty served the island school for three years, marrying again and leaving the island to teach out of state. Now retired and back in the mid-coast area, Betty might be familiar to some readers as a food columnist for a local newspaper. As we parted, she gave me a piece of banana bread. I invited her to journey across to the island again sometime for a visit.

“I’m glad I taught out there when I did. I think that was probably the most fun place I ever taught.”