Caroline Fyffe: Teachers in the Old West

caroline-fyffeGood morning! I’m honored to be here today at Petticoats and Pistols. This is such a great group of women and writers–I’m thrilled to be here.


As most of you know, Brenda Novak’s Charity Auction concluded recently. The reason I bring it up is that I happened to stumble upon a jewel that I found interesting and took an active role in the bidding (so much fun)! I love true-life stories that are told quickly, just a few pages each. To my delight I ended up winning, Frontier Teachers, Stories of Heroic women of the Old West, written by Chris Enss.


I haven’t read all the accounts yet but I have read some and skimmed the whole133 pages. It’s a must for all who write teachers of the West. Tucked in the back is a table of rules for teachers of 1872. It’s hysterical, in a charming, sort of innocent way. I’d like to paraphrase a few of the “stipulations” of the teaching profession of that day….


wherethewindblows-lrTeachers were required each day to fill their lamps and clean chimneys, bring a bucket of water and a scuttle of coal—a reasonable requirement if the teacher was well off enough to afford it. After the ten-hour a day job, one was allowed their remaining time (how much you ask?) to read the Bible or other good book. Women teachers were dismissed if they married, while men were given one evening each week for courting, or, if they were a church going fellow, two—Double standard? You think? Your integrity and honesty were scrutinized if you smoked, used liquor in ANY form, frequented pool or public halls, or—get this—got shaved in a barber shop! What in Pete’s name?


Now, here is, I think, some good advice: Each teacher was advised to put away a large chunk of their pay—that is after buying a scuttle of coal five days a week to heat the school room—for their declining years so as not to be a burden. Sounds like a forerunner to social security—and we all know how that ends.


Old SchoolAnd finally, if you faithfully followed these rules and the Board of Education approved you, you might be eligible for a twenty-five cent a week raise.


Before finding this list, I held teachers in very high esteem. Without them, and their generosity and dedication to their vocation, it would have taken much longer for the West to arrive academically. But now, knowing more fully what their day-to-day routine was like, I’m truly in awe. Such enthusiasm and commitment are what heroes are made of, as the title of the book suggests.  


istock_000002969048xsmalloldbooksppDo you have any western teaching stories to share? Or are there any teachers in your family history?


In celebration of my debut release, Where the Wind Blows, a Lonesome Dove meets Little House on the Prairie story, I’m giving away a copy to someone who leaves me a comment.

Also, please visit my website at to see how to enter my contest, Under a Western Sky, for your chance to win an overnight stay in a bunkhouse. Come on, it’ll be fun! And, while you’re there, take a minute to sign up for my announcement-only newsletter. On the last day of every month I will be giving away a free book!  


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61 thoughts on “Caroline Fyffe: Teachers in the Old West”

  1. Hi Caroline,

    I don’t have any western stories, Wisconsin was as far West as any of my relatives settled. My paternal grandmother, Catherine was a HS German teacher in a small community in the middle of the state. Currently, my daughter and SIL are HS English teachers. My sister and niece are 3rd grade teachers. Lots of teachers in my family. I will share your blog with them.

  2. Hi! My sis was a teacher in central Canada and married/moved to western Canada many moons ago. When you change districts (or in this case provinces), you must start over. She retired to have kids.
    I remember when my sister was “home” and teaching Gr 2, I was in Gr 1 (there is a 15-yr difference in our ages) and helping grade her papers! She gave me a list of the correct answers (multiple choice), and I had to take a red pen/pencil crayon and give check marks or “X’s” for each question. She’d double check everything. Once she had a pile of “perfect marks”, I had the honour of stamping a star on the top of each of those pages, or in some cases I had star stickers. Times sure have changed since even the 60s!

  3. Good morning, Lorie G or should I say; Guten Morgan!!

    I have yet to go to Wisconsin. I’m planning on it though next summer and I’m really looking forward to it. I hear it’s gorgeous!! What part are you from?

    Since you have lots of teachers in your family you will appreciate this — In one of the stories of the pioneer teachers one young, 21 year old, taught almost the whole term with nothing but one chair, for her, and two boards placed across rocks for the students. She shares how hard it was to keep their attention. (Remember these are children who had no school yet) And the problems the young men gave her!

    Thanks for stopping by!

  4. Hi Laney 4–how are you?

    Great story! I remember those wonderful little silver and gold stars–the stick on type. My teachers used them too. Not that I got too many of them mind you, LOL–but, every once in awhile! Great that she let you help. I’m sure you picked up a lot from just checking over the lessons. Smart sister.
    My sisters (twins) are twelve years older than myself so I hear where you are coming from. I’m the youngest of five girls so I had a lot of direction. I’m very fortunate that we are all very close.

    You say that when one teaches in Canada that they have to start over if they move districts. That would be most difficult! Can you imagine? I can see how that rule would help keep teachers put….

    So happy you came to the corral. Thanks!

  5. Morning, Caroline, and welcome to the Corral!

    I have many teachers in my family, both school teachers and music teachers, myself included (the music kind). My grandmother was my second grade teacher–at the age of seven I learned to call her Grandmother at home, Mrs. Thrailkill at school.

    Where the Wind Blows is going onto my tbr stack. It looks like a wonderful story.

  6. Hi Caroline, and congratulations on the release! Where the Wind Blows sounds exciting.
    I’m a teacher myself, and my grandmother started teaching nine grades in a one croom country schoolhouse when she was seventeen or eighteen. She told me once that before her first day, her father said ‘Those big boys will pick you up and carry you out of the school.’ She was five feet tall, but they didn’t. Her own four children tould attest to how strict she was in the classroom.
    So many of the teachers back then were no older than the students. I don’t know how they survived. The stuff heroes are made of, that’s for sure.
    At least now we can’t be fired for getting married or dyeing our hair!

  7. Good morning, Anon!

    Thanks for joining in. To answer, or actually not answer your question there were no reasons given for any of the rules.

    I can’t fathom what they were thinking to ban getting a shave at the barbers. Thinking THAT was unseemly? They must have had a reason…

    Any ideas out there?

  8. Hi Tracy—thanks for the welcome!

    My husband had a similar story. His aunt was his second grade teacher in a small California town. At school she was known for her stern composure and strict ways and at home she was the sweetest, most accommodating and spoiling aunt. LOL

    Both my sons had the same first grade teacher who was very old fashion and strict. Her little line of children walked like baby chicks, but without a peep. When she retired an outpouring of great love was shown.

    Thanks for the flowers for Where the Wind Blows–I hope you enjoy it!!!

  9. Hi Jennie–

    Your grandmother must have been so strong–nine grades and tiny at that! My hat is off to her. Thank goodness we had people who wanted nothing but to educate.

    In the book I talked about it said most rooms had all levels and were divided into younger children in front, older in back. Girls on one side. Boys on the other….(I’m sure the boys spent most of their school days gazing across the aisle at the sea of girls. LOL)

    Also, I thought this was such a great idea, they taught all the basics, reading, spelling, penmanship, arithmetic, and history with fifteen minutes devoted to each level.

    I can see how the day would fly by….

  10. A hearty welcome, Caroline!

    I hope you enjoy your visit with us. We’re delighted to have you.

    I’d love to run across that book you have about teachers in the West. Oh man! Sounds like just the thing for research. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a book entirely about early school teachers. I’ll bet it has some great stuff in it.

    “Where the Wind Blows” intrigues me. I’m going to have to find a copy. The wonderful thing about guests is that I find so many new books that I didn’t know about. My poor TBR stack! It’s getting really tall.

  11. Caroline said “I can’t fathom what they were thinking to ban getting a shave at the barbers. Thinking THAT was unseemly? They must have had a reason…”

    Weren’t most of the barber establishments part of the bath house – and part of the duties of the Soiled Doves? Or am I making that up?

  12. Linda, this book is full of great stuff to put into novels….

    One such thing, a nun who came west to teach, was asked to patch up Happy Jack, one of Billy the Kid’s men. She nursed him for nine month. Billy was planning to kill all the doctors in that area because they wouldn’t help his man. So, since Sister Blandina said she would Billy asked her what he could do for her. She asked him not to kill all the doctors. And he granted her wish! How cool is that!?!

    I know what you mean about TBR stacks! They have a way of taking on a life of their own!!! Mine is pretty tall too. 🙂

  13. hi and welcome Caroline. love the cover of Where the Wind Blows and want to read the book.

    My Mom’s brother was a teacher and had many stories to tell. He taught at a Hutterite colony for awhile and said that they fed him well; an added bonus.

    My cousin’s wife was a teacher.

  14. It’s so nice to “meet” you, Caroline! Not very
    many teachers in our family! Our oldest son, who
    is a playwright, taught a class in writing at the
    local magnet school for the fine arts. My youngest sister, who was a religious (a nun) for 30 years, was a teacher with assignments from Salt Lake City to Shreveport. She taught in the primary grades and later was the administrator of a charter school.

    I’m looking forward to reading your book, it really sounds wonderful!

    Pat Cochran

  15. I’m old enough to remember that most of my grade school teachers were women (well actually all) and unmarried. It did start to change by the time I got to 5th or 6th grade and when I finally had a male teacher – what a novelty lol. I think too much is expected of some teachers (there’s always a few who beat the system). Besides having homework, many of the grade school teachers still have to buy supplies out of their own wages (my niece taught grade school and my newphew teaches at our zoo).

    Your book sounds wonderful!

  16. Hi Robyn,
    That is so cool about your uncle. Are you of Russian descent or did he go there to teach the Russians English? With all his stories I’ll bet you could get a whole novel out of him!! LOL….
    Around what year did he teach there?

    PS-Thanks for saying you like the cover of Where the Wind Blows. Most can’t see it but Jessie’s tiny little cabin is actually there about midway down on the right! 🙂

  17. I have two teachers is my family. My cousin was a teacher, who is now a school principal. And my best friend is a retired teacher, also my landlady is a retired teacher. I always had the greatest respect for my teachers.
    Your books sounds like it will be a real winner and something that I would most want to read…
    I remember the teacher on Little House on the Prarie.. Ms Beatle..and then the new school marm who eventually became Laura’s sister in law.. They were opposites of each other but had similar traits..

  18. Hi Pat~~thanks for the nice welcome! It’s nice to “meet” you also!

    Your sister must have some fastening stories also after 30 years. Do you know what order she was in? That is always interesting to me…

    And cool that your son is a playwright. Writing runs in your family.

  19. Howdy, Jeanne! Thanks for stopping by!

    I agree that so much is expected of the teachers today. I have friends who tell me all the time that much of the things they bring to class are from their own pocket. It must be hard…

    Teacher in a Zoo!! Teaching the animals?!? Just kidding. What a great job. Who couldn’t love that?


  20. Kathleen~
    Awww, I haven’t thought about those two teachers for awhile! Loved them both. Mrs. Beatle kind of made me mad sometimes though when she wouldn’t see through Nellie and Willy on how mean they were and all the trouble they caused. I guess she was just being a good teacher and not labeling her students, so to speak, but I used to want to shake her and wake her up! LOL!!

    And Laura’s school marm SIL. Didn’t she have a love story too? I think she did and it was sweet….


    Thanks for liking the premise of my story. I hope Chase and Jessie ride away with your heart~~<3

  21. Hi Cheryl–*waving madly*– I’m so happy to be here. This is such a great blog and I visit it a lot. I think you all really put a lot of thought and heart into your posts. Anyway, thanks for the hearty gun twirling, horse riding, tobacco chewing cowgirl welcome!!


  22. Hello Caroline,

    Thank you for discussing teachers. I come from a long of teachers and have always been in awe of their patience. Personally, I could never be one myself. However, I give praise to the men and women who are teaching our children. Please enter me for the giveaway. Have a great day.

  23. Hi Caroline,
    That was some interesting information about teachers and how unfair to the poor women teachers at that time.

  24. Hi Caroline, welcome to the P&P, what a great post! I don’t think there are any school teacheres in my family. This was some great information on teachers, sounds like it was kind of rough for them. Where the Wind Blows sounds like an awesome read and I would love to read it. Thanks for sharing with us today!

  25. I taught kindergarten and first grade for 30 years, so I love reading stories about teachers and children. I especially love historicals because that way of life is so fascinating. Reading the list of rules for teachers always tickles me.

    I really enjoyed reading your blog and the replies today. Your book sounds wonderful!

  26. Hi Caroline! Congratulations on your debut release! I love the cover! Your comments indicate teachers had it a lot more strict than we might realize! I love to learn more about history – thanks for sharing with us! No teaching stories in my family.

  27. Roberta~~thanks for coming by and commenting.

    I know what you mean about patience and teachers. Never is it felt most as in a teacher who is not cut out to teach and has no patience at all. But, that is not too often the case because I believe teaching is more like a calling and the teachers who end up in the classroom want to be there. IMHO anyway! 🙂

    You have a great day too! The weather here in Cali is nice and cool today…

  28. Oooh, Caroline, thanks for the heads up on a great reference book. Gotta get a copy of Frontier Teachers. Chris Enns’ books are great.

    I love that you blogged about teachers. Yes, there’s a “western” teacher in my family! I live in California and am proud of my teacher hubby–who just so happens to teach at the high school you attended, as you know. Cool, huh?

    Congrats again on your release. Since I’ve already won an autographed copy of Where the Wind Blows, please don’t enter me in the drawing.

  29. I agree, Maureen!! Those gals had it tough. When did they ever find time to find a sweetheart~~~<3

    In one of the accounts from the book after a long day of teaching she says in her journal she had to go (somewhere, I’m not sure where) and iron that night. Sometimes she was so tired she thought she might actually have an illness of some kind. Most were so young and lived alone!

    We owe the teachers who came west such a debt of gratitude for their courage and determination.

  30. Wow some interesting info… thanks for sharing! For years, I was a preschool teacher… I do not know if anyone else in my family was ever a teacher… so much family history is unknown to me!

  31. Hi Melinda~~

    You are a home schooler! Congratulations!! I’ve heard wonderful things about that. How old is your daughter and what do you find most challenging? Most rewarding?

    I do hope you’ll like my book as Jessie seems a lot like you! She tries to walk in peace and harmony too….

  32. Good morning, Quilt Lady. It’s still morning here on the west coast. LOL

    No teachers? That is more of what I thought I’d find on this blog. I’m surprised at how many of us writing in have quite a few teachers in the family.

    Actually, there is only one in my family. My BIL has worked his way up to Principal of a large Cali High School. Boy, he brings home some stories that raise my hair. I know the majority of kids are good, but there are some strange things going on these days in schools, especially high schools.

  33. Hi Cheryl C!

    Kindergarten and first grade for 30 years! You’ve been blessed. At that age the children are still so very sweet.
    I never taught school myself but I did teach a catechism class for about four years and it was the second grade level. The love that shown from their little faces was so endearing and sweet. They wanted so much to please….I loved that time.

    Thanks so much for coming by and commenting. You’ve reminded me of a very special time in my life.

    Really glad too that you’ve enjoyed todays blog..

  34. Hi Martha E,

    Thank you so much for your congratulations! And for the nice comment about the cover. Being a debut author is so nerve wracking, but of course so exciting!! Every day is a new adventure.

    Those gals did indeed have a strict go of it. Her choice was either a husband or school room.

    Thank you so much for joining in…makes for a fun day!

  35. Keli–Hi–you are going to LOVE this book.

    I’m reading it slowly, savoring each story. They are only about 3-5 pages each. One heartbreaking one is about a teacher who was a member of the Donner Party when she was just a girl! Pretty gritty!!

    This is my first Chris Enss book but I’m going to look for her others, The Doctor Wore Petticoats (very appropriate for this blog! Ha!) The Lady Was a Gambler and A Beautiful Mine.

    Tell your western teacher to say “Hi” to Ponderosa High for me! Those were great times.

  36. Hi Caroline! It’s great to see you at Petticoats & Pistols. We met in the elevator at RWA 🙂

    We don’t have any teachers in the family, but I will be forever grateful to all the teachers who encouraged me to read. One man in particular, Mr. Conti from 5th grade, insisted the class read silently at least an hour a day. In the afternoons he’d read from the Readers Digest, usually crazy stories about UFOs. He knew how to hold our attention!

    Loved the blog!

  37. Hi Caroline!

    Welcome to Petticoats & Pistols. Intriguing blog — I come from a family of teachers, also — my mother and my father — although my father, early on quit teaching to go into law.

    Your book sounds great — congratulations — and your picture is so pretty. 🙂

  38. Hi Victoria!
    Great to hear from you. That was a fun meeting we had. I had a super time in DC. How about you?

    Mr. Conti sounds like a wonderful teacher! And stories about UFOs would certainly keep MY attention!! LOL Truly, reading is the key. If a student is a strong reader, usually in most cases, he is also a good student in other areas. A weak reader struggles everywhere.

    Here is some fun info from the book..if the teachers in the west did not have readers for their students they used the Bible or the Sears, Roebuck Catalog. That catalog sure made the rounds—and sometimes ended up in the outhouse. LOL

    Super happy you liked the blog

  39. Loved your blog and looking forward to reading your books. I have a friend who taught in a one room school house here in Nebraska. She had to haul water into the school, make sure there was wood enough for the day for heat, and even stay overnight to keep the fire going if it were really cold so that the children could arrive to a warm building. when she first started she did not have electricity in the building so also had to keep the lamps filled for dark and dreary days. I am thankful as a paraeducator that the challenges of my job are more mental than physical.

  40. Oh my gosh, Karen, thank you! You made me blush…

    Both your parents (for a time anyway) were teachers. That’s great.

    I’ve made an observation of families of friends I grew up with who had one or even two parents that were teachers. There was always considerate and interesting conversations at the dinner table. And, my friends were always so willing to interject and share their opinions. I don’t know if that always holds true, but it’s what I experienced. Teachers are usually pretty current on world happenings which makes for good discussions!!

    Thanks for joining in! (must be the teacher parents influence in you. LOL)

  41. Very interesting teacher rules…I wasn’t requird to bring coal for my classroom but I did spend a lot of my own money on things to make my teaching better. Both my sister and I were Home Economics teachers in The West…Arizona and California.

  42. Caroline,

    My sister, the Sister, was a member of the Sisters
    of Charity of the Incarnate Word. Their main house
    is the Villa de Matel in Houston.

    Pat Cochran

  43. Hi Connie,
    Your friend was really dedicated to stay over and keep the school room warm! Such selflessness! So were their everyday duties.
    Today, thank goodness for paraeducators as yourself. I’m sure the teachers depend on you very much.

    Thanks for the look into your friends one-room school.

  44. Enjoyd reading the comments. I like to read stories like these set in the West.
    I went to a one-room schoolhouse in Colorado when I was in the first grade. I think there were about 12 other students and I was alway envious because the “boys” got to go get the wood to burn in the pot-bellied stove. I don’t remember learning anything but I loved to color and I got to do that a lot. Oh, and it had an outside outhouse. ugh I am sure the teacher had rules but the only one I remember was “Sit up straight”

  45. Hello, Jackie. Thanks for sharing…

    Home economics was one of my favorite classes. I LOVED my teacher–who during the course of our year, fell in love and got married. Thank goodness she wasn’t fired.

    Being the youngest of five the only think I knew how to do was set the table. In her class I sewed two dresses which I proudly wore to school. I can still see the fabric! LOL And, we learned to cook many things.

    You do a great service for young adults, Jackie and I’m sure you’re greatly loved too. Teaching a hands on type of class would just bring that out. You didn’t happen to teach at Ponderosa High in Shingle Springs, did you??

  46. Pat, the sister I mentioned before who nursed Happy Jack, Sister Blandina, was a Sister of Charity too!! It doesn’t say of the Incarnate Word, but I wonder if it is the same. Wouldn’t that be something?

  47. Joye, it sounds like you had a good experience in your one room school. Coloring develops imagination—and that’s great if you’re a writer, assuming you’re indeed a writer. It’s good for readers, too.

    Your one remembered rule made me smile. We just never know what impact we are leaving on others. Sitting up straight is important. I just sat up myself!

    Thanks for commenting!

  48. Exactly, Estella! But, the women of those times seemed to embrace the challenge.

    One account was of a sixty-six year old grandmother who came over the Oregon trail. By the time she got to the Willamette Valley, months and months after she’d started, all she had left of her belongings was a horse, which she rode. She’d started the trip in a wagon with lots of neat things such as a rocker that her son would take out every night for her to rock in–ON THE TRAIL!

    Since she’d lost all on the trip she went to work in a school. How’s that for a shrinking 401K!! Tabatha’s story is called, The Grandmother Teacher.


  49. Caroline–I’m so glad you love Chris’s book! I met her at a signing in Placerville and asked if she’d contribute, and she happily did. So she’s local! I can put you in touch with her, if you like (or maybe you’ve already found her Web site). I think the two of you would really like each other.

    Thanks for supporting my auction!


  50. Brenda–Hi!!

    I’m glad you made it over here to Petticoats!! It’s a great blog.

    Everything I said about Chris’s book is true–I love it! I’ve really learned a lot and been and have been entertained along the way. I’d love to meet her in person…

    And, thanks again for putting on such a great auction. I liked my other items also. I look forward to it each year. Keep up the GREAT work!!


  51. I lived in the 1850’s, but no way would I have been a teacher. I saw how thankless it was. I was raised in the high Rockies, in the Northern Colorado area, with my mountainman father. My mother died in one of the early plagues, and she told him to get me well away from people and the sickness, so we would live. So I was raised as a boy would be in those times, to live off the land. In effect, I had 27 fathers who taught me to shoot, ride, rope, use a knife, etc. I was a better shooter than 98% of the men alive then, and they called me Breezey. I wasn’t much for spelling, as you can tell.

    I spent my life helping people who couldn’t help themselves. Many who came out there had no clue how to survive, so I was killing the bad guys at age 10. There was an unending supply of thieves, rapists, murderers, etc, back then. Many never even bathed. Forget haircuts!!! I was used to men who were real men, not city men.

    Killing is not murder. Remember that. The indians taught me how to kill silently, using knives. That was my preferred weapon. No one ever knew who I was, or that I was a woman. I dressed as a man. That was a form of protection. Women did not travel alone out there, if they were smart. So I was dressed as a man, so they would leave me alone.

    By choice, I was a loner most of my early life. Later on, oddly enough, dressing as a woman and settling down was my protection, so no one thought I was Breezey. I had three husbands (two were killed) and 7 kids.

    It was an interesting life, but no one knew me, i was so good at staying anonymous. You won’t find me in the history books. Of the 700 or so bastards I killed, none were innocent of their crimes. Some deserved it ten times over! I even killed one very abusive sheriff. He was psychotic, enjoyed torturing women. He was a nightmare. I’ll never know how he got to be sheriff. His brother wasn’t much better.

    Back then, no one could conceive that a woman could kill so many. They would have been stunned to know how good I was. But I had to remain anonymous to survive.

    And I did.


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