PRINCETON — When Coyla Knapp Harris thinks about her days at the Elm Grove School, she thinks about love.
The school was situated at what was once the countryside north of Princeton, near where Beck’s North is now located.
Back in the 1920s, when Harris was a little girl, the students liked to play outside near a small creek that ran through the property.
“When I was in the first grade, why, you know, you play follow the leader,” she said. “The bigger ones went ahead, but the littlest ones were on the tail end. So they all had to hang onto their hands and jump over that little, bitty creek.”
The students jumped, one at a time, until it was Harris’ turn.
“I was the shortest one, and I fell right in the creek,” she said. “I was soaking wet, and we lived up, just about a jump and a hop, I’d say, where the antique village is now.”
It wasn’t too far away, so one of the older boys offered to take her home so she could change her clothes, and then took her back to school.
That boy was Wilfred Harris.
“When I got home that night, Mom said, ‘Well, did you have a good time?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I had a pretty good time falling in the creek,’” Harris said. “Mom said, ‘Were you scared?’ I said, ‘No, I wasn’t scared, but someday I’m going to marry that guy, and she said, ‘All right.’”
Harris said she never went out with anybody else.
“I just had it in my heart he was mine,” she said. “He saved my life.’
Years later, when Harris graduated from Princeton High School, she saw a man sitting in the audience with a package on his lap.
“I said to my friend Virginia, I said, ‘Virginia, there’s Wilfred, and he’s got a present for me,’ and she said, ‘How do you know that?’ and I said, ‘Wait until we get up there,’” Harris said.
Harris couldn’t wait until the graduation ceremony was over.
“We got out into the hall, and he was out there, and he grabbed me and he said, ‘Come here.’ And I said, ‘Well, hi,’” she said. “He said, ‘Here’s a present for you. How about going out with me on Friday night?’”
Two years later the two were married.
“He wasn’t going to get any further away from me,” Harris said with a laugh.
Harris has many vivid memories of her days in the one-room schoolhouse. Both her parents helped out a lot with her father going in early to build the fire for the teacher, and making a sign for the school and toys for the students to play with. Her mother liked to bake, and often would appear in the schoolyard pulling a red wagon with delicious treats.
One of Harris’ favorite teachers was Jessie Dean.
“She did have an old car, and she used to drive out there and once in awhile she’d pick me up and take me home with her just to spend a few days with her,” she said.
Harris said she used to visit Dean regularly until she died.
“I thought the world and all of her,” she said.
There wasn’t running water at the school, and the older boys would take turns pumping a pail of water and bringing it to the classroom.
“Everybody drank out of the dipper, and nobody was sick,” Harris said. “Then it came later years when they had to bring their own little cup, and it was a folding little metal cup.”
One of Harris’ memories is about a teacher many of the students didn’t like.
“They’d do anything to torment that poor girl,” she said.
One day one of the older boys put a garter snake in the teacher’s desk.
“All of us girls, we’d seen him do it, and we just were hysterical,” she said. “But we were kind of afraid of him, and we weren’t going to tell anything of what he might do.”
So the day began as usual with the teacher sitting at her desk, and after the morning prayer, she opened the desk drawer.
“I think I’ll never, ever forget the noise I heard from that woman,” Harris said. “She flew out of there, her chair went a-going, and I’m telling you, she threw it, and she ran out the door and down the steps and in her car and went home.”
Harris said everyone was too scared of the boy to say he did it, but Harris never forgot.
“I kept that over his head for a long time until he just died recently,” she said with a laugh.
Harris said she felt well prepared for going to Princeton High School after she graduated, and other than some trouble with algebra and shorthand, she did just fine.
But the city students weren’t always welcoming to their country counterparts. One day history teacher Jean Palmer had seen enough.
“She stood up one day, and she just gave them all thunder,” Harris said. “She said, ‘You don’t poke fun at people like that. They’re country people; they live the same as we do; and they probably know more than we do.’ She told them all about it.”
Harris said it made the country kids feel good to have their teacher defend them, and the city students must have listened as well.
“After that, they treated us fine,” she said.
While there were both good and bad days, Harris said she enjoyed her days at Elm Grove School.
“It was fun days, and you don’t see those things anymore,” she said.
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