An Iowa Schoolma'am: Letters of Elizabeth

An Iowa Schoolma'am: Letters of Elizabeth "Bess" Corey, 1904-1908

by Elizabeth Corey, Philip L. Gerber, Charlotte M. Wright, Paul Theobald

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Readers everywhere fell for Elizabeth Corey, the irrepressible, independent, and fearless Bachelor Bess, whose letters home to Iowa gave us a firsthand account of her adventures on a South Dakota homestead from 1909 to 1919. Now, through the letters she wrote home between 1904 and 1908, readers can make the acquaintance of a younger Bess facing the realities of


Readers everywhere fell for Elizabeth Corey, the irrepressible, independent, and fearless Bachelor Bess, whose letters home to Iowa gave us a firsthand account of her adventures on a South Dakota homestead from 1909 to 1919. Now, through the letters she wrote home between 1904 and 1908, readers can make the acquaintance of a younger Bess facing the realities of life in an Iowa country school system with energy, enthusiasm, and ambition.
Sixteen-year-old Bess wrote her early letters when she was away from the family farm, trying to complete the ninth grade so she could become a teacher. That schooling was cut short in 1905, when her father died and she returned home to help her mother. Later that year, she received a provisional certificate allowing her to teach, which she did from 1905 to 1909 in a succession of rural schools across Shelby and Cass counties in Iowa. Initially a reluctant teacher, she had an infinite capacity for productive work that propelled her toward success in the classroom. A determinedly lighthearted attitude toward life, a talent for making congenial friends and for making herself at home as she boarded with one family after another, a relentless devotion to her own family, and a drive to communicate all combine to animate her letters home.
Always colorful and colloquial, unusually detailed and frank, Bess’s letters are authentic documents of a discrete American time and place. Full of puns, hyperbole, drama, and above all else honesty and authenticity, the eighty-three letters describe barefooted pupils, cantankerous and cooperative parents and school board members, classroom activities, and school picnics against a frugal background of early twentieth-century chores, social occasions, party lines for telephones, chautauquas, church suppers and revivals, new ribbons for second-hand clothes, and buggy and train rides—all seen through the eyes of this talented teenage farm girl not much older than some of her students.
Of notable value is the light Bess casts upon the teaching profession as it was practiced in isolated midwestern areas at the moment when our nation determined that, come what may, every American child was going to have access to a basic grammar-school education. Beyond the pleasure of listening to a straight-talker who pulls no punches, one who expects to receive “some of the praise most of the work and all of the cussing” in return for her efforts, Bess’s letters create a veritable concordance of teaching in a one-room rural schoolhouse, a chapter of daily American life all but lost.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Bess Corey, who started out teaching in a one-room Iowa school with only a ninth-grade education, had a wonderful way with words. Her lively letters home show how hard this schoolteacher worked as she jousted with reluctant student ‘big boys,’ planned performances for the entire community, and suffered the vicissitudes of ‘boarding ’round’ with various landlords. We see her evolve from a struggling teachers institute student herself into a savvy and innovative educator who inspired her students. Despite her travails, Bess dedicated herself to giving ‘some of the younger ones the chance I always wanted but couldn’t have.’ She tells wonderful stories of eccentric characters and local political squabbles in her letters home. In an age before e-mail, texts, and tweets, when even phone calls were a garbled rarity, handwritten letters were the vital link to one’s kin. How Bess’s family must have looked forward to the letters collected in this volume—she was frank, a lively storyteller, and quite a folk humorist.”—Judy Nolte Temple, University of Arizona  

An Iowa Schoolma’am stands on its own as a lively story of early twentieth-century teaching in addition to providing the essential background to Bachelor Bess. Elizabeth Corey’s vivid and funny letters provide a unique viewpoint on life in turn-of-the-century, small-town Iowa. The casual reader will enjoy Corey’s letters on their own merits, while scholars interested in women’s history, the history of education, and the rural Midwest will find the letters useful as well. If nothing else, An Iowa Schoolma’am should simply be read for the fun of it!”—Pamela Riney-Kehrberg, Iowa State University

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University of Iowa Press
Publication date:
Bur Oak Book Series
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Product dimensions:
5.70(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.60(d)

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An Iowa Schoolma'am

LETTERS OF Elizabeth "Bess" Corey, 1904-1908

University of Iowa Press

Copyright © 2011 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-58729-960-5

Chapter One


During the early autumn of 1904 Edwin and Margaret (Brown) Corey went to south- central Missouri to investigate farmland, presumably with a move in mind. Sixteen-year-old Bess was left in charge of the family home and farm—called Corey Farm—in Marne, including the care of her brothers and sister.

Corey Farm's neighbors came close to being a microcosm of recent immigration into the state, and the names of all of them appear in Bess's letters. All were farmers belonging either to the first or, more commonly, to the second wave of pioneering settlers, the same generation as Edwin Corey and Margaret Brown, both of whom sprang from English stock. Lands to the north were worked by another Englishman, Mason Fish, who farmed with his sons E. F. Fish and George M. Fish. Across the road to the east were the families of E. A. Noon and Samuel Line; the Noons shared mailbox space with the Coreys at a crossroads. A near neighbor to the east was Benjamin J. Harris; his daughter Valerie was one of Bess Corey's closest girlhood friends and long- time correspondents. John Lamer's farm lay a mile and a half to the north; on his property stood another of Clay Township's rural schools. The Ed Armstrong family, in whose lives young Bess took an active interest, farmed directly to the north, and M. A. Mutum, whose son George would later marry Valerie Harris, was located not much farther to the northwest, just across the town line into Monroe Township. Fritz Schief (Bess spells it Scheef ), a member of the large and industrious German contingent in Shelby and Pottawattamie Counties, farmed rich land a mile to the northeast of Coreys and early on emerged as one of the most successful and admired men of the area. Even while disruptive anti-German sentiments tore at the social fabric during World War I, the big, new, foursquare Schief home was pointed out with pride, and its photograph was prominently displayed when a thick volume of county history appeared in 1915.

Several Irishmen—and some Scots-Irish—lived in the area. In addition to the Noons, John C. Stewart farmed an area in Harlan east of the Corey Farm. Bess's connection with the Stewart family would prove valuable when in 1905 she would need a boarding place while she attended a teacher's institute in her attempt to gain a qualifying certificate to teach rural school. Patrick Murphy farmed in the same area. Another Irishman, Thomas E. Lanigan—his daughter Mary, along with Valerie Harris, was an especially dear friend to Bess—worked land between the Noons and the Stewarts.

Close to the northeast was the farm property of the Sorensens, Danish settlers, whose daughters Inger and Sena Bess knew well. Many Danish immigrants were concentrated at Elk Horn, just into Audubon Township, as well as in Shelby's Harlan area and in Polk Township, where Bess taught in 1908. With the presence of the English, the Irish, the Germans, and the Danes, the Corey neighborhood could be described as representative, a melting pot—perhaps more accurately described as a Mulligan stew—of new Americanism.

A number of family relatives also lived close by. Atlantic, the largest town in the area, with a population in 1900 of more than five thousand, was the seat of Cass County, and had become something of an enclave for Edwin Corey's siblings. His bachelor brother John resided in Atlantic, as well as his sisters Mary, Hattie, and Rachel ("Aunt Rate" to Bess), who also remained unmarried. Their sister Jennie Corey, a teacher, had come to Iowa and married James D. Dunlavy, a former superintendent of a county school system. After Ed's father, Jeremiah, died in 1896, his widow, Anna Mariah ("Grandma Corey"), made her home in Atlantic also. Until her death in 1912, she acted as a stabilizing influence in Bess's life. All of these relatives would have been within the circle of people Bess visited, wrote to, and at various times depended upon.

OCTOBER 10, 1904

Mamma & Papa:

We are all right but very busy with little time to write

The boys are doing fine so far and we have had lots of visitors

I churned wednesday, baked bread on thursday and had one visitor, ironed on friday & the boys had three visitors in the evening, I churned, baked and made pickels on saturday We had twelve visitors yesterday and it rained last night and this morning

The thrashers got to Noons saturday afternoon but haven't thrashed there yet

I am baking bread to day but not washing

The boys haven't finished the plowing but are doing about as well as they can

will close in haste and get this mailed

could write enough to fill a book if I had time

Bess F. Corey

[written in the top margin of page 2 of the letter, presumably in the handwriting of her mother, Margaret: "written to us when at West Plains Mo."]


Around November, 1904, Bess entered the Walnut School, about seven or eight miles west of Corey Farm. Built in 1875, this two-story building housed a "graded school," in which Bess could qualify to teach if she could pass both her coursework and then the teaching certification examinations. She boarded at the William Copley home, working for at least part of her keep. According to the federal census of 1900, members of the Copley family included William and his wife (her name is illegible on the census) and their grown children William, Irma, Helen, and Mary.

The small, railroad town of Walnut had a large number of German families, many of whose children were Bess's classmates.


Dear Ma and the rest:

Well, I'm getting started alright but I would like to have pa send me some more money because today when the Principal called the tuition pupils up to get their yaller slips I found that the tuition must be paid by the term (3 months) in advance I heard one of the others ask if they couldn't pay part of it at a time and he said no they didn't want to be bothered with it and if possible to pay it today or tomorrow

I haven't enough and I would rather not borrow unless I have to

I got some of my books second-hand of Lauretta Chambles and some of them I got new, the Grammers are so different from those we used out in the country. They aren't started in physiology yet. And we have Merrils Slant writting and the same kind of drawing books the children have out there use

Miss L.___ the 8th grad[e] teacher gives about 35 min. home work. And all the Algebra will be home work to and I will have about 70 pages to catch up but I guess I'll make it all right.

I think I will try to mail you a letter every Friday morning after this so you will get it Saturday and if you don't get time to write me a little Sundays you wont any time.

Tell the boys I've had to set in every day so far, and there are seven tuition pupil in the 8th grade and Alfred Rasmusen sets right behind me and tell Olney it was awful smart of him to hide that quarterly so I couldn't find it.

And today I was sent up to the principal and I have to go up stair right after first recess and recite Algebra and this morning was the first time I tried it and the teacher asked one of the girls what division was and she said she didn't know and after asking two or three she gave them a little lecture on being in the 9th grade and not knowing that much even and then she asked if any one could tell and for a wonder I could and every one in the room turned to rubber. Of course they turned when the teacher spoke

Well I guess I will close hoping to hear from you soon I remain

Your daughter

Elisabeth F Corey

P.S. We had fire drill this morning not even the teacher was expecting it and she was reading aloud when she heard it, we all marched out across the school yard to a certain tree and then marched back and one boy got a black mark for communicating.

Do you think pa has a good fresh cow for sale or have you

Mr. Copley is talking of buying one


To Mrs. E. O. Corey, Marne, Iowa

Dear Mamma:—

I received your letter and that check alright and am much obliged for the later. It was enough to pay my debts and some over but I've got to get some more things yet so it wont last long I'm afraid

Please hurry up that under skirt and stockings for these are the darnedest darned socks I ever owned I guess when I go down to mail this letter I'll buy a pair and charge it up.

There are two more new pupils in our room. John Eggerstodt & Ernest Feldhahn and John looks so much like the pictures of Sunny Jim that the girls call him that. And Ernest [is] tall good looking serious and stylish from his barber cut hair to his patent leather shoes. they are such a contrast.

We are all expected to keep our seats while in the school- room and should not communicate without permission The other day the girl ahead of me said "Miss Leonard you want to watch them." (Alfred and I) Miss Leonard said why & Perle said "she turns around." I said Perle don't you ever turn around? She turned around and looked me square in the face and said she didn't turn around and Miss Leonard asked her what she was doing then and oh how the rest laughed

I don't come home for my dinner any more, it was too much sugar for a cent, so I just take an apple or two. I keep the teachers chair warm, while she goes for her dinner, and talk to the boys while they eat theirs.

The dress maker came home with Irma Friday and went away this evening. We havent washed this week we have been so busy.

Ida Copley stayed over Sunday night with us and we, Irma, Mary, Ella, Ida and I went to hear Rev. Mr Barker, the evangelest

He asked for all the church members to stand and as Mary said afterward she was so glad he called for the church members and not for the christians to stand

Rev Barker addressed the school Mon. morning and gave us a splended talk

Alfred, says Harry Smith is in Omaha he don't know whether he is going to school or not

Clarence Brown just stoped going to school the week before I co-mensed he was in the 8th to.

I and Lauretta Chamblis met Mrs. Dave Kite as we were going to school one morning she asked if I were staying in town now and the next morning as I passed she came out and went down the walk to the store house and she called and asked me where I was staying and how you were.

Little Helen has slept with me several nights and can get along without her Auntys first rate if I tell her about the Little Pigs

Tonight her grandma found a caterpillar cralling on her neck and after I brushed it off she said "Grandma my but you made a fuss about that"

Well it is half after eleven so I will close hoping to hear from you and the rest soon

I remain your daughter Elisabeth F. Corey Our teacher is just lovely.

[written in the top margin of the first page:] Which of the boys help you in the house? What is O doing now? How does Fuller like the teacher? How is your work coming on? I haven't been to bed before ten since the first night I came


To Mrs. E. O. Corey

Dear Ma and the rest:—

Please excuse paper and pencil for I didn't write last night

Those thing came late but will do for another time.

Little Helen informed her grandpa last night at supper that they didn't have to fold up their hands out to Ed Corey's that most killed Mary and Irma off.

Professor Brown State inspector of High Schools and he inspected things in great shape

How many rabbits have they got this winter so far

That letter was not an invitation it was mostly questions and O so nice You can send some one after me a week from this evening or a week from tomorrow

Will close your daughter Elisabeth F. Corey


To Mrs. E. O. Corey

Dear Ma and the rest:—

I received my repoart card this evening and Mrs. Copley as my guardean signed it so I can take it back in the morning.

Miss Flora has nearly completed her writing but needs a fue more bright ideas and if you can mail her those other to Year Books she will return them to me and make it all right about the postage and her address is Miss Flora Koeppe She would like to get the books befor Saturday as that is the only time she has to work on it.

Tell Olney, a boy here asked me if I had a brother married and I had a chance to tell him as he told the peddler that I didn't but I had one that was going to be

I'm up with the rest in algebra

One of the boys said Bessie Kahr, I guess that is the way you spell it, said she knew me by the name of Bessie and she didn't know my name was Elisabeth.

I guess Ive got my accounts straight now

I started this last night and came down town this noon and got Mr Bruce to tell me the price of those things I guess I better close now and go back to the schoolhouse I enclose my grades and account

And remain Elisabeth F. Corey [Enclosure: Bess's grades] Deportment E Studentship E Spelling 90 Reading 95 Writing 92 Aritmetic 85 Grammar 80 U. S. History 93 Music 90

[Enclosure: Bess's record of expenses] tuition $ 8.00 Grammar .25 Arithmetic .30 Algebra .55 Speller .20 2 scratch tablets .10 2 erasers .10 ink .05 copybook .10 drawing book .15 music note book .15 composition book .05 $10.00

Bible 2.25 Stamps .20 [postal] cards .05 $12.50


To Mrs. E. O. Corey

Dear Ma and the rest:—

Mr. C mailed my card in the forenoon and Olney mailed your letter in the afternoon. I don't see how on earth you kept the schoolma'am over night as close for room as you are but your speaking of it made me think of something although perhaps I aught not to mention it. It is in connection with the social. Of couse I would be jolly glad to have O__ come after me Feb 10th and if you were not so crowded I would fetch another girl along. She hasnt any brothers and so dosen't get to go as much as she might. Her folks are renters and she is such a jolly, nice kind of girl, she would put up with any thing and think it was alright, it would be a great treat to her and all the rest of us.

Are Mr & Mrs. Armstrong back and house keeping? that reminds me of something, Ida Copley was in today and Reba and her little sister were over. Reba was telling that she received a letter the other day from a Fern Armstrong cordially inviting her to come and visit her in her new home, she couldn't guess who on earth it was from, at first, but as she only knew of one Fern, she thought it must be that Fern Line was married but she couldn't see what she was writing to her for I told her of the wedding and ask her if Fern had much to say. She said no it didn't amount to much only that Mr and Mrs Sorensen were away and she would be so pleased to have her (Reba) come and spend a week with her in her new home and some of them would be in town soon. Now it struck me that Fern ask me about Reba last New Years eve and why on earth does she want to stir up an acquaintance with Reba Copley unless it is to find out a fue interesting things about others.

Uncle Charlie wants Reba to take teachers examination this spring and I guess we will take it together which will be much better than alone, we will work up together and with hints from Ida I hope to get through but it is doubtful. Ida says "Sign your name McCorey or OCorey and he will think you are Irish and you will get a certificate even if you don't know beans" she says that a "pull" or a $10 bill will fetch a certificate quicker than brains.


Excerpted from An Iowa Schoolma'am Copyright © 2011 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission of University of Iowa Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Philip Gerber (1923-2005) was Distinguished Professor of English at the State University of New York at Brockport and the editor of Bachelor Bess: The Homesteading Letters of Elizabeth Corey, 1909-1919 (Iowa, 1990). Charlotte Wright is managing editor at the University of Iowa Press and the author of Plain and Ugly Janes: The Rise of the Ugly Woman in Contemporary American Fiction (Iowa paperback, 2000).

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