By Joy Hampton
Bernice (Bacon) Irby remembers going to school in a covered wagon pulled by mules. She and twin brother, Charles, attended the original Verdigris school all 12 years, graduating in 1943. Her husband, Herbert Irby graduated in 1942.
Born in Verdigris in 1923, Bernice is quick to point out that she is not the oldest surviving member of the original school at Verdigris.
“You should talk to Vera Purkey,” she says. “She could tell you a lot.”
Years ago, Bernice started a collection of photo albums and scrapbooks to document family and Verdigris history for her children and grandchildren. People found out and contributed photos and memories until the project grew into numerous volumes. These books tell the story of a little school that grew and died, and now has risen from the ashes into the current school system known today.
“Back then the school bus was a home-made job,” Bernice explained. “Like a big box sitting on a flat bed truck. We called one of the buses the Silver Streak.”
When the weather turned cold and icy, the kids went to school in covered wagons instead of buses. “The wagon was heated by warm bricks or irons wrapped in burlap sacks,” said Bernice.
Kids sat on hay and covered themselves with blankets to keep out the cold.
School meals in the early days consisted of beans and cornbread or soup and crackers and sold for a nickel a day. Students brought their bowls and spoons from home and ate in the classroom. The cook, Mrs. Gourd, served them lunch then washed the bowls and spoons.
“Five cents doesn’t sound like much money now,” said Bernice, “But back in the 30's it was hard for my parents to afford it.”
Bernice’s father, Charles Bacon, attended Verdigris school and frequently attended what locals call the “Old-Timers” school reunion. A separate event from the regular school reunion, it brings together people from the days before the current high school existed.
Instead of playing video games, kids in Bernice’s day pitched horseshoes and jumped rope. “For sports we had basketball, softball and track — that’s it,” said Bernice.
Instead of a prom, they had a Junior/Senior Banquet, and the sophomore girls served the meal. There was a school newspaper, The Arrow, edited by Buster Underwood in 1940. School colors, then as now, were black and red. “But we weren’t the Cardinals,” said Bernice. “We were the Comets.”
Around 1938 the W.P.A. built the first Verdigris gym. Bernice has fond memories of her days playing basketball in the old gym, which she claims still has a good floor. They wore high top, white basketball shoes and took them off except when playing.
Games were on Friday nights unless there was a tournament when they also played on Saturdays. The floor was divided into three courts with two guards who played defense in one, two forwards who shot the ball on the opposite end, and two centers in the middle who jumped and passed the ball back and forth between the other courts. Players were only allowed one dribble at a time. By the time Bernice graduated, they switched to the half-court girls game.
Girls and boys alternated practice days. Sometimes they would stay after school to practice on off days, except for players who lived too far from school to walk home.
“We had a very good team, but the war messed us up. A lot of the girls got married and quit school. There was a gas shortage so we didn’t have the gas to go to games,” said Bernice. “Oolagah could beat us, but one year we won for having the best team. That was before the war.”
The Bacon family lived in the country with no electricity so their only radio ran on a battery that often had to be recharged. Perhaps this is why she didn't hear about the bombing of Pearl Harbor until Monday December 8, 1941 in Mrs. Collyge’s science class.
Boys left school to work or fight in the war, and girls left to work or get married. Rationing affected everyone’s life. Bernice’s twin brother, Charles, drove a school bus his senior year. “They let him drive if my mother [Tema Bacon] rode with him because there weren’t enough men during the war,” she said. “The next year my mother drove it by herself. She was the second woman to drive a bus in Verdigris. When I was in third grade, Pat Collins drove a bus.”
A flood in 1943 devastated homes near the river and several people moved away from Verdigris. With attendance so low, Verdigris High School was closed. The 1945-46 class of graduating seniors was the last from the original school. The four graduating seniors that year were: Andrew Chambers, LaFerne Stephens, Donald McCombs and William Tacker. Though Verdigris still had a school for students up through eighth grade, its high school was a thing of the past until 2000.
“My father attended Verdigris and I have grandsons who have graduated from Verdigris and one who will graduate next year,” said Bernice.
Maxine (Chafin) Brown graduated from the Verdigris eighth grade class in 1947. She and husband Bill have been heavily involved in helping her children, Butch Brown, Susan (Brown) Tritt, and Sandy (Brown) Vanzant, put on the “Old-Timers” reunion this year.
“It’s like a family reunion for us,” Maxine said. “We almost always have people come from out-of-state.”
Maxine and her eight siblings all attended school at Verdigris, as did both her parents. Bill Brown’s father, Albert, attended Verdigris back in the day when it wasn’t a free, public, school.
“They paid a nickel a day to attend,” said Maxine. “Bill’s grandfather wrote a lot of letters and was involved in getting the first public school started in Verdigris.”
Bernice and Herbert Irby and Maxine and Bill Brown all agree that seeing old friends is the best part of the reunion.
“For years we were such a small community,” said Maxine. “We’re very close-knit. The school was the center of our community — it still is.”
Contact Joy Hampton at firstname.lastname@example.org
By Joy Hampton