CRESSON SCHOOL BORE STRONG CITIZENS
FROM SIMPLE BEGINNINGS
By Chris Evans
Hood County News – December 21, 2000
As a group they are a ragamuffin-looking contingent, the 1930s and ’40s schoolchildren whose faces stare back from the remarkable black-and-white photos that hang on a classroom wall in the old Cresson School today.
Lean and hungry-looking, with faces that range from freckled and pasty to sunburned and taut and hollow-eyed, they represent a cross-section of those who attended the Cresson School in a period from the Great Depression through the second World War and beyond.
They were a motley and, later, mostly a successful group, who came from families rich and average and poor. Those who survive today are also a last link with the history of the current Cresson School, completed in 1931.
Their leader, either in the classroom or on the field of sport, was a fiercely driven former Johnson County schools superintendent, Victor B. Penuel Sr., who came with his wife Dixie to Cresson in 1927 and was principal or schoolmaster until 1944.
His thick hair sprouting forth above his noggin like that of boxing promoter Don King, only shorter, Penuel appears in virtually all of the photos taken of school activities during the time he was there.
“Mr. Penuel taught us algebra, geometry and history,” said Cresson historian / Grand Prairie resident Shirley R. Smith, who started school in Cresson 1930 and attended here through his early years before graduating in Godley. “He also coached all the boys’ activities in sports. On occasion he went to sleep while teaching. We would snicker and wake him up. He kept good control over the whole school.
“When the old school burned (Oct. 21, 1930), he designed the new one,” said Smith.
Dixie Penuel, too, was an excellent teacher. “We all just loved her; she taught us to read out of a Baby Ray book,” recalled Smith.
The Penuels set, say those who went to school under them and the other educators who worked in the system, high standards for their country school. Printed programs for commencement exercises and music or dramatic “programmes” indicated as much. If pomp and ceremony were not a part of much of the schoolchildren’s lives, they would, the Penuels decided, be part of a Cresson School education.
Many other Cresson School teachers of the period are worthy of mention. Most notable among them is “Miss Elma” Fidler, a mainstay teacher from 1929 to 1944 before moving on to exchange teaching and actually teaching in Europe one year.
Notes Smith in his Cresson: Community Crossroads, “Elma Fidler graduated from Cresson School (when it only went to the eighth grade), Central High School in Fort Worth and Mary Hardin-Baylor…She returned to Cresson in 1929…She taught the seventh and eighth grades…the hardest group of kids to teach in any school” and roundly succeeded.
However, Smith writes, certain boys “pulled pranks on her when she left her room at recess,” putting turtles and frogs in her desk drawer and salting the fishbowl, killing the fish. The same scofflads “even erased test questions from the blackboard…She caught both those boys and when she got through with them, they remembered it-and so did the rest of us.”
Miss Elma, Smith said, almost without fail left her charges “wiser and smarter as a result of her teaching ability.”
It should be noted that the current Cresson School, which turns 70 next year, is actually the fourth Cresson School on or near the same site.
The first was likely little more than a glorified line shack, according to Smith. “Probably a one-room, one-teacher school,” he said, adding that a resident born in 1877 described it as a small frame building on the western edge of what is now Henson’s Building Materials. That school, though the Cresson School District wasn’t created by Hood County in 1884, may have been built before 1884 to serve area children. It was torn down in 1890.
The second Cresson School, built in 1890, was a two-teacher, two-story box of a building located near where the auditorium of the current school is. In 1918 it, too, was razed to make way for a bigger Cresson School.
The third Cresson School, erected in 1918, was a two-story, red-brick structure. After it burned to the ground Oct. 21, 1930, Schoolmaster Penuel went another direction in designing its successor, coming up with the Alamo-cream brick combination that has become a Cresson trademark.
While the current building was being constructed, students went to school in local churches. When they occupied the new building, they thought of it as modern. Today, those students who remain recall the more human elements of attending the “new” Cresson School.
There was no air conditioning in the spring, but the windows did open. Though the building had electricity, until the late 1940s, when bathrooms also were added, the lightbulbs were small and the room had dark spots.
Helen Long, Cresson School curator and civic leader whose son, Joe, attended Cresson School in its last days in the mid-1960s, has collected data and minutiae about the cream brick, Alamo-knockoff style building itself that bear witness to its uniqueness: When constructed in 1931 it had water piped only to two water fountains on the front porch. There was no bathroom or kitchen.
In the late 1940s, the southwestmost of two long, narrow libraries on the front of the two front classrooms was made into a kitchen, which meant water was no longer piped only to the two water fountains on the front porch. The southwestern front classroom began doing dual duty, as a classroom and a cafeteria.
Prior to the late ’40s or early ’50s, when real toilets were added at the right and left rear of the building, students and faculty alike were privy to two multi-hole outhouses, one for girls and one for boys, facing opposite directions and with a boothlike configuration that allowed a student total privacy without any doors.
Alas, the Cresson School apparently never was noted for providing privy accessories, notably toilet paper. Several students who were girls at the time said their mamas pinned scraps of cloth to the inside of their nether garments, to be used when needed. “I really don’t know what the boys did,” said one.
Most children carried their lunches to school. A few, who lived close enough, were allowed to walk home. At times, when the wind blew cold, students were allowed to scoot their desks closer to a coal- or cross tie-burning stove, one for each of the six large rooms in the building. They even warmed their lunches on the big stoves, said Dillard Crook. “Egg sandwiches,” recalled Crook, who graduated from Cresson School and became a builder specializing in churches. “That’s all I remember about taking my lunch to school: egg sandwiches.”
In the winter, the boys played basketball. In spring, they played tennis on what must have brought old meaning to what today is called clay-court tennis. But most all of them worked on the area’s ranches or farms or in local businesses if they were old enough.
The biggest barometer of the period for the Cresson School, say those who knew it, was the fruit it bore.
“Many people have graduated from the Cresson Schools; all have entered into society with a well-rounded education due to fine teachers and administrators who cared for their students.” Recalled Smith, who himself had a long career with Montgomery Ward in Fort Worth before going into private business.
“When our students went elsewhere to school, we generally knew the material better than some of the kids who’d gone elsewhere,” said Kenneth Teich, a mechanic and engineer who retired from General Dynamics and farms today.
“If you were from Cresson and went into Granbury or Godley or wherever to finish up, you were usually ahead of where kids from those schools were,” said Crook, who went from a hardscrabble farm off Highway 171 to a career in the church-construction business. “Mr. Penuel and the teachers we had were excellent. Most of our students turned out to be successful and good people, too.”