The Christmas Prayer – New School

Chapter 5 – School Preparations

The parents of the students who would attend the school were anxious to convince themselves they'd made the right choice.
Setting up the school was an essential thing Nettie and Bertha had to do in the coming weeks.

Nettie wasn’t sure what she’d expected when she met Mrs. Willoughby Denton, the head of the parenting committee for the school.

Mrs. Denton and the other two mothers were rather dull in dress compared to the fashionable women of St. Paul. She had to remind herself this was still considered a prairie area.Two of the women had their hair pulled back in buns, but Mrs. Willoughby Denton wore her hair in a long curl over her left shoulder, and it looked quite lovely. Mrs. Denton also brought her nine-year-old daughter along for the initial meeting to impress upon the new teachers the importance of learning for the local children.

The three women  brought a fresh loaf of sourdough bread to welcome the two new teachers.

Bertha apologized for not having had time to prepare tea for the women, but Mrs. Willoughby assured them it wasn’t necessary.

The women chatted for over an hour about the curriculum for the coming school year and the community’s expectations for the young teachers.

Nettie felt sorry for young Amanda Willoughby and found a sheet of parchment and a graphite pencil from her school supply box so the little girl could practice her writing skills while the older women talked.


Nettie was delighted with the school building.

The men of the community had constructed a white frame schoolhouse with a second story where the teachers could live for free. That meant Nettie could send more money home to her parents each month after payday.

Bertha busied herself cleaning the slate at the front of the classroom. “I wondered if we would have a board for the children for their mathematics and English instruction.”

“It is perfect, isn’t it?” Nettie wiped the top of one of the student desks with a cloth rinsed in vinegar and water. The building was full of sawdust from the construction, and they only had two months to ready the classroom for the new session.

“Whoever had the idea for using slate to write on was brilliant.” Bertha smiled as she made the last swipe across the board.

“Grandma Cupp used to talk about the slate board in her school in Edinburgh when she was growing up in Scotland. Slate was used in the classrooms when she was a little girl.” Nettie wondered if she’d ever hear another story from her grandmother. Oh, how she missed her.

I hope I can travel to Scotland one day. From what Grandmother says, it’s a lovely country. She talks about the beauty of the heather and the scent of it filling the air.

The two girls worked in harmony for the rest of the afternoon.

New Home

The school was taking shape, but Nettie hadn’t had an opportunity to unpack her trunk.

Each girl had a wardrobe they could use in the bedroom in the upper level of the building. Bertha chose the bed by the window, so Nettie took the one by the door.

The pine walls carried the scent of newly milled wood. They were light in color still, but would soon need to be oiled to deepen the grain and preserve the wood.

Their room was charming. It included two single beds. Someone had fashioned the headboards from carved pine, the most abundant wood available in the surrounding forests. There was a pine table in one corner, large enough to seat six adults. The builders also provided cupboards and a work table built into the wall. At the other end of the room stood a fireplace and two rocking chairs plus a divan with an end table.

The girls would be perfectly comfortable here during the upcoming winter months.

There was a knock at the front door.

Nettie hurried down the steps into the open classroom.

Who would be calling at this time of day?

She was surprised to see Raymond Henson standing there with two rabbits hanging from one raised hand while the other held a rifle.

“Good afternoon, Miss Perkins. Miss Carlson told me she very much fancies fresh rabbit for dinner.”

Why is he acting so formal?

“Why yes, I believe she does, Mr. Henson. Shall I beckon her down?”

“That’s entirely not necessary,” the young man said as he held out the rabbits.

Nettie took them gingerly by the ears.

“Have a nice evening.” Raymond tipped his hat and retreated down the walkway.

Carriage Ride

Nettie was working in the little flower garden by the front door when the carriage pulled up. She stood as the driver disembarked and with a lazy step moved toward her.

“Morning, ma’am,” he said. “The name’s Albert Betts. My sister, Edna Denton, asked me to stop by and see if you ladies would like a tour of Menomonie this fine day. The whole town is so grateful to you ladies for coming to run the new school.”

“Well, thank you, Mr. Betts. Let me fetch Miss Carlson.” Nettie scurried across the lawn to find Bertha in the small shed out back. Half the shed was for storage. The other half was a private toilet for the girls. “Bertha, Mrs. Denton’s brother is here to take us on tour. Please hurry, I’m anxious to see more of the town.”

Bertha hurriedly stacked the last of the crates, cleaning her hands on her apron. “I need to get my bonnet. Would you like me to fetch yours, too?”

“Thank you. I’ll keep Mr. Betts company while you’re getting them.”

Nettie heard hoof beats in the distance as she began her conversation with Mr. Betts. Her heart skipped a beat as Raymond tipped his hat to them as he trotted past.


As soon as Bertha appeared with their bonnets, the three climbed in and started forward in the open carriage.

Albert Betts grinned broadlly as he shifted in his seat and turned the side of his face to the girls so they could hear him better. “Menomonie is in the Red Cedar River Valley. The French were the first to settle around here, except for the Sioux, of course. A man named Jean Baptiste Rennault opened a trading post near here in 1788. Well, things just started growing after that.”

“I had no idea they settled this area over a hundred years ago!” Bertha scanned the countryside as they continued their journey.

“Well, yes ma’am, we’re quite organized here.” These girls from the big city must think we’re a bunch of uncivilized savages.

“I can see that,” Nettie was quick to respond. I fear we have offended the gentleman.

“Menomonie was officially established in 1830. The lumber industry is vast in Wisconsin, so when Knapp, Stout, & Co. took total control of the settlement’s goods, services, politics, and currency the settlers were relieved. The lumber company was the largest in the world by then, and the people here knew they’d be well taken care of.”

“I understand Menomonie gained its name from the Indians who harvested rice near here.”

“That’s right, ma’am. My granddaddy told me the name of the river, in the beginning, was the older version of the name. It’s spelled m-e-n-o-m-o-n-e-e. They changed the name of the river from the Menomonee River to the Red Cedar River. Can’t remember the year, but the old name’s where the city got its name. Did you know we were incorporated as a city just last year?”

The Mansion

“We did not know that.” Bertha winked at Nettie.

Nettie pointed to a clump of purple and rose-colored flowers. “What are those?”

“Those are called Fragrant False Indigo, ma’am. They bloom hereabouts in June and July.”

Nettie smiled and nodded.

The carriage took them past the Wilson Mansion.

The two girls craned their necks forward to get a better look at the large dwelling.

Several men with ladders were placing red, white, and blue festooning along the railing of the porch.

Nettie could see at least four separate brick chimneys positioned around the home. She couldn’t imagine a house having more than two fireplaces. She’d seen more at Brandon House in St. Paul, but her friend’s father was a very wealthy man.

Bertha pointed at the cupola rising from the mansion’s roof; then quickly buried her hand in her lap.

Nettie tried not to laugh at Bertha’s sudden lapse in etiquette. Proper ladies never point at anything in a public place.

“They’re preparing for the 4th of July festivities next week. The Wilsons invite the entire community to the affair. I know everyone is anxious to meet the new teachers.” Albert Betts pulled up on the reins. He jumped down from the carriage and offered the horse a bucket of water.


“Look how beautifully they keep the grounds.” Bertha’s eyes were wide as saucers. “Look, Nettie, there’s Raymond…I mean, Mr. Henson.”

“He’s somethin’,” their driver chuckled. “Always seems to show up wherever someone needs a hand.”

“Good morning, ladies.” Raymond wiped his arm across his brow. “It’s a beautiful day for a carriage ride.”

“Yes, it is.” Bertha beamed as she fiddled with the strings to her bonnet.

“Are you ladies planning to attend the liberty festivities next Wednesday?”

“We haven’t talked about it,” Bertha said. “I hear it’s a lovely party.”

“It is; they roast a couple of hogs. The entire community comes, and everyone brings a dish. The community considers it the celebration of the summer.”

“Then we shall make every effort to attend.” Bertha couldn’t keep the silly grin off her face.

“How are the preparations coming at the school?” Raymond said.

“It is all coming together quite nicely.” Bertha fidgeted.

“Do you know how many students you’ll have?”

Nettie half listened as Bertha and Raymond discussed all the preparations they’d been making in the past week. It was hard to imagine they’d been there less than a week and had accomplished so much. She longed to participate in this discussion, but she was afraid her feelings for Raymond would become far too apparent to both of them.

More Information

“How do you like your accommodations?” Raymond looked directly at Nettie.

“The school and lodging are quite adequate, thank you.” Good, she’d kept her voice very formal. She wasn’t about to infringe on her friend’s aspirations with this man.

“We were afraid we wouldn’t get it completed before you arrived.”

“You helped construct the school?” Nettie couldn’t help herself. The fact that she was living in a house Raymond helped build put a fresh giddiness in her voice.

The Lumber Operation

“Ready to go, ladies?” Albert Betts climbed back in position.

Raymond nodded as they began moving again.

The carriage followed the Red Cedar River to the lumber operation. It was much larger than Nettie ever imagined.

“They have several mill sites about,” Mr. Betts explained. “There are other communities nearby built near the company’s dams and mill sites. There’s one in Cedar Falls, another at Prairie Farm, and one in Downsville. I believe there are about 1,800 employees right now.”

Nettie was surprised to see the lumber mills, blacksmith shop, stables, a store, and machine shop. It didn’t end there. Mr. Betts pointed out a grist-mill and grain warehouse.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Mother and Father could come here and run the blacksmith shop? Mother could help the local ladies adapt to current fashions.

“Nettie, can you believe all this? We didn’t see half the city when we arrived. This city is outstanding.” Bertha wasn’t merely falling in love with Raymond; she was adopting her new home.


Nettie and Bertha arrived at the church early. As they entered the building, Raymond walked forward and welcomed them to the services.

Bertha couldn’t contain her joy at seeing him again.

I wonder if she’ll invite him to join us in the sanctuary? thought Nettie.

“Will you honor us by joining us this morning?” Bertha fairly purred.

Lord, please save me from this embarrassment. 

“I would love to, Bertha, but I have some other responsibilities I need to tend to.”

The look of disappointment on Bertha’s face made Nettie feel horrible about the jealousy she felt. She’d been fighting her emotions since the day she first set eyes on Raymond.

Nettie nodded at Raymond as they walked past and found a seat near the front of the sanctuary.

The church filled up quickly.

Nettie recognized the ladies from the school when they entered with their families. She counted a total of twelve children among the three families.

The pianist walked in, and the crowd hushed as she began playing the prelude.

The Pastor

An elderly man entered and walked to the podium when the music ended.

“Good morning, everyone. I see we have some new faces here this morning, so I’ll introduce myself. I am the Reverend Charles Welch, Senior Pastor at the United Methodist Church here in Menomonie. Today is a bitter-sweet day for me. As most of you know, I am retiring today. It has been a blessed thirty years that I’ve served this congregation.”

Nettie could see how tired the man looked. His face was ashen. He must suffer some ailment that forced him to retire from his position.

“I know many of you have met the new pastor, so I’d just like to call him forward to say the prayer.”

All eyes turned to the back of the church. Nettie couldn’t understand why Raymond still hadn’t taken his seat. That was rather rude of him.

Suddenly, Raymond began to walk forward. Nettie swallowed hard as he walked down the aisle toward the altar, and choked on her saliva.

The Service

As he passed by, Raymond pulled a clean white handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to her. He continued walking as she coughed and fought for air. He walked to the front of the sanctuary and turned to face the congregation when he reached the altar.

“This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

Raymond smiled as words of greeting drifted up from the congregation.

“My name is Reverand Raymond Henson, and I welcome you to the Lord’s house. Let us sing page 53 in your hymnal.”

Everyone reached for the hymnals. The pianist began playing, and the beautiful melody drifted throughout the room. The congregation sang all the verses of the hymn, ending with the ‘Amen.’

“Please be seated.” Raymond waited until everyone had taken their seats.

Nettie kept her eyes on her lap. She was horrified at the scene she had made with her immature coughing fit.

“I’d like to join all of you in wishing Reverand Welch the very best in health and happiness in this new phase of his life. We all look forward to the day when we can put the toils of our life to rest and begin our journey to the Glory of the Kingdom.” He turned in the direction of Reverand Welch’s chair and clapped with the rest of the congregation.

Nettie could see tears in the elderly minister’s eyes, even from this distance.

“Hear the Word of God in the book of Isaiah, the forty-first chapter, beginning with the first verse…”


Nettie found it impossible to concentrate on the minister’s words.

What all did I say to Raymond since we met? Have I done anything to dishonor my parents in the way I lusted for him? Nettie swiped at the thin veil of sweat on her upper lip. The church was like a furnace, even with the windows open.

“Please join us in the closing hymn.”

Nettie looked up at Reverand Henson. How could she have possibly missed the entire service? She reached out and took the corner of the hymnal Bertha offered.

As they left the Sanctuary, Nettie veered toward the door. Bertha grabbed her by the arm.

“Aren’t we going to the community room for the celebration for Reverand Welch?

“What? Oh yes, of course.” Nettie followed Bertha and the crowd into the other room.


If you haven’t read the previous chapters, you can find them below:

Emma – Chapter 1

Nettie – 1883 – Chapter 2

Maria, June Bride – Chapter 3

Moving to Menomonie – Chapter 4

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