Etna School District #108

Etna School Building – 1950
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Etna, Illinois
Etna School Building – 2003
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The History of Etna School

Etna (population approximately 100) is located in far southeastern Coles County in near southeastern Illinois.  The town is located about one mile west of Interstate Highway 57 about fifteen miles southwest of Charleston and ten miles south of Mattoon. Etna was platted in the late 1850s. The Illinois Central Gulf Railroad cuts through town and was a great influence on the Etna’s early growth.  The Brush Creek flows to the east of Etna.

A school was established in the Etna area in the late 1800s.  The school was built and served the community proudly and efficiently for over six decades.  In the photo above the building to the left was the original Etna School building.  Around 1948 the nearby Buttermilk Country School was closed.  The building was moved and placed on a new foundation to the right of the Etna School building.  The center section was built to connect the two buildings and it included washrooms, running water, a kitchen, and a lunchroom.

This arrangement continued to serve the folks of the area quite well until a further consolidation effort took place in the late 1950s.  This effort led to the closing of the Etna School in 1961 with all students bused to nearby Neoga to attend school.

The following information was provided by a fan of this site, Tom Benefiel:

“My mom (Rita Benefiel) taught (at Etna) in 1954-55, grades 1, 2, and 3.  She did not have a college degree and was teaching on a County Superintendent’s emergency certificate.  She was taking extension classes from Eastern Illinois State College (today’s EIU) in Charleston.”

More great information is available at a website regarding the history of Etna School found at the following address:

http://community-2.webtv.net/ryoung33/ETNAILLINOISSCHOOLS/

It is the product of a great friend of this site, Dr. Robert Young. The site offers a look at the Etna School as well as the town of Etna which was developed with the in-put of several folks who lived through the era.  Truly excellent reading and a chance to go back in time.

The Etna School building as it appeared in 2003 is pictured above to the right.  The building was bought by a local farmer. As you can see, the bell tower and chimney from the original Etna School building have deteriorated and fallen from the building. Today the buildings are used for storage.

The following fascinating information was written by Bob Benefiel and sent to us by his son, Tom.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.

Memories of the Etna School

– by Bob Benefiel, excerpt from his book, The Eleventh Commandment, ©1999

(Used with permission)

The school was an eight-grade, one-room, “country style” school, although it was located in Etna, just about a block south of our house. I do not know how many families the school served, but as I can best remember, the extreme distance that any pupil lived from the school was not more than a mile. There were usually around 30 students in the school with one teacher.

During my eight years of attendance at the school, I experienced instruction from only two teachers; a lady teacher (Miss Nina O’Day) for my first two years of school, and a male teacher (Mr. Ralph White) for my last six years. When I was in second grade, for whatever reason, I told Pauline Thomas that “she couldn’t even pee,” and of course, she “tattled” and I was in big trouble. I was kept after school and Miss O’Day gave me two or three swats with THE paddle as punishment for my vulgarity! That was the only spanking I ever received in school.

The school was administered by three directors, all local residents. As I recall, the membership was pretty stable and was, I assume, characteristic of the “country schools” of that day and area.

As to classroom equipment, there was a globe, some antiquated maps, wall-hung reading charts for first grade, a set of encyclopedia, a dictionary, a wall clock, blackboards, a sand table, a small table with “little chairs” for first grade, the inevitable recitation benches, a piano, and the teacher. In later years there was a radio.

I cannot remember ever having a new textbook in any subject although I cannot say definitely that no new books were purchased. I believe I remember a World Book Encyclopedia being purchased new in later years.

Playground equipment included some swings, a “Flying Dutchman,” a slide, a ball diamond, a cinder basketball court with a goal at each end, and always a bat and ball and a basketball. Indoor games consisted of blackboard and chalk, and checkers; those were about all.

The school library consisted of the aforementioned encyclopedia and dictionary, a few ancient fiction books, and such old magazines as might come from various sources. In later years, the State of Illinois Bookmobile augmented the book offering considerably by its periodic visits.

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Looking at my report cards, it’s interesting to note that history was not taught as a subject until grade six, but that geography was begun in grade three. Science, for some reason, was omitted from the curriculum during the fifth year. As I recall, subjects such as reading, spelling, arithmetic, language or grammar, and history were taught every day. Science, health, geography, civics, and handwriting were taught, I believe, on a two-day per week basis.

On some grade levels, music and art were evaluated, and the music consisted of singing a couple of songs at the beginning of school two or three mornings each week. Miss O’Day played the piano, but Mr. White didn’t, although he was an excellent singer. Art consisted of coloring, cutting, and pasting mimeographed forms, objects, and animals, little else.

Free play at recess constituted the physical education training, as there was no planned P.E. program. I note that personal appearance, courtesy, work habits, and self-control were subjectively evaluated. (Imagine getting 87 ½ in personal appearance!) Grades were numerical for my first few years of school and letter grades were given the last few years.

Friday afternoons usually included a period for a “spelling bee” or some sort of ciphering contest. The inevitable Christmas program of plays, recitations, and songs was a yearly occurrence, as was a picnic or wiener-roast to close school in the spring. It was an eight-month school term, beginning after Labor Day and closing at the end of April, as there was no school during the month of May.

I’m reminded that most of the kids’ shoes were too small or worn out by spring, and were mostly discarded in favor of going barefoot for the last few days of the school year. Lots of us started school in the fall going barefoot. When the weather grew too cold to be barefoot, those new “school shoes” were really confining! Most of the boys came back to school in the fall with new bib overalls and the girls in “new” dresses, many of which were “hand-me-downs.” Except in the summer, I had two pairs of shoes, one for school and play, and one for Sunday. In the summer, shoes were needed only on Sunday or to “go to town.”

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I recall on one occasion walking about two blocks to the railroad to see a “streamlined train” (a diesel) go through. It was the Illinois Central Rail Road’s “Green Diamond” and the railroad station agent had informed the teacher of its anticipated passing. It was interesting, but was just “here she comes and there she goes!” I also remember riding about ten miles to Mattoon in an open cattle truck, before school busses, to take a tour of the Coca-Cola bottling works. A trip to the Sally Ann Bakery in Mattoon completes my recollection of supplemental experiences. I might add that these trips included all of the children in the school.

The learning achieved in the so-called “universals’ was probably adequate. The extreme capableness of my teachers leads me to say that this program was exceptionally good. Of course, the progressive educator would shudder at the methods used, for the strictest of discipline was expected, and received. There was no project, core or unit method, just information, skills, questioning, recitation, and responses.

The biggest deficit in my elementary education concerned materials; reference books, science equipment, etc. There was no real training in physical education or music and no chance for supervised or invoked creativity of an artistic nature. Tight scheduling necessitated by the one-teacher/eight-grade ratio cut down on individual attention and help, but in thinking back, I cannot think of a single individual who I feel did not achieve close to what I believe was his or her capacity for learning.

The school did little more than provide “a good common school education.” The patrons of the school were farmers and laborers, and they did not require, nor expect, more than a fundamental understanding of basic learnings. Their skills were learned on the job and could not feasibly be taught in such a school situation. Although not specifically aimed at, the program was, I believe, entirely adequate for going on to high school. However, in retrospect, I can think of only about eight persons who graduated from high school, and no other college graduates, other than myself, who attended the school during my eight years there. In extenuation, one must remember that the 1930s were an extremely “tight” period in our nation’s economic history.

There was one factor that always seemed to me to be a valuable opportunity in such a school. When one had his lessons prepared, he could listen to other grades “recite.” A reasonably able person could increase the scope of his studies and experiences, learning new things from grades above, and reviewing with grades below. I feel that present day education does not allow students to have time for independent study; time to read, if you will. The dictionary was always a favorite book for free-time reading with me. Had I been in today’s classrooms, I never would have had the opportunity to read and reread the World Book Encyclopedia.

The school of my boyhood no longer exists. District consolidation took care of that. Curriculum, facilities, equipment, materials, methods, and supposedly the teachers have changed; been improved. I wonder!

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Bob Benefiel lived in Etna, IL from birth until he was inducted into the United States Army in December, 1950. He attended the school described above from 1934 until 1942. He graduated from Neoga Township High School in 1946 along with his future wife, Rita Worland.

After he was discharged from service in December 1952, Bob’s family moved back home to Etna to live with his mother until they moved away from home for the last time to Campus City Apartments at Eastern Illinois State in Charleston, IL in 1955.

After college graduation, the family moved to Elliott, IL in 1957 so that Bob could teach in the Gibson City school district. They moved to Gibson City, IL in 1961. From 1966-1985, he was the principal of the Gibson City Grade School until he retired.

Bob and Rita still live in Gibson City today.

Bob is pictured at the Etna School in the photo from 1934 to the right below.  He is the third student from the right in the front row. 

In the 1914 photo to the left, Bob’s father, Fred Benefiel is standing in the 3rd row with bib-overalls on, fifth person from the left.  His brother Cecil is wearing a tie and is fourth person on the left.

Etna School
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Student Body – 1934
Etna School
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Student Body – 1914

               East Paradise School
East Paradise School House
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Paradise Township, Coles County, Illinois

Paradise (population 20?) is located in upper southeastern Illinois as well.  It was platted in 1837 in southwestern Coles County.  Its approximate location is 16 miles southwest of Charleston.  The Little Wabash River flows to the east and west of Paradise and Paradise Lake sits quietly to the northwest of town.  According to www.mapquest.com, there are no official city streets in Paradise, just the intersection of County Road 33 and County Road 190. One of the reasons this town failed to develop was the placement of the Illinois Central Gulf Railroad in the mid to late 1800s.  The railroad passed about 1 mile east of town, sealing the town’s fate.  Information on Paradise is located on the Illinois Trails website at http://iltrails.org/coles/masons.html.

The above photo of East Paradise Township School was taken in 1910.  Our friend Tom Benefiel gave us the following information:

“My grandmother and her siblings went to this school. She was born in 1898 and probably attended from 1904 – 1912.  Back then you could go back and repeat a grade if you wanted to since the nearest high school was in Mattoon or Neoga and a high school diploma was not required in Illinois.  I believe that my grandmother, who loved school, probably took the 7th and 8th grades again for fun!  This schoolhouse today, the last time I saw it, is a residence.  It looked to be in good repair.”

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