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Debs woman tells stories of teaching at Buzzle

Lillian "Lil" Helgeson, 98, of Debs, looks at a hand-drawn map of the Buzzle School area, published in a Buzzle Township record book. Helgeson taught at the Buzzle School for almost two years, starting in 1930. At her home in Debs, Helgeson shared old memories of the school with her daughter, Mardell Kiesel of Anchorage, Alaska, and neighbor Vi Johnson. Pioneer Photo/Anne Williams

When Lillian "Lil" Helgeson of Debs learned the Bemidji School District was considering selling the old Buzzle School property, memories rekindled in her mind of that one-room school house in the woods.

Helgeson, now 98 years old, recalled those unforgettable days of teaching at the country school over lefse and flatbread Monday morning at her home in Debs.

Helgeson was only 19 years old in 1930 when she started her first teaching job at Buzzle School, which was located northeast of Pinewood in Buzzle Township.

She was paid $55 a month to teach at the country school. She had just graduated from Bemidji State Teachers College after completing a year-long program designed for women who would become teachers at country schools.

Her daily duties as a Buzzle School teacher included instructing 12 students, ages 7-16, in one room. She arrived at school early so she could start a fire to heat the building. Every day she had to pump water to refill the drinking and cleaning containers, sweep the floor and plan her lessons.

Helgeson's route to school was not for the weak-footed. She began each morning just after 7 a.m. From the house she was boarding at, she walked through a strip of woods, crawled under a fence and walked across a wide open field.

"That's where the drifts were," she said. "Sometimes I would walk on my hands and knees because I couldn't reach the bottom of the drift."

After crossing the field, Helgeson said, she walked through a farmstead, following trails made by cows. Then she walked through the woods the rest of the way to the school.

"I should have skied to work," Helgeson said. "I used to wade in snow up to my hips. I wore boots and britches during the winter months. I would get snow packed up under my dresses and some days I would be wet the rest of the day. It was a miracle I didn't get ill."

Helgeson spent weekdays living at a homestead one mile from the school. On weekends she returned home to spend time with her family in Debs.

Helgeson said she was originally supposed to teach at a country school in Becida, but the teacher who was set to leave ended up staying.

"Teaching jobs were scarcer than hen's teeth," Helgeson said. "You didn't get a lot of money, but jobs were scarce. People hung on to their jobs."

Helgeson considers teaching at Buzzle "one of the worst experiences a young, beginning teacher could have," because of the lack of experience she had instructing a wide range of students and teaching from textbooks that were 20 years old.

In her second year at Buzzle, Helgeson said, she bought two arithmetic books with her own money. She kept one for herself and gave the other one to a student struggling to learn math.

But while the hike to school and the low pay may not have been ideal, teaching at Buzzle turned out to be a love story.

After all, if it were not for the mile-long route she took to and from school, which sometimes she would take past the Helgeson homestead, she never would have met her late husband, Martin Helgeson.

One day on her way home from school, Lil passed by Martin's home. Lil's daughter, Mardell Kiesel, helped tell the story of how her parents met.

"There were many unmarried Helgeson brothers," Kiesel said.

Lil said she threw a snowball at the Helgesons' door. Martin, who was cooking dinner at the time, opened the door and looked at Lil.

"I apologized and laughed," Lil said. "I told him I just gave myself a dare and threw the snowball. Then I went on my way and he shut the door and went on with his cooking."

Lil chuckled, hesitant to share further details about her relationship with Martin. Two years after Lil threw the snowball, she and Martin got married. Lil was 21 years old.

Helgeson took a hiatus from teaching thereafter to raise her four children. Later in life she started teaching again and taught at several area schools, including in Debs and Pinewood.

She also attended the 1987 Buzzle School Reunion.

Helgeson still wonders how the Buzzle School was moved off the property when there were no roads nearby.

"No matter where you came from you had to walk," she said.

Kiesel said she hopes the property is purchased by the original owners or landowners who own land adjacent to the property.

"It would just be nice for it to stay with somebody who has the ancestry, I think," Kiesel said.