Folk Fridays begin at museum

Vallillo kicks off series with songs of one-room schools

BALDWIN — The weather was perfect as a nice crowd of about 80 people gathered outside the Lake County Historical Museum Friday, July 30, for a free concert and history lesson combined into one.

The Lake County Historical Society launched their Folk Fridays music and performance series for summer 2021 with the prolific music stylings and skills of Chris Vallillo, an Illinois folk artist who keeps the traditions of the rural midwest alive through song.

The theme of Vallillo's performance was centered around one-room schools, and his song selections were met by cheers and participation from folks relaxing in lawn chairs on the museum grounds — to cars in the field north of the museum beeping their horns. Several 4-H kids thoroughly enjoyed the evening — clapping and dancing to the tunes in their front seat row.

Vallillo, who has performed at the museum for the last few summers, brings new themes from the past to the table each year. He has traveled far and wide to rural areas to collect and preserve hundreds of songs from original sources throughout the years.

With Vallillo performing on vintage guitars, a jaw harp, a hammer dulcimer over 100 years old, and more, listeners were able to go back to a time and place of sounds enjoyed long ago.

"One-room country schools were not only used for learning, but they were often the very center of the community," Vallillo explained, mentioning how people would gather at schools for box-socials, square dances, plays, voting and more.

During his time of collecting songs, Vallillo said he learned of many different old school-house names, some which were quite interesting, he noted. He performed a song highlighting some of the school names, such as Toad Hollar, Coffee Creek, Mud Acre, and others - which were met with laughter from the audience.

Sometimes, old-time school life took on a sadder tone. A song Vallillo performed was a tribute written by Chuck Suchy of a 15-year-old student, Hazel Miner, a farmer's daughter, who paid the ultimate sacrifice when a blizzard struck in mid-March of 1920 in Center, Oliver County, in the West Dakota Plains.

School let out early due to the storm. Hazel, with her two younger siblings, lost their way in the blinding snow, and their sleigh overturned. She huddled over her siblings, and told them stories to keep them awake, making them promise not to sleep, even if she did.

They sang all four verses of "America the Beautiful" and repeated "The Lord's Prayer." As the night wore on, Hazel fell silent. The search crew of about 30 men set out again the next day, and saw the sleigh overturned with the horse still tied to it, two miles south of the school.

They found Hazel lifeless, her arms stretched over her siblings and her coat spread over them. They were still alive.

"Wings on the snow, a fate not chose, morning finds a dove so froze, who too soon thought the spring arrived. In warmth below, her love survived," Vallillo rang out the chorus. "Hush a bye, don't you cry. Cold is like a sorrow. Sing a song, it won't be long, you'll be warm tomorrow."

Returning to a lighter topic, Vallillo talked about a book of rules he came across for young women teachers to follow at a certain school, such as not keeping the company of men. They were to be home from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. unless at school function, and they were not allowed to loiter downtown or in ice cream parlors.

They were forbidden to ride in a carriage with any man other than their brothers or father, and weren't allowed bright colored clothing, and especially could not dye their hair. Dresses were to be no shorter than two inches above the ankle.

"School teachers were not just the educator, they also were the school nurse - and they dealt with that parent from time to time. They also were protectors," Vallillo said, relating a story of a teacher boarding up windows and doors to keep her students safe as an angry bull attacked the school house. Finally, a farmer came to fetch the bull.

Vallillo closed with "Amazing Grace," relating how one-room schools were often used for church services in early settlement of communities before a church could be built.

In closing, as well as before the concert, 4-H children got to ring an old bell from the old Marlborough one-room schoolhouse. Also during the performance, there was a special debut of the museum's publication on one-room schools of Lake County, which serve also as a history and self-driving guide.

Additional performances on the following Friday's at 7 p.m. will be "Patchouli and Tierra Guitarra Inspiring Folk Due this week on Aug. 6, Joel Mabus Contemporary Folk Music on Aug. 13 and Common Chords Music that Matters on Aug. 20.

Folk Fridays is funded in part through a grant from the Michigan Humanities Council, and affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.