Thursday, February 6, 2014

Fox and Geese ... and Children ... Oh My!

No winter passes in the North Country of South Dakota without the bite of bitter cold. This very day of February the temperature in Buffalo, South Dakota, may rise as high as 5 degrees. Yesterday the high was -3 and last night the temperature fell into the double digits below zero. Harding County winters were no different back when Govert School was in session to teach the children of Govert township.

The memory of Govert as a town includes the memory of wood frame houses with little or no insulation, miserably warmed by a wood or coal burning stove. Goverites had no experience with layers of insulation in their attics measured in inches, with high efficiency gas or electric furnaces, with double paned windows. How cold was it? Cold enough for the pail of water in the kitchen to freeze during the night. Yes, that cold.

But what does this have to do with fox and geese and children? For this story we need a winter scene, so play along.

During the years the Govert community stood on the prairie ... during the 1910's, the 1920's, the 1930's, and into the 1940's ... the only warm place in the house on a cold day was the stove. The stove came in many shapes, and your house might have only one ... the cook stove ... but picture in your mind a pot-bellied stove. From watching their parents, children learned to face the stove to warm their hands and their front side, and then to turn around to warm their back side. Many of the stoves had a foot rail so you could pull up your chair and prop your feet on the stove rail. In winter, life in the North Country played out within the effective radius of the stove. Yes, that cold.

And now on to the fox and geese and children.

A favorite winter game for Govert school children was Fox and Geese, a game of tag. Other agreeable versions of tag could be played before the first snow and after the last snow, but Fox and Geese required a good snowfall. Sitting at their desks in the one room Govert school house, with that first snow calling them by name, the children grew restless for recess, eager to stomp out a new playing field. They fidgeted and bit their lips, made faces, looked around and rocked in their chairs, making scratching and thumping noises.

By the time the children thought they could restrain themselves no longer, the teacher knew their minds were beyond her reach and she called recess. If it was the year Miss Blomberg was the teacher, the children who jumped from their desks were James Donohue, Mercedes Hafner, Marie Kulisich, Billy Lale, Albert Springer, Edwin Springer, Roland Springer, Alice Mae West, Evaline West, and Nona Marie Wald.

For whatever reason of childhood, not even the most unbearable of cold winter days could get in the way of children intent on recess. The children piled into the cloakroom and bundled up, layering on sweaters, coats, mufflers, mittens, snowsuits ... whatever they had taken off and hung on the hooks when arriving at school that morning. They early learned to pull on their snow boots before adding on the last layers of clothing, or they would never be able to bend over and reach their feet.

Scrambling outside to their favorite play area, the children then stomped and shuffled through the snow, one behind the other, like a parade following in the same path. First, the children stomped a path making a circle, a large circle several feet in diameter. Then they stomped straight paths across the circle like a wagon wheel, one rim to the other. The hub of the wheel was stomped flat, too. Shuffle and stomp. Shuffle and stomp.

If you've never seen the wheel of a horse drawn wagon, you might not be able to imagine how the spokes radiate from the hub in the middle to the rim on the outside edge. In that case, think of how a pie is cut, from one edge of the circular pan to the other. These Govert children knew their wheels and they knew their pies, and they knew how to easily entertain themselves.

Entertain themselves they did. Miss Blomberg was sure to add certainty to any indecision over who would be the fox. The fox, of course, was "it" in both nature and on the playground. Maybe James Donohue was the fox. He was one of the older boys that year. Or maybe Marie Kulisich, or one of the West girls was the fox this time. Everyone took a turn at being "it". No one seemed to mind.

The fox took a place in the hub of the wheel while the remaining players, who were the geese, spread out along the circular path, as far away from the fox as they could get. And then the wily fox leapt from the center of the circle and chased the geese. The geese scattered around the circular path and up and down the straight paths. Once the chase was on, the children could not leave the perimeter of the outer circle.

The playground purist might insist that the fox could only follow the straight lines, while the geese could seek escape along any path. But, as with any playground game, you might make your own rules. Who really cares who follows which path when all you want is a good chase and 15 minutes of shrieking excitement. The purist would tell us the goal of the game was for the fox to tag a goose, who then became the hunter instead of the hunted. Miss Blomberg might confide the goal was to consume the excess energy of children who would otherwise wiggle in their chairs during lessons.

These children of Govert, played hard during recess. They ran hard, jumped hard, laughed hard, and the excitement and activity warmed them better than any stove. Recess ended with rosy cheeks, glowing eyes, and numb fingers. Most children are reluctant to give up their freedom for the classroom once again, but our future mothers and fathers, and future ranchers, future teachers, social workers, and artists returned to the cloakroom of their one room schoolhouse, and once again hung their coats and snowsuits on hooks.

Now wait for it ... wait for it ...

Not much time passed before the first child walked into the narrow circle of heat surrounding the pot bellied stove in the schoolhouse. No one seems to mind. Miss Blomberg was cold, too, and didn't discourage the children from leaving their seats and warming themselves at the stove. Another child takes a turn at the stove, and then another. The children warm their hands facing the stove, and then turn around to warm their back side.

What is it about recess that makes children invincible as against the cold?

Listening to the wind blowing through the prairie grass. Kate

[Written with gratitude to the fox and geese of long ago Govert, South Dakota, Marie Kulisich and Alice Mae and Evaline West.]


  1. Sweetheart,

    Thanks for another wonderful blog posting this week!

    For me, it brings back fond memories of some of the games I played with friends in my neighborhood as a child…hide and seek, tag, kickball, dodge ball, and kick the can. As I got older, it was more of the “organized” type games/sports, like Little League and high school football. But as a youngster, I really enjoyed the neighborhood games played after school with my friends and playmates. Carefree and fun times for sure!

    However, we never played fox and geese. I can’t recall ever even hearing about that game until your blog item this week. It may be a geographic thing…growing up in Southern California near the beach we didn’t get snow where we lived, which evidently is a necessary element of the game. I’m not sure how we could have done a wagon-wheel on the ground, unless it was painted on the street or something like that, and I don’t think the adults and residents in the neighborhood would have appreciated us doing that. Anyway, like the Govert kids in your blog, we loved playing games…that’s universal for children no matter the time or place. We just didn’t have to adapt to the cold and snowy winter weather (or worry about warming our front and back-sides on the pot-bellied stove!). Nevertheless, although the specific games might differ, the childhood enjoyment of playing them remains.

    Thanks also for the interesting information included in your blog posting about wintertime life on the prairie in Govert. Fascinating. ”Cold enough for the pail of water in the kitchen to freeze during the night...Yes, that cold.” Wow…makes me and my thin SoCal blood shiver just to read it! But, having settled where there’s snow and cold in winter (and very cold lately!), I’m getting used to shivering in wintertime!

    Thanks again for another creative, well-written, and enjoyable blog entry.

  2. My friend of many years, Sharon, follows Thru Prairie Grass. Sharon wrote to me that this blog: "[R]eminded me of spending Christmas vacation on my grandparents' ranch [in Colorado]. The only heat was the coal stove in the kitchen. I remember my grandmother hanging frozen jeans, she had washed the night before, over the coal stove to thaw. We also had hot water bags each night in our beds. My mother would tell me how cold they were when they had to walk to school. Of course, they did not have the great winter clothes and boots we have today. They had to be really tough to survive Craig, Colorado, winters. Once in a while they would ride on a neighbor's horse to school. One day the horse was so hungry he ate the teacher's broom. Thanks for the memories."

  3. My mother, who grew up east of the Missouri River in South Dakota wrote to me that: "I think we used to play Fox and Geese at school, when we had a small amount of snow, but we were much more interested in sledding down the long hill, close to the school. Father would make a board game, and it was called Fox and Geese, too. We would use beans, corn or buttons for counters, whatever was handy. I think there were several varieties of the game, as it seemed he never made the same game twice, and the rules changed, too!!!"



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