Before she turns 100 years old, Bella Rees has a big project to complete.
Rees, a resident at The Meadows assisted living facility in Fall River, is putting together a large display filled with photos, letters, notes and documents of her life as she prepares to celebrate the century mark. In her room at The Meadows, spread across a large table, are photos or her childhood, ranging from the 1920s to recent snapshots with Meadows’ staff.
Rees, a meticulous scrap booker, has all items in chronological order. A quick glance across the table takes visitors back to a bygone era with black-and-white photos, hand and typewriter-written notes, and other memories of a long, fulfilling life.
The Meadows is planning a large celebration for Rees for Saturday, Oct. 19, the day she turns 100. The party runs from 12:30-1:30 p.m. and anyone who wants to stop in and wish Rees a happy birthday is welcome, said Life Enrichment Director Stephanie Schneider.
According to Schneider, Rees is The Meadows’ oldest resident.
“The century went by so fast,” Rees said with a chuckle. “It really didn’t seem like a big deal.”
Rees is looking forward to seeing old friends and catching up with family on her birthday.
“There are some people I haven’t seen in a long time,” Rees said. “They might just pop up.”
Rees’ son, John Owen, said his mother survived a health scare at 98, but other than partial hearing loss and impaired eye-sight through macular degeneration, Rees is healthy. Her mind remains sharp, recalling her days teaching in a one-room schoolhouse. For 14 years, Rees taught first-eighth grade at schools near Cambria, Pardeeville, Randolph and the town of Fountain Prairie. She spent eight years working at the Brace School, which closed in 1961, but still stands today.
“That was the end of me teaching in a one-room school because they were all in the vicinity of Cambria, Randolph and Fall River,” Rees said.
She has many fond memories of her time in the one-room schools. Rees typically taught 17-25 students with some grades only having two or three children per grade. Spending days in a small space, she bonded with her students. They were more like family than pupils.
“It felt like home,” Rees said. “You didn’t have trouble with discipline or anything at that time. And they cooperated… it was fun. I think they thought it was fun, too.”
Every year, the schools would produce a lavish holiday program. Parents would provide help baking, making decorations and reveling in their child’s talents.
“They just hit the ceiling with those Christmas programs, in all the schools,” Rees said. “The parents couldn’t wait for that Christmas program.”
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She smiles thinking about a local farmer who transported fresh water to the schoolhouse every day.
“He said, ‘You need fresh water in the school,’” Rees said. “He was really good about that. Sometimes he would come twice a day, in the morning and afternoon, with water for us.”
Teaching in a country school also presented challenges, such as the lack of electricity and running water. Rees said students used separate outhouses for boys and girls. In those days, schools were only a couple miles apart to provide education to children in rural areas.
“They didn’t have to walk so far, but it was still a couple miles each way,” she said.
In the past few years, The Meadows has organized a fall bus trip for students to the old Brace School. The building has been renovated with desks, chalkboards and other items from Rees’ teaching days. Owen said Rees has donated some of her teaching materials to the Lost Lake-Randolph Historical Society.
“A lot of those students that come to visit there have no idea of what a one-room school was like,” Rees said. “This at least gives them a taste of what it was like.”
Rees finished her career in the Watertown School District, teaching fifth and sixth grade, her favorite grades. Rees was a stickler for strong penmanship, a lost art these days. She also enjoyed teaching music, learning to play piano to provide basic music lessons. In the 1940s and 50s, long before copy machines, Rees used a hectograph to make copies of lesson plans and tests.
Rees, after graduating from Columbia County Normal School in Columbus, began her teaching career in 1939. She earned $85 a month. Looking to boost her credentials and salary, Rees spent summers driving to Oshkosh State Teachers’ College (now UW-Oshkosh) to pursue her bachelor’s degree. Rees earned her degree in 1961.
She remembers getting up at 4 a.m., stopping in Waupun for coffee and breakfast, and just reaching the classroom before classes started at 7. She made the round-trip to Oshkosh every weekday for 10 summers to finish her degree.
“I’ve always believed in hard work,” Rees said.
Rees grew up on a farm near Fall River and has remained in the area most of her life. Her grandparents emigrated from Wales in the United Kingdom in the mid-1800s, joining a large Welsh community in rural Cambria. Her parents taught her to read and write in Welsh, along with English, and Rees can still recognize parts of the language.
Across her table of memories, Rees has a Christmas card from her childhood. Parts of the poem are in Welsh. She said a Meadows staff member read the poem and started crying.
“It just hit her in a certain way,” Rees said. “Maybe she grew up on a farm, too.”