Nina Daniels



Wednesday, March 9, 1949

Seeing a school bus en route for its load of children on some country road started a train of thought about the evolution of public school life in this part of the country. It is noticeable that "this land of ours" even from earliest days has been educationally inclined. Not only were the Pilgrim Fathers and the Puritan pioneers very religious, but they saw to it that the colonists should not found a nation in ignorance, realizing that education is the safeguard of liberty. And no doubt the very character of those hardy ancestors of ours contained the seeds of the ambitions which have always characterized the growth of this republic along educational lines. So, amid the hardships and sacrifices of those who conquered the forests, the savages and other apparently insurmountable obstacles of settlement, we find parents instructing their children in their homes, townships making efforts toward schools for the young and, finally, governments allotting large sums for colleges and normal schools.

But a surprising number of our greatest early statesmen were, in a way, self-educated, no doubt owing to their parents the early rudiments of their wisdom. Sometimes a graduate of a college had in competition with him one who was comparatively self-educated. Thomas Jefferson was a graduate of William and Mary College, but John Marshall was not a college graduate. Ben Franklin helped found a college but never attended one. And so on.

As early as 1636 Harvard was established in Massachusetts, while Boston began its history in 1630. As the majority of the early settlers of St. Lawrence County came from New England, they would naturally partake largely of the character of their ancestors. And they did. They were brave, hardy, industrious, ingenious and anxious to get on in the world, anxious that their children might have privileges superior to their own, among them educational advantages. So the little ones were taught the alphabet by their mothers almost as soon as they could talk. They must learn to spell, know the capitals of states and when quite young they could peruse the almanac and what little literature was in their homes. This town opened up for settlement in 1809, and in 1813 the first school was held in Daniel Hoard's barn, the teacher being Miss Harriet Bronson. Most of the early schools were crude, in keeping with everything else in a new settlement. Many were of logs. The first school-house in Hopkinton we are told by Carlton Sanford's history was of log, a slab seat or bench against the wall on three sides of the room, sawed side up, with the same for a desk. Probably others in neighboring townships were no better. From a building of logs they progressed in time to the frame school-houses referred to now affectionately as "the little red school-houses," themselves slowly disappearing from the picture which also contained the oxcart, the tallow candle, dirt roads and later the horse and buggy.

The frame schools contained only the barest essentials, the seats, desks, a big stove in the middle of one room, a shelf for the water pail and dipper, shelves for the coats and caps and a desk in front of the others for the teacher. It was unscientifically lighted by Mother Nature, unventilated, draughtly, bare and ugly. In the earliest times both men and women were hired at mere pittances as teachers. One had only to appear before a kind of examining board and answer a few questions in order to qualify as a teacher. The three R's constituted the early curriculum. Books in the first schools were few. Often the Bible would be the reader.

We have in our library a number of old school books used by our ancestors. The oldest is a history printed in 1828, also another in 1838, a geography printed in 1841 and an arithmetic in 1840. They are all about 7 inches long and 4 inches wide, made o the old rag paper bound in thick pasteboard cover. The pictures are to a modern student very amusing. The earliest reader I have is a tattered copy of "The Child's Pictorial First Book or American Primer," given me when a child by my grandmother. There is no date remaining, but it is at least 100 years old.

The early townships established school districts at reasonable distances apart, for the children and teacher had to walk to school, often several miles. In the winter the room was overcrowded as the "big boys" 16 up to 18 years would go to school, as work was not rushing. Sometimes the teacher wondered whether the big boys had such a thirst for knowledge as they might have, for their antics both during study hour and at recess were trying to her soul. It was at such times that a strapping young man was needed. My father's younger brother and his sister both taught for years in a red school-house, and another of his sisters married her teacher. School days 100 years ago were completely devoid of the graces and modern ways so familiar. No decent provision was made for the most fundamental needs of the scholars, not even a wash basin being provided.

In general, an abundance of wood was on hand for the big stove, but on dark days school kept just the same in the unlighted rooms. The pupils all carried their lunch, and the teacher boarded around, staying at each home in the district a certain length of time. As crude as they were, the times of old scythes, the oxcart, and the tallow candle, the pupils complained not, for they had experienced nothing better. Gradually opinion changed so that now the country children have as good a chance as those of the village or town. Some distant time, when these little schools are all gone, a shrine should be set up so that future citizens may go and pay homage to them. Let one remain on top of a high hill, shabby and silent, for they saved our country from the abyss of ignorance which exists elsewhere. Here our forefathers learned of their country's history, here good and patient men and women taught them how to "Make Democracy Live," and here also religious services ministered to their soul. The Flag has flown above them, the free winds of Heaven spreading its sacred folds for all to worship. Deep in our hearts we shall keep alive these "little red houses," for we are deeply indebted to them, and to the men and women who labored there.



North Country