BLEECKER – For students today, it might be difficult to imagine an era when going to school meant gathering in a single room with a single teacher – and with no indoor plumbing, let alone an internet connection.
Only a few of the region’s old, one-room country schoolhouses remain standing, serving as reminders of the time when many children in rural communities stopped attending school after eighth grade.
In Bleecker, the old District No. 3 school, at 114 Lily Lake Road, has been preserved by its owner, Nancy Buyce, who was a student there in the 1940s and ’50s before going to Gloversville High School.
Built in 1873, the structure replaced the previous District No. 3 school, which might have been built from logs, according to Eleanor Brooks, the town historian and also a former student at the school. It stopped operating as a school in 1956, around the time when New York state closed all of its one-room schoolhouses and created larger modern school districts.
“This was one of the last ones,” Brooks said. “We fought it tooth and nail.”
By the 1990s, when Buyce inherited it, the building was on the verge of collapsing. She had the walls shored up and replaced its roof, and over the years she has worked to preserve the structure – now called the Old School Museum – along with the memories and artifacts of the era it represents.
“Nancy’s put a lot of work into this building,” Brooks said.
On Oct. 13, from noon to 5 p.m., the Old School Museum will have an open house and reunion in celebration of the 140th anniversary of the building’s construction. Buyce said she has invited at least 60 people, including all the surviving alumni she has been able to contact, as well as friends, relatives and neighbors with ties to the school.
She said people are encouraged to bring any photos and memorabilia they’d like to share, along with their memories of long-gone school days.
“That’s the purpose of the day, to preserve the stories,” she said, noting the event will be open to the public, including anyone with an interest in “the bygone era of the one-room country schoolhouse.”
Local musicians Susan and James Langlois will play country and bluegrass music at the event, and an old-fashioned “school lunch” will be served.
Along with Brooks, Buyce and her daughter, Eliza Darling (who is president of the Bleecker Historical Society), already have a body of historical materials such as photographs, paper records and artifacts dating back to the 19th century. They plan to put these materials, along with images and anecdotes collected from visitors next weekend, into a book that will be called “Old School Tales.”
According records held by Brooks, the building was wired with electric lights in 1936 at a cost of $75, but it never had its own well or septic system. The boys’ and girls’ bathrooms are attached to the outside of the building (boys had to go outdoors to access their facilties, even in the dead of winter).
This lack of modern conveniences was part of the reason New York state closed all of its one-room schoolhouses by the end of the 1950s, according to Michael F. Gendron of Gloversville, who has done extensive research on the history of the schools in the county.
“The demise of the one-room school was the clamor for indoor plumbing,” Gendron said. “And the common man really wanted a better education for his children.”
Gendron himself attended the one-room Berkshire Common School, which was housed in the red building recently demolished to make way for a new drug store on the corner of Route 29A and Route 30A.
The Bleecker District No. 3 schoolhouse is one of just a dozen or so left standing in Fulton County. Others include the building that now houses Bleecker’s Town Hall and the schoolhouse near Peck’s Lake, which is maintained as a museum by the Peck’s Park Historical Society.
Gendron will give a talk on the history of one-room schoolhouses in general – and the Bleecker common schools in particular – on Nov. 4 at a meeting of the Bleecker Historical Society. For more details about the program, call 736-5540.
In 1856, Fulton County had 109 school buildings in addition to the Johnstown Academy and Kingsboro Academy, according to Gendron, who represents Gloversville’s 3rd Ward on the county Board of Supervisors.
Good students from families that could afford it generally went to the academies, Gendron said, but for most working-class families, giving their children an eighth-grade education from one of the common schools was considered “pretty good.”
In the 19th century and early 20th century, local schools received very little state funding. Teachers’ salaries and other school expenses generally were paid for by charging “rate bills” to families of pupils.
Good teachers were hard to find and even harder to keep. In many cases, the teachers were young women whose careers in education would end as soon as they got married. Sometimes, the smartest girl among the most recent batch of eighth-grade graduates was the most qualified person available to teach.
Among Brooks’ records is a contract from 1932 showing that teacher Louise D. Hohler was to be paid $28.50 per week for her services.
Hannah Green Streeter, who taught school in Bleecker in the mid-19th century, wrote about the experience in her 1911 autobiography. She complained that women teachers were paid far less than their male counterparts – she was paid about $1.50 per week, while men were paid five times as much.
“Brave women have advocated our cause in the halls of our law makers for years and bettered our conditions,”?she wrote. “But they will have to clamor for years yet, before equal justice is meted out to all.”
Bill Ackerbauer can be reached at [email protected].