Memories of the
Alice Bordwell Elwell and Hazel Dinehart Robeson
The following transcript is from a portion of a tape recording taken by Fred Harter at a meeting of the Middlesex Heritage Group in the Middlesex Methodist Church in 1983. Two former teachers, Alice Bordwell Elwell and Hazel Dinehart Robeson, recalled their years teaching in one-room country schools in Yates County, New York. Joan Stover transcribed the tape. The recollections first appeared in the Middlesex Heritage Group Newsletter. Editor Nancy Elwell supplied the tape and background information.
Alice Bordwell Elwell
Alice Bordwell was born September 2, 1893 in the Town of Potter, the daughter of Charles and Agnes Wagar Bordwell. She was a 1912 graduate of the Naples Training School and then taught for 10 years in rural schools around Penn Yan and in Middlesex township.
On February 22, 1921, Alice Bordwell married Laverne Elwell, who farmed on South Hill, and lived the rest of her life in the Town of Middlesex. They were both active in the ME Church, and the Odd Fellows and Rebeckah lodges for more than 50 years. She died at age 95 on June 13, 1989.
Alice Elwell's reminiscences begin:
Alice: First, I'd like to know how many of you have been in a rural, one-room school? Raise your hand. Well, then you know something about it. Well, I did, too. I went to a one room school all my life until I went down here to Middlesex Union School the last year and that's all I had, then went to Naples. And the first year that I taught was over beyond Penn Yan. That was seventy years ago, 1913, when I started in over there.
Well, this trustee called me up and wanted to know if I wanted the job, and of course I did cause I hadn't got a job and I wanted it. And he said, "How old are 'ya'?" and I told him.
My father stood right behind me and said, "Don't you lie to him." So I didn't dare lie so I said, "Well, I'm twenty."
And he wanted to know what experience I had and I said, "Well, I've had my training and when I taught, I went to Vine Valley and taught a couple of weeks to substitute."
He said, "I'll give you ten dollars a week." I thought dear, that wasn't very much but of course I wanted the job. Then he said, "Ébut you have to do your own janitor work. You'll have to build your fire, empty the ashes and get the water and see that it's there and clean the blackboard." I thought that's queer to ask a teacher to clean the blackboard, it seemed so any teacher would know enough to do that.
"Well," I said, "it seems so if I've got to do all that I ought to have a little more money." So he said, "Well, I'll give you two dollars more." So I hired out for twelve dollars a week.
My father knew of some people that used to live right beyond us, Mr. and Mrs. Pitcher, and they moved there. My father thought that I could board with them, I called up and she said yes, I could board with them if I could stand it. They had five children, three of them went to school. So my father took me over, horses on a Democrat. That was an awful long way to go, way beyond Penn Yan, from here. I got over there and got located. She had fixed her parlor into a room for me to sleep in, the stove in there and all nice. And after my dad had gone home, she said, "Alice, maybe I better tell what happened to the other two school teachers. They've had two. And the first one they had lived in the district. She had only been there a little while when the kids got her outdoors-locked her out-and went in. She couldn't get back in. So after a while she went home, had a nervous breakdown and was sick in bed. And then another one they hired from Penn Yan. She came and stayed a little while and by gracious, they got her outdoors and locked her out and she couldn't get back in. So she went home to Penn Yan so they didn't have any teacher."
So there I was, I didn't know what I was getting into. I went to bed that night. I didn't sleep very good. I didn't know what was going to happen.
The next morning Mrs. Pitcher said, "You go on. I'll keep the kids here for a while and you go on up." 'Course I had to build my fire and do it all. So I got up there and the two boys that he had told me about were there and they had the fire built, two scuttles of coal, and it was just as clean and nice and they were the nicest boys that ever was-Yah, they were.
So we had a good visit and as the children commenced to come, they told me who would help. I said, "Now, what do we have for chapel in the morning-what do you have? Did you have the Lord's prayer and read in the Bible?"
"Nah, didn't have anything."
And I said, "Didn't you salute the flag or do anything?"
"Nope, didn't do anything."
They didn't want to. Teacher didn't do anything. If the teacher didn't do it, why of course, naturally they wouldn't do it. That's what they said anyway.
I said, "Why, we'll turn over a new leaf."
Well, they didn't like anything out of the Bible-they didn't like it, they said. Well, I sent down to Mrs Pitcher's. "I have a big Bible picture storybook of all about everything. You'll like that." I said, "I'll bring it up and you can choose what you want. We'll have reading every morning. We'll have the Lord's prayer."
Well, we had the Lord's prayer, but I think I was the single one to do it. They didn't act as if they ever had it. I said, "Did you ever hear the twenty-third psalm?" I thought maybe they had that.
No they didn't know anything about that. So they didn't know much of anything. but we got along just fine. They were the nicest children, the nicest two boys.They were always good. I never had an trouble with any of them.
We went outdoors to playÉ"Anybody play fox and geese? You know how to play fox and geese, anybody?" Well, we went outdoors to play fox and geese and of course I played with them-biggest toad in the puddle-and we were just playing nicely when a horse and cutter drove up. Of course I didn't know who it was-one man in it-but I thought, well, I'm the biggest kid, I'll have to go see. Probably the kids knew who it was but I didn't.
So I went up and he said-now if any of you have heard of people having the worst, well-thing in [their] life happen to them-felt the worst-I went up to him and he said, "I wonder if you could tell me where the new school teacher boards." Ooh-I could have sunk down through the snowbank-ooh!
"Well," I said, "I'm Miss Bordwell, the new school teacher."
We shook hands and he said, "Well how is everything?"
And I said, "Just fine."
He said, "Have you had any trouble?"
I said, "Not a bit, no, not a bit."
"Well," he said, "now you just got started. I won't go in and visit school. I'll wait. I'll come some other time. Well now, you call me if you have any trouble, first thing."
I said, "Okay, but I don't think I will."
He seemed to think I would. So he says, "You'll let me know?"
I said, "Yes, I'll let you know."
So he went on and that was that. And we never did have a bit of trouble. I stayed there the rest of the year. We had a good time and they were always nice.
The kids were all good. And there was every grade-no, I didn't have a first grade-but all other grades, I had them all. The big boys didn't stay. They left, most of them, and worked after they got sixteen. They were good boys and good kids and I never had a bit of trouble.
I wanted to tell you how much I had to pay for my board. I stayed all week, got my washing and ironing done and everything-four dollars a week! Think of that!
Question: How many pupils did you have?
Alice: I had eighteen most of the time [There were] fifteen all the time. Those two big boys, they left part of the time. We got along just fine.
The District Superintendent, after he came a time or two said, "Are you going home for Easter vacation?"
I said, "No, it's too far. My father can't come after me."
"Well," he said, "if you're not going home you could run straight through and get out after you've accomplished every thing you should." Anything that was in the syllabus. He said, "I'll send examination papers. You can have them and get out." So he helped me figure it out and the last day was the twenty-second of May. We were going to have a picnic.
I asked them, "Have you had a picnic?" No, they hadn't had anything. I never saw kids that never had anything, never done anything. So we planned this picnic and they told me what their folks would furnish and we'd all have a big time. Got up that morning of the twenty-second of May, which I'll never forget. Snowing! It had snowed all night. A whole lot of snow, and it was still snowing. Well, we couldn't have a picnic in the woods. The kids were disappointed and they wanted that picnic. And so one of the mothers said we could have it in [her] woodshed. Well, now, a woodshed isn't like what you people have, a nice place to keep your car. I'm telling you that! She had to clean out that woodshed-move some wood, put up some table on saw horses and planks across them-and we had our picnic.
Well, my father came after me that afternoon, snowed all the way home from way down Penn Yan to way up East Hill. We lived up where Ruth Warren does now. Had a big umbrella for our heads. What a time that was! I didn't go back there. My father wanted me to be nearer home. So I taught in the round stone schoolhouse the next year. That was entirely different. They were well educated, the parents were. There were six little girls, six little boys and six big girls. That's all I had was twelve. Very nice. I even had to baby-sit when I taught in that school If their parents wanted to go-they were great Grangers at that time-everybody went to Grange. So if I would come up and stay all night and see to the children, why I'd be all right. So my little one I took care of is in the front row right here. Raise your hand. And she was a little one, didn't even go to school.
(At this point, Alice has a discussion with members of the audience about what year this took place and asks who taught hefore her. It was decided that it was Carrie Wells. Alice comments that she had Ms. Wells as a teacher when she was a little girl. She speaks more of staying over night to watch certain children while their families were away overnight.).
Alice continues: Now in this round stone schoolhouse, no matter how bad they were, you couldn't stand them in a corner. No corners to stand them in. But if they were really good-the window sills were at least that wide-and they could sit up in the window sill and color or do what they wanted to, if they were good. But you couldn't punish them by putting them in the corner. I was there that one year and I liked that school. They were awfully nice.
There was an old, old man that lived right near the school, Mr. Clark, Byron? Clark. He used to come over; he told me all this about the old school He knew all about it. I didn't go back there, I'd have liked to, they were awful nice people there. I had a nice place to board and stay.
From there I went-my father wanted me to come in my own home district and teach at home because my mother wasn't very well and he thought I could help out and I'd be there. The trustees said nope, nothing doing, we won't hire her because she's got two brothers that go there to school. They said, "That won't work out."
Well, my father said, "I'll see to the brothers. They'll be all right." After a lot of consideration they finally hired me but they didn't want to on account of my brothers. I was there seven years. It went along pretty good but one of my brothers got kinda smart one day. I said, "Bradley, come up here." I had a ruler, one of those big old-fashioned rulers with the wire edge, you know? So I said "Hold your hand out," of course I made it sound as if I was gonna kill him--but I don't think I hit him very hard when you come down to it. He never blinked--I think I felt worse than he did. That ended that so we never had any trouble with the boys--the big boys never bothered me anyway.
There were all grades in that school. I had fifteen or eighteen in every grade and you didn't have much time to spare with any of them, but we got along. I had two little girls which I was very proud of, and still am. They started in, there was no kindergarten or preschool like they do today-they didn't know anything. They started in reading in their primer. Then you could go from one grade to another without waiting if you covered all the work. In the seven years I was there, those two little girls went through the whole thing, got their preliminary and were ready for high school when I left. They were the smartest and the cutest little girls. I thought the world of them.
I had one boy-I said to Mr. Corbit, "I just can't teach him anything." Laughter while Alice continues. He isn't here. I tried to teach him money and the dime ever made wasn't as good as the nickel.
Remember those big old-fashioned geographys they used to have? He'd get right down in his seat and open that up and get right behind that geography and make me believe he was studying. The geography might be upside down, and I didn't have any luck and I said to Mr. Corbit, "I just can't teach him anything."
He said, "Well, have you taught him to write his name?"
I said, "Yes! He can write his name."
A long time afterwards, we had a big blowout down here to Middlesex for Dr. Chaffee. He had been here a good many years and they had a good time. They passed a book around and everybody signed that book. By gracious, I watched and he signed that book. I said to Dr. Chaffee, "Dr. Chaffee, could I see the book?"
He said, "Sure."
He wrote it just exactly [as I had taught him]-he wrote his name-he could write his name. He never forgot how to write his name. He went to work on a farm and they taught him a lot more than I did. Of course, she had more time. I didn't have time. He learned money and he learned the value of money. And she taught him how to take care of part of his money. He had a bank account and he learned. But I didn't have any such luck. I didn't have the time.
It was in that school that we started to have hot lunches. Some of my children came across fields and they didn't have nice dinner pails like they have today. They were regular lard pails. Their bread and butter sandwiches were frozen when they got there, often were. They had long sticks that the kids had made with a point and you could stick that in their sandwich and they could kind of put it over the coals. That worked if they didn't lose it but sometimes they lost it and then they didn't have anything unless you divided up with them.
The district was very good about it and somebody donated a two [or] three burner oil stove, no oven, and we started with cocoa-hot chocolate-that was the biggest treat to those kids. Some of them never had any.
Then we got soup. We had codfish gravy, dried beef gravy, boiled potatoes-couldn't bake anything-but they were the best lot of children to help pare potatoes and work. Their recess was spent that way. That ended that year pretty good. We had a picnic at the end. That was a school where they (the big boys) came and they left. We had some and then they'd go and help their fathers. They moved, they weren't the same ones all the time.
The next year I went way up on South Hill, way up beyond the Conservation [Club], way up, and taught in July and August. The teacher they had hired had to go to summer school. I think it was Gladys Robson, but I'm not sure. She couldn't teach and they wanted school while the weather was good. So I taught through July and August. I had six little girls. That's all I had up there. Nice little girls. Then she took over after that. After that, I taught in the Mertz District. The least I can say about that, the better!
Hazel Dinehart Robeson
Hazel: Alice is a better talker than I am, so be patient. The first school I taught in was down West River and I had Judy Flanagan and I had Fred Harter and Margaret Flanagan. I had the Leach children, Hiram Mack, and Roscoe Hiler. They were older boys, Roscoe and Hiram, and I felt a little fearful. I think I was about eighteen or nineteen and Hiram, I think, was about fifteen or sixteen, so I wasn't always happy, but we got along. Roy Hiler was the trustee and of course, I guess Alice did too, we had to go after our money and he lived up on the hill. He had six children, I had two of them in school. And one Friday night I went up to get my pay and I sat down in the living room and waited for him to make out the check and there was a gun propped up there against the chair and one of the older boys picked up the gun (that was Walter Hiler, he's now gone). He picked up the gun and something happened and the gun discharged and the bullet went in the wall just a few feet from me. Yeah, I guess my time hadn't come.
There were three Leach children I had down the back road (that house is gone now). I enjoyed those children, enjoyed all the children, I think I had about, about fifteen or sixteen. About all the grades. Mr. Corbit came to observe. I think he came two or three times a year, didn't he Alice? He was very good. One of the Leach girls, the older one sat in the front seat when Mr. Corbit was there watching and listening to me and that little girl giggled and tee-heed all the time he was there. I felt so embarrassed and of course I was green, I knew, and I didn't say anything to her and he didn't say anything about it but after he left I took her out in the hall and paddled her. If I did that now I'd be sued. There were three years that I taught there in that school.
Next, I taught one year in District 6. That was up on East Hill. That schoolhouse is now gone.
I remember the Dorman girls went to me and Rodney Dorman. Helena Mitchell went up there too at that time. One day Ruth Dorman put her foot out and tripped her sister Helen when she was going down the hall, or the aisle, you know how that goes. I said, "Now Ruth you'll have to stand up, you'll apologize-you apologize to your sister." She stood there and didn't say anything and I said, "You'll have to stand in the corner now, Ruth, until you apologize to Helen." Well she didn't say anything; she just stood there and stood there. Later I talked with her and finally I said, "Now, Ruth, if you tell Helen you're sorry you can go sit down." So then she went to Helen and she told her she was sorry and Ruth said, "You know, I didn't know what you meant when you said to apologize. When you said tell her you're sorry, I knew."
I had Violet Hughner up there, and Ethel [?] just the one year I taught there.
Then I taught eight years in District 5 and that's where Pauline went to school, and Henrietta Hadsel went to me she was-I was her first teacher, I think Rose said. Sometimes when the roads were bad, I'd walk to school, it was near enough so I could. The first year I taught I got twenty one dollars and that was in 1924.
Then I taught up there and I think I got twenty-four dollars a week but I did my own janitor work. I swept and dusted the boards like Alice. Every year we had a Christmas program. We'd invite the parents, I'd decorate the schoolhouse and then we'd have a dish-to-pass dinner and after the dinner we'd have the program. One of the highlights of the program was George Spike. He was a good singer and he'd always sing some Christmas songs. Remember that Pauline? Don't cha? I had the Hadsel boys-I was reading in my mother's diary, one year there was 60 people there for dinner and the program. It was quite a lot of work. I think everybody enjoyed it, probably, but I was always glad when it was over. Very glad!
After eight years of teaching in the Mertz District, I taught in 1937 and '38 in the Overackers. It was in 1938 that the schools were centralized so that was my last year teaching rural school I think at that time Ethel Dayton was trustee. I enjoyed that school. After that I taught some in Marcus Whitman.
Now to go back a good many years, quite a few years, a good many years, I'll say. I'll speak a little bit about the Vine Valley School. Now Carol taught there four years, I think she told me, and Walter taught there two years and Bessie Moshier taught there many years. (I don't know how many years. Do you know, Carol? Would you have any idea?) Walter taught there two years and speaking of Walter, he taught one year up on South Hill. Bessie couldn't get up there that year so he rode a horse up there cross lots and taught up there that winter. [Someone in the audience said "He went five years-two first and then three years.']
Edith Johncox taught there besides Marian Smith, and I think Eloise Green substituted one year. But I think Bessie, it seems, taught the greatest number of years that I can remember. She always boarded with Carol's folks.
Every day in the winter we'd take our sleds to school and of course that was a long hill. We'd ride down hill the noon hour. Then of course when the school bell rang, the big school bell in the belfry, we'd all have to go in the school. But we did enjoy riding down hill and we didn't mind walking back up either.
One of the fun things we did, was to go (I called it fun) after a pail of water. We had to go up to the Clawson barn to get the water. It wasn't too far up the hill. But that well was very near the barnyard. Do you remember it, Frances? Carol, do you remember it? And I think the cows were just a few feet from that well. We'd pump the pail of water and carry it back down. Nobody was ever sick, but it was pretty near the barnyard. We had fun doing that. We had a lot of fun.
There were two schools in the valley, one was the Branch School and that was down by the big bridge down near what we call Indian Village now. I think Minnie and Laura Mack went there and the Green girls went to that school.
Then there was a school up in the gully across from Cecil Newell's home. That was called the Gully School, there's a picture back there. It just got too far-they thought it was too far for the children down in the valley to walk up to the Gully School. So after much discussion, much to do, they moved the Gully School down to the-well-below France's down on Clawson Hill. That school is now owned by George Fisher who lives in Chicago and he has fixed it over so it's very nice inside.
The Branch School, I don't really know what happened to that. Do you know Harold? The one down-I never heard anybody knew what happened to that school. We always had a lot of fun there. After quite a few years that school was discontinued. 'Course, all the schools were centralized. I hated to see it closed. We had good times there. And speaking of-I might read just a little bit-maybe some of you have read what it said in the Vine Valley book. There is a picture of the Gully School in here. That's the one by Newell's-across from Newell's. This shows a picture-we were going that time on a picnic-was it? Walter and Charlie Sturm were driving the horses-that's the school there, and all of the students are there-a good time. I'd like to just read a bit what it says in this book.
There were two schools in Vine Valley. One was located on the South Vine Valley Road across the road from the Cratsley's and Newell residence. This has been moved down the road and is now used as a home. The school was called the Gully School. The other school was located near the western end of South Vine Valley Road. The schools consisted of one room and grades one through eight were taught. The teacher, in addition to her teaching duties, also served as janitor arriving early in the morning to start the pot-bellied stove and warm the room before the pupils arrived. She was also expected to sweep the floor and keep the room clean and so on. One tale was told of one family who gave their children cold pancakes for lunch. There was another school then at Overacker's.
And I taught there, I guess I told you at the last two years.
That school was built in 1874 and it's now owned, of course, you heard them say, by the Button Family.
And the School in District 4 was closed in 1935. In August of the same year Charles Sturm and Cecil Newell signed a contract to take the children to Middlesex to school for $632 a year. The school was then sold to the Hilers for $300 in 1938.
And it has changed hands since then of course.
In closing, I would just like to read this little poem.
The Tin Dipper