The Rural Schools
of the Town of Avoca
The following essay was delivered as a speech in January and February of 2001 to the Steuben County Historical society, to the Avoca Historical Society, to Avoca Grange #176, and to Avoca Senior Citizens.
When Martha Treichler, Program Chair of the Steuben County Historical Society, asked me to do a program on some aspect of the history of Avoca, I was very pleased and immediately said that I would do it on the one-room schools of the town. This is a subject of deep personal interest on which I spent hours of research when I first became Historian of the Town of Avoca. When I put together my first book, I used the school districts as a framework to explore the history of the rural area of the town. Here I'll offer a few facts, tell a few stories, recount a couple of leading conversations, and state my own conclusions about the value of rural schools both as educational institutions and community centers.
Avoca became a separate town on April 12, 1843, carved out of the towns of Bath, Wheeler, Cohocton, and Howard. There were schools already there, but I have very little information about them in their first incarnations. The first documented information about the Town of Avoca schools comes from an account book of the superintendents of the common schools of the Town of Avoca from 1844-1850. The information in this book is concerned with the amounts of tax money received from the Avoca town tax and from the county treasurer, and paid out to the various schools. This book also records meetings held with the superintendents of Wheeler, Cohocton and Howard to sort out the exact boundaries of the districts. Since they were joint districts, this was a little tricky. Furthermore, the money was earmarked for teachers' salaries or for libraries. The upkeep of the buildings and the cost of supplies were the responsibility of the individual districts and were paid for by the rate payers, the families with children, according to the days of attendance by their children. Rural schools were not completely tax supported until 1867.
The Steuben County Historian's Office has records of the Avoca schools beginning with the year 1845. There is a little discrepancy between the two records. The 1845 record in the historian's office lists six districts wholly in Avoca and 12 parts of districts, four of which had schoolhouses in Avoca. The Avoca record lists ten districts and four joint districts in 1844 with a total of 465 students. Well, six plus four districts listed in the county book does match the number of districts listed in the Avoca account book, if the four shared districts with schoolhouses in Avoca are included in the total of ten. At any rate, after all the redrawing of boundaries during the first five years of Avoca's existence, the number of districts stabilized at 11, although some were still joint districts.
The district I attended in the 1930s, Beagle District Number 8, is listed in the Avoca book as having 42 children in 1844. This is amazing to me—the largest number of attending students in my day was 14.
Let me give you short descriptions of each school district beginning with Number 1, the White Schoolhouse District in the Antler's area. It had been #16 in Bath. For this school we have minute books and ledgers that continue on to the last meeting of the district on May 7, 1935.
At the turn of the century, the Bartlett family was prominent in the district. James Bartlett was chairman of the August 3, 1897, meeting. He also supplied the fuel-wood, eight cords of hardwood and one cord of soft-wood, at the price of a dollar and a bit (12½¢) per cord. On May 2, 1916, Charles Bartlett was chairman of the meeting and, in 1917, he was trustee. In 1925, Lena Bartlett was clerk continuing through 1930. Betty Armstrong, granddaughter of James and daughter of Charles and Lena, told me a tale of school yard mischief. An older boy, Orlo Livingston, came by the school every day riding his bike to the high school in the village of Avoca. Betty, and I presume other students, jumped out into the road to make him swerve. One day he couldn't turn soon enough and hit her. She suffered facial lacerations and not much sympathy from her parents. The special interest in schools in her family has continued to the present generation. Betty's son Jon Pierce is a trustee of Haverling Central School.
After centralization, the school property reverted to the farm it was taken from which was at that time owned by Ray Martin. He used the schoolhouse to store hay. The Hubbards bought the property, c. 1965. David bull-dozed the dilapidated building and sold the lot to Virginia Francesco.
District Number 2 is the Village of Avoca school. In 1845, there were already 85 pupils in the two-room schoolhouse first built in 1819, which stood where the American Legion parking lot is today. The first schooling was provided by Anna Parker who went from log cabin to log cabin, c.1800; At an early, time Susan Collier taught in her home. In 1848, the village school was the only school given a "good" rating in the Superintendent's record of The State of the Schools in Avoca. Some of the schoolhouses at that time were truly deplorable with no ventilation, no playgrounds, and no privies.
Number 3 is the Bloomerville School, originally Number 8 of Cohocton. The first building was aligned to Neil's Creek Road near where it intersects State Route 415. This schoolhouse had no ventilation, no yard, and no privy. Even so, in 1844 there were 35 pupils. In 1869, the district purchased a larger property from Samuel and Asenath Haskins and George and Isabelle Sager "without reservation" and built a fine new building. The schoolhouse stood far back from the road on a large lot whose boundaries were planted with maples. By the time I became aware of the school in the early 1930s, these trees were majestic. When Ernestine Pierce Dockstader inherited property adjoining the schoolyard from her mother in 1956, she thought it included the schoolhouse and lot. However, because of the "without reservation" clause, Ernestine found out that she did not own the school property. Arthur Tadder, President of the Board of Education of the Avoca Central School called a special meeting of the people who lived in the former district and Ernestine was allowed to buy the property for one dollar. Ernestine and Stanley Dockstader moved the building to the front of the lot and renovated it for a dwelling. Currently the building is the home of their son and his wife, Al and Rose Dockstader.
Number 4 is the West Creek School. The only record in the file is an attendance register for the school year 1925 - 1926. That year there were 134 students, eight boys and five girls. The school sat on land given by Landgrave Fox and Fred Towner. John Ormsby, Steuben County Historian, brought me a newspaper clipping telling about the West Creek School in 1932. That year there were seven children enrolled all of whom had perfect attendance. Guyon Carter, Superintendent of Schools, said that this achievement was unique in his twenty years of service. A New York State Education Department official called it "exceptional and to be commended" but couldn't say if it were unique. The teacher that year was Ila Ostrander. After centralization, this school became the home of Walter and Lillian Chrisler. Lillian was blind but able to cook and do some housework. One day, as she was cooking, a pot of chicken boiled over into the gas burner starting a fire. Fortunately for Lillian, men were working on the electric line near the house. They got Lillian out of the burning building which was totally destroyed.
Number 5 is the Wallace School. There is no mention in any early records in my file of its date of origin, but it would have been in the Town of Cohocton. According to Belle Rose Preston's "History of Wallace," the school established before the Civil War was located on Hopkins Hill on the road that went by the 1830 brick house built by William Sagar and purchased by George Clinton Wallis in 1843. At that time, the present hamlet of Wallace was a sugarbush. According to Dorothy Towner's "History of Wallace," in 1867, one acre of land was purchased from Ira Tucker and a new two-room school erected. By this time the Erie Railroad had gone through the area and the sugarbush had been cut down to provide space for a switch and station. The school was on the northern edge of Wallace near the bridge over Twelve-Mile-Creek. The creek was fascinating to the students and was the scene of a 1920s rescue. A little girl rode her sled down the bank and onto the ice covering the creek. The ice didn't hold and she went into the water. An older boy, Victor Sick, pulled her out. When Wallace kids had a sledding party, they started on Hopkins Hill across the road from the school, slid across the road and into the field behind the schoolhouse. William Hopkins recalled that his teacher, Tom Robinson, stood in the road and stopped traffic. This schoolhouse still stands and is the home of Don and Louise Towner.
Number 6 is the Twelve-Mile Creek District. It was originally in the Town of Wheeler. In 1844, there were 13 pupils. In 1873, the school was on the Ebenezer Towner farm, later owned by Jesse Rynders, and now by Albert and Anna Wingate. The building stands but is unused. After centralization , one of the Wingate girls had an upholstery shop in it. One of the teachers at this school was Merle Wheaton who later became Historian of the Town of Cohocton and a member of this Society. When Gordon Cragg was a student there in 1930, Jesse Rynders kept a straw stack in his barnyard next to the schoolhouse. The boys dug tunnels into the straw and one day were surprised by an old boar pig who had found a nice niche in one of the tunnels. When disturbed, he charged. The boys ran and lived to tell the tale.
Number 7 is the Greenville District on Greenville Road off Neil's Creek. It was originally located in the Town of Howard. The school and the cemetery in the same neighborhood were named after a farmer Green who also had land in Haskinsville in the adjoining Town of Fremont. There were also a post office and stagecoach stop in the little community. My mother was teaching there when centralization occurred and she went to the central school to teach. The school stayed open one more year with Belle Rose Reynolds Preston the last teacher. When Ernestine Dockstader started her teaching career at Greenville School in the late 1920s, she recalled that she was intimidated by trustee I. J. Calkins. On the first day of school, he came in with a box of chalk and told her in no uncertain terms that it was her supply for the year and she'd better be careful of it. After centralization, this school became the meeting place for the Neil's Creek Grange. After the Grange dissolved, the building was converted to a home. Barbara Ives, member of Steuben County Historical Society, told me that her grandson Jacob Soles owned it in 1994. Now it is empty.
Number 8 is the Beagle District. The first school was located very close to Castle Creek where a road, abandoned for many years, intersected the road coming from Bloomerville and continued on to Smith Pond. The lot had been purchased by Stephen Beagle of the Town of Howard from Masterson Ury, Agent of the Pulteney Estate, in 1833. This school was flooded out in the 1870s. After the flood, the school fathers wanted to move it to higher ground. They chose the corner where the road coming down from Howard met the Bloomerville Smith Pond Road. Their original purpose was to put it in the level field on the north side but my grandfather Nellis Shults objected strenuously. He said that would spoil his best field. His cousin Harvey Conner told him that the school authorities could not take land planted to an orchard. So my grandfather planted an orchard in November and the school was built across the road in the pasture which sloped quite steeply to the creek. My mother taught there in the 1930s and was one of my teachers. I thought that was traumatic. My last teacher before I went to high school and the last teacher in the district was Gladys Robords. About ½ mile up the road to Howard is the garage built by Dr. Alexander Conner with the lumber he took from the schoolhouse when he tore it down after centralization. My husband and I live on the site in a little house built by BOCES carpentry students thirty years ago.
Number 9 is the Brasted District. Originally it was in the Town of Howard and, after it became a part of the Town of Avoca, it remained a joint district. The building still stands. It is owned by Dick and Ellie Bossard who use it for a machinery shed. In 1844, there were 18 pupils. My sister Dorothy taught in this school, in fact, was the last teacher there. Dorothy was hired by trustee Gerald Margeson for the school year 1935-36. This was in the depths of the depression and Gerald told me that he had 127 applicants for the job. He chose my sister because she was a neighbor. Schools were two miles apart, sometimes three, and we lived almost exactly two miles from Brasted School but only a few rods from Beagle. As the road climbed after passing our house, wind, weather and road conditions always worsened. That winter after a severe blizzard my sister couldn't drive her car for at least two weeks. My father took her with the bob sleds drawn by his team of horses.
Number 10 is Loucks Pond School. It stood on the crossroads of Smith Pond Road, Loucks Pond Road and Bauter Road near the spot which is the highest elevation in the Town of Avoca, about 1800 feet. The building is gone as well as any signs of its being a school site. In 1844, there were 60 students. Unbelievable! Information about its last years came from Ed Loucks and Jane Bauter Stowe who were the only students when centralization occurred. Their teacher was Sarah Shults. Frances Edwards Lyke came to this school to teach in 1928, after graduating from a Bath training class. At that time the Updyke family lived in the district. William Updyke was naughty and Frances sent him outside to get a switch. She didn't use it but hung it in a prominent place and told him, "I'll use it if you are naughty again." When Valentine's Day came along, William made her a valentine showing a teacher with a switch and a little boy saying, "Don't do this or you won't have any sweet valentines." Frances preserved the card and showed it to me when I interviewed her a short time before her death at age 90.
In the 1930s and probably before, this school was a center of neighborhood fun. Square dances were held there. William and Belle Fox, lived near the school. A musical family, Bill played the fiddle and Belle the piano. Victor Wraight called.
Number 11 is the Goff Creek School. In the 1844 superintendent's book, this school was listed as being in Goff Mills. Apparently, Howard and Avoca hadn't set the boundaries yet. When they did, the school was in Avoca and the mills were in Howard. This little community also had a post office. The school was at the foot of a very steep road coming down from Smith Pond to County Road 70-A. Now the road is gone, cut off by the construction of the Southern Tier Expressway.
The attendance records for 1913 - 14 and 1914 - 15, are in the historian's file. In 1913 - 14, Dewitt House was trustee; in 1914 - 15, there were three trustees: Oscar Livingston, Dewitt House and Fay Dockstader. Why? I surmise some kind of trouble. When the school closed in 1936, there were only three students: Loretta Livingston, Clarence Livingston and Warren Harris. Their teacher was Marjorie Shaut. The school building was moved to the Harris farm across 70-A from the school and was used as a chicken coop.
All of these schools followed a common pattern of development. Mary Ellen Franklin, daughter of Margaret Franklin of Howard, the business teacher at Avoca Central School for many years, wrote a paper about the schools of Steuben County. Somehow a copy found its way to the files of the county historian, who passed it along to me. Historians would shudder because Mary Ellen did not foot note or list a bibliography but she did ascribe credit. I'll quote from a passage she took from the autobiography of Alvah M. Cole, a teacher of the early 19th century. Cole came to Howard in 1824 when he was three years old. He was educated at the Howard school and taught there for 38 terms. In telling of his experiences in a large school district, he said:
"Then teachers must board around with the scholars and the patrons of the school must board [them] and pay a rate bill in proportion to the number of days they went to school. The district was large, some of the patrons lived over three miles from the schoolhouse and when scholars and teachers had waded through deep snow and climbed over drifts for three miles, it was past sunset, but we always found a cheerful and happy reception and those kind mothers always provided things good and substantial for our health and happiness. In morning by candle-light we enjoyed a hearty good breakfast and with well filled dinner pails we were on our way back to the schoolhouse before the sun was above the Eastern horizon.
"Arriving at the schoolhouse, teacher would pull open a bed of embers where he had buried a hardwood chunk the evening previous and soon with previously prepared kindling wood the house and inmates were doing their daily duties…. In my early days of teaching, I always taught the children how to write. We had none but unruled paper; we used straight rulers and a lead plummet to mark the lines to be written on. The teacher had to set the copies and make and mend the pens, which were made of goose or turkey quills; metal pens were unknown. I remember one school I taught had forty scholars that studied writing, and twenty minutes were given each day to practice writing, and for the teacher to fix pens, rule paper, and set copies were 20 busy minutes for the teacher as well as for the scholars but so it was."
© 2001, Grace S. Fox
Armstrong, Florence Edwards, ms. "History of Olmsted Hill School," no date.
Doulton, George H., Rural Education in Steuben County, 1978.
Folts, James D., Jr., Bicentennial History of Cohocton, New York, 1794 - 1994, Bath, New York, 1994.
Fox, Grace S., The Sweet Vale of Avoca, Kanona, New York, 1993.
Franklin, Mary Ellen, ms. "Development of Education in Steuben County."
Howard Historical Society, The Town of Howard Sketch Book. Howard, New York, 1983.
Mapp, Alf J., Jr., Thomas Jefferson - Passionate Pilgrim, Lanham, Maryland, 1991.
Preston, Belle Rose Reynolds, ms. "History of Wallace," 1976
Stackpole, Thomas E., The Heritage of Bath, N. Y. 1793 - 1993. Published by the Historical Foundation of Bath, NY, 1998.
Towner, Dorothy Waite, ms. "History of Wallace," 1983.