The Crooked Lake Review

Winter 2002

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The Rural Schools

of the Town of Avoca


Grace S. Fox

This second and concluding part begins with school districts
shared with neighboring towns.
Part 1

Part 2

Wheeler District #6, the Olmsted Hill School, was attended by Avoca children also. Florence Edwards Armstrong wrote a history of this school based on the minute book (1834 - 1907) which is on file at the Avoca Free Library. This school had a sad beginning. The district was established in 1830 at which time Henry Billsen, Sr. gave a quarter acre of land. An epidemic of dysentery had hit the area in 1827 and the children had died. A school didn't start up until 1834. Church services and Sunday School were held in this school on Sunday afternoons. In 1869 the district voted to build a new school based on the "John Roberts Plan." Florence Armstrong described it thus:

There was a vestibule as you enter the front door (the only outside door). Two doors from this vestibule led into the main room. The space on each side of the vestibule opened off the main room and was used for library books, outdoor wraps and lunch pails. It was called the cloak room. The water pail with dipper and wash basin was kept in the vestibule called the entry. There was never a well on the school grounds. Water was carried from a nearby farm. Benches with straight backs were made of wide pine boards, smaller ones in front for small children and larger ones in back for the older children. In the back of the room was a bench the entire width of the room. The stove was a box type oblong in shape and stood on legs. It was about three feet high, had one lid on top, a feed door, a draft slide but no ash pan. This heater was in the middle of the room and the stove pipe connected it to a small, high chimney in the back. Ceiling and walls were of matched lumber and there was a fairly good bare floor. There were eight windows, three on the north side, three on the south and two in the vestibule which faces west and looked out on the cemetery. The schoolhouse was always kept painted white on the outside. There were two outhouses back of the schoolhouse. A tight, high board fence obstructed the view from one to the other.

This could be a description of most rural schools of the 19th century and into the 1930's when consolidations occurred across the state.

Another joint district was the Wagner Hill school, Wheeler district #7, northeast of the Village of Avoca and quite close. When centralization occurred, this schoolhouse was brought to the village and became the Avoca Free Library. Because three additions have been made to the building, it no longer looks like a one-room school

The Smith Pond School, Howard #13, was also a joint district. I have no documentation about this school but lots of information from Llewellyn Edwards and Clarence Edwards, Jr. (both deceased). The school was very close to the pond, and, in the winter, became the headquarters of ice cutters. They cut ice all night and the men and boys went into the school to warm up although Llewellyn said they could never get really warm. This building still stands but has been turned into a cottage.

What kind of education did the students receive? A good question. From 1812, rural schools were mandated by the state but attendance wasn't required until l867 and then not enforced consistently until the 1890's. The early superintendents' reports list attendance totals by two month intervals. There were summer terms when generally the teachers were women and winter terms when the older boys could attend and fires had to be kept so generally the teachers were men. When compulsory education was legislated, children didn't have to go until age seven and could leave school at fourteen. Usually they had finished the eighth grade. The education gained depended on the diligence of the scholars and the knowledge and control of the teachers. On this subject I can speak from the experience of attending Beagle School, a rather small and poor district. I had fine teachers. My first was Julia Barnes (Constant) who was just graduated from Geneseo Normal School. I loved the reading and arithmetic lessons, and in retrospect, every day seemed full of sunshine. My next teacher was my mother who had come to Avoca in 1912 to teach in the high school and be preceptress, a position similar to vice-principal. In those days just prior to World War I, most of the high-school students were girls. Boys quit school after eighth grade to work or farm. Mother's former students told me that she was an excellent teacher and a firm disciplinarian. My last teacher and the last teacher at Beagle School was Gladys Robords. She was lively and encouraged us to be lively, too, in our play, our work, and in our thinking—in all of our projects.

Before my time at Beagle School there were several students who had successful careers: Mark Calkins attended training class and then Geneseo Normal School. He became Principal at Letchworth High School. During World War II, he worked at the University of Rochester in the lab that was doing research on the atomic bomb. Mildred Wessells Miller worked for many years as a bookkeeper, first at Shults and Walker Produce Office in Avoca and then at Longwell's Lumber Yard in Bath. After she retired, she served as librarian at the Avoca Free Library. Alton Wightman went to teacher training class and taught rural school for one year. He attended Alfred University for one year and then studied law with Judge Floyd Annabel for four years. He became a trial lawyer, then Steuben County Judge and finally New York State Supreme Court Judge. He recalled with great respect and affection his last Beagle District teacher, Fanny Morris. Vernon Wightman attended training class, then Geneseo Normal School and obtained a master's degree while teaching history at Haverling High School in Bath. He was Superintendent of Schools there for many years; the primary school is named after him. Margaret Conner Peck went to Rochester Business Institute for secretarial training and then worked as secretary for the Steuben County Welfare Department—now Social Services. She became a case worker for the elderly poor and then supervisor of case workers. Meanwhile she earned an associate degree from Corning Community College. When she retired, she was deputy commissioner. Her brother Alexander Conner attended Cornell University and became a veterinarian. My sister Dorothy Shults Bartlett attended Geneseo Normal School and taught first at the Brasted District School and then at Avoca Central School for nearly 35 years. Beagle District is not unique. A similar list could be made for other rural districts. Furthermore, there were many men and women who lived productive and knowledgeable lives with the skills and information they acquired in the eight grades of one-room schools.

On the national level, Thomas Jefferson was one of the originators of the concept that there should be a public school in every rural district. He believed that we could not maintain a democratic government without an educated citizenry. In his words, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." On that note, I shall conclude with a poem I wrote about the last school meeting of Beagle District in 1937. The barn mentioned in the poem was on the crest of the hill east of the school-house and belonged at that time to Ray and Ida Ackley.

School Meeting

Sedately the farmers gathered, walking the roads
Their children frolicked from September to June,
Through the firefly twilight of a soft July day.
Mothers and fathers, in quiet company,
Renewed their obligation to educate
Their children. Inside the shadowy room
They settled tight in seats too small
For adult comfort, lit their lanterns, chose
A trustee. Oddly the room grew bright,
A blaze at the crest of the eastern hill.
It was the barn of the Early Sunrise Farm.
Unused, run down, too far away to help.
They watched and chatted, drawn close by awesome fires
Of fancy-free fireflies! Magic lanterns!
Great barn-burning! Democracy!
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.

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