September 1993

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Notes from a

Schoolmaster's Diary

The Diary of Robert C. Bishop, Kinney's Corners, New York


Herbert A. Wisbey, Jr.

Robert C. Bishop was twenty-four years old when he began his diary in September, 1871. Two volumes of this unpublished diary, covering the years 1871 to 1874, are in the Special Collections sections of the Lightener Library of Keuka College, Keuka Park, New York. Bishop recorded his day-to-day routine as a young schoolmaster in various one-room schools in the Finger Lakes region of New York.

He was born on March 19, 1847, and for most of his life his home was at Kinney's Corners in Jerusalem Township of Yates County. He graduated from the one-room school at Kinney's Corners (Jerusalem No. 3), and after attending a brief training institute in Penn Yan, taught in several one-room schools in the vicinity of Keuka, Seneca, and Canandaigua Lakes. Between terms of school he hired out as a farm laborer or worked at home.

The diary is written in a flowery, sentimental style with several original poems interspersed between the daily entries. The quality of the poetry may be deduced from the fact that the Yates County Chronicle refused to print his first contribution and the Bath Advocate wanted $4.00 or one half its usual advertising rates to publish it. Poet or not, young Bishop was a sincere teacher who taught the pupils in his care how to read, write, spell and do figures to the best of his ability.

References in the diary indicate that he lived and probably taught in Rushville in 1868-1869, and that he taught school in Gorham, Ontario County, during the winter of 1869-1870. In the fall of 1871 he attended the Yates County Teachers' Institute in Penn Yan. The two-weeks Institute consisted of lectures by Professor D. H. Crittenden and others on such subjects as "Mood Language," "Mental Forces," "The Senses," and "Words." The participants declaimed, read essays, and, on the last night, "Select Readings & Declamations and music by the choir, also calisthenics, was the program of the evening."

From November 13, 1871, until February 16, 1872, Bishop taught at District School Number 7 in Barrington, Yates county, boarding with different families in the district. He was extremely conscientious. On November 30, 1871, he noted, "Thanksgiving today," and added that he decided "to have school because I thought it was not necessary to dismiss school for one day only." On December 7, he went to a dance and recorded for the following day, "Halfway sleepy to-day. The day seems long and it seems as if it would never come night." His social life also included a protracted meeting (a continuous prayer meeting), games of Authors, and a spelling school.

He hired out as a farm laborer for the seven months in 1872 at $20.50 a month, and plowed, dragged for wheat, cut corn, dug potatoes, cut wood, and helped with the threshing. At the same time he was trying to get a school for the winter term. His social life that summer included attending a Grape Fair in Hammondsport, being "humbugged" when "P. T. Barnum's grand show" came to Penn Yan, and several days at the Yates County Fair. In spite of such activities, it must have been a dull summer. Day after day the entries in the diary read, "Nothing of any importance," "Nothing unusual to mark the event," and "Nothing of any importance occurred today."

In the fall of 1872 he got his teaching certificate from the Yates County Commissioner endorsed by the Commissioner of Steuben County and got the school at Keuka Landing to teach for $1.25 a day and board in the district. Certification to teach was issued by the County Commissioner and usually could be transferred to another county by having one commissioner write to another. On November 23, 1872, Bishop wrote in his diary, "I am once more situated in an intellectual fort." He taught there for a term ending March 25, 1872, and continued in the same school for a summer term from May 5 until August 19.

His next position, that fall, was in Kinney's Corners at the school from which he graduated. Here he was paid $2.25 a day because he could live at home instead of boarding with various families. The last day of this term was on February 27, 1874, and the diary ended with an entry on April 10 of that year.

The entries in the diary, made over a three-year period and covering four terms in one-room schools some 120 years ago, tell little about the routine of the school day. They do reveal something about the young teacher's educational philosophy, record some incidents that were out of the ordinary, and some problems and his method of solving them. Excerpts from the diary are presented in chronological order:

January 14, 1873. Perhaps I might say here that my school is progressing favorable. I can say and say it without hesitation that the scholars are quite prompt with their compositions and declamations.

January 18. Last Wednesday I caught Helen Mclntyre & Mary Hemmenway whispering. I kept them at recess. Mary did not like it much and she wrote to one of the scholars the following: "My dear Lois I though i would rite a few lines to you to let you know that i am well we have a mean teacher this winter he dont know as much as our old cat. Mary Hemmingway."

January 27. I commenced my school again after a week's vacation. I hardly feel equal to the emergency but if I persevere I think I shall succeed. I settled the circumstance today which occured one week before last. I made her read it before the school but she did not seem to care much about it.

February 17. Last friday occured an exciting scene which was enacted at the school-house. It is the first disturbance of any importance that has marred the routine of school duties of this winter. The circumstance is this: As usual I took the name of those who whispered....I kept them in at noon about half an hour. [One] refused to obey because he said that I had no right to deprive him of his nooning, but he did not leave his seat. In the meantime he ate an apple. I told him to stop but he would not. I dismissed him with the rest. This morning came and with [it] came its results. At noon we began to settle the difficulty. I told him that there were one of three things that he must do, First to take a whipping, to confess that he had done wrong or to leave school I gave him sufficient time to consider upon it. He at last said that he had done wrong and was sorry for it. I think he prudently took the better course in which I forgave him, but I could not help but notice that a scholar on the back seat...sneered at what I said.

I now finally hope that there will be nothing to mar the serenity and peace of [the] school. I might also add that the teacher has to bear and overlook a great many offences...

February 24. I now relate an instance which occurred in the beginning of the winter. One day as I was hearing the second reader recite I asked her what was the definition of cream but she failing to give it I asked some of the scholars. One in particular, who said it was skim-milk which occasioned considerable amusement in school.

November 12. ...The worst set of scholars that I ever saw. There is constantly something to pay among them all of the time. Such a mean disposition I have seldom met before in any place. It is a hard matter to keep them still...I think I have made some progress.

November 15. ...Yesterday afternoon I sent out for some whips. At the appearance of these it was much stiller.

December 19. ...As to school I have nothing much to say. I think it keeps along about the same. One great fault about this school is that the scholars have been in the habit of doing just as they like. I can most always tell on entering the school room of the kind of government that the parents have over their children. Parents often sent their unruly children to school because they themselves could not control them; but they think the teacher must do this. The trouble is simply this that they have never learned to govern themselves, but they must before they can govern their children. To have a well-disciplined school it need above all a motive power at home to sustain the teacher in his many trials and perplexities of the school-room.

I have found from the experience of six terms the best and only way to get along is to please yourself and by so doing you will please the most in this way. The school room is the best place in the world to study human nature... Actions here most always speak louder than clear English words. Many a time after school has been called and a majority of the scholars have commenced to study I have seen some idle boy or girl watching me for fear of being caught in their mischief and I pretend to pass it unheeded by but mind you I do not forget it but when he is busy in what he is engaged I turn suddenly about and catch him in the very act.

It is not always those that make the most noise the most to blame but those still and sneaking ones who are always getting others into trouble. A teacher upon entering the school room the first day must not judge too hastily for some times he is entirely mistaken in this way; better to wait three or four days at the least for then he can execute his plans much better than if he had made a hasty conclusion.

In the school room Practice is better than Theory. Never say what you are going to do but go to work and do it and by this time your pupils will know your plans.

Make as few rules as possible for it will be much better for both teacher and scholars.

In addition to such recording of his educational philosophy, Bishop commented in his diary about celebrations of holidays, and current events of local interest such as a major fire that destroyed 52 buildings in Penn Yan, the hanging of Edward H. Rulloff, and a meeting to discuss a proposed railway from Branchport to Potter Center. He noted the names of the books he read and his social activities. On March 13, 1872, he wrote, "Oh dear! I am so tired that I can hardly wiggle for I have been playing base-ball most of the afternoon. Excuse me dear friends if ever you should happen to see these whimsical lines and perhaps are not worthy of a place in this journal."

Not much about Robert C. Bishop's later life has yet been discovered. He owned a small house in Kinney's Corners and lived there with his wife, Helen. They had no children. He was a member of the Bluff Point Methodist Church. He died on September 20, 1917, in Memorial Hospital in Canandaigua of typhoid fever, leaving no will and in debt. Cazenovia Seminary petitioned to have its representative appointed as executor of his small estate. He was buried in Penn Yan's Lake View Cemetery but there is no record of his burial or of that of his wife. His diaries were given to Keuka College in the late 1950's. They open a window on the thoughts and activities of a young school teacher of 1872 to 1874.

This article is a revision of one by the same title that appeared in New York Folklore Quarterly, XV, No. 2 (Summer, 1959).
(c) 1993, Herbert A. Wisbey, Jr.
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