Memories of District 21 from J.D. Monroe and Sonny Somelofski

By Buffy Calvert

To my delight, Duncan Monroe, grandson of John Duncan Monroe, has responded to my request for tales of one-room schools with an account of his grandfather’s years attending the District 21 School at the corner of Perch Lake Road and the Tremperskill. Sonny Somelofski, whose store is in that building, shares a book he found there. Next month I will report on an amazing lawsuit that John and Sharon Drew sent me a copy of, featuring the one-room schoolhouse in District 23. I welcome any and all memories of life in the one-room schools.

Excerpts from Monroe’s unpublished Down the Tremperskill:

The first schoolhouse, built before 1816 “was of logs and was located on the Weaver side of Perch Lake Road above the first pitch.” The new schoolhouse was built in 1857 after the Tremperskill Road was relocated to its present location. “In addition to wages paid in money, the district boarded the teachers on the inhabitants, a week at a time in each household, and this custom continued until after 1892.”

Monroe lists the pupils, their ages and parents for the school year 1885-1886 who were his “school mates for his first year of attendance at any school, though he had attended briefly and without remembered result, the school at DeLancey in the winter of 1884-85.” He notes that “Sarah Hull, who was a pupil in the winter session, was the teacher for the spring session…Those [teachers] we remember best were Mary Burr and Alice More….Let us say at once that what then seemed and still seems the perfectly honest, sincere, and wholly unsophisticated views of these teachers impressed us more than much else we have learned in this dishonest world.

“…The school children of one period are the men and women of the next. The character and capacity of the inhabitants of a community…depend to a large extent upon the environment and training of their youth. …If they do not think it necessary to do justice to others, if they are not concerned with the effect of their acts upon others, if to grab everything in sight for themselves is their idea of a free country, the community will be of ill repute, and the country without integrity or honor…. [C]haracter is formed in youth and developed with age. After the parents, the teacher is the first instructor of youth…It is more important that a child be imbued with respect, even a passion for the truth, for honesty, for integrity…than that he have much learning.

“…It is as character builders that we prefer to think of Mary Burr and Alice More. The first, gentle, considerate, sympathetic, was at the same time just and true. Courteous at all times, she was uncompromising with evil. She did not tell children, careful and protective of their own things, that they must divide with the wasteful and destructive…Her smile did not fall alike on the just and the unjust, or favor the unjust because there were more of them….As a teacher her influence was gentle and urbane, tending to retard the too hasty, to encourage the timid, to spur the backward, and to repress the evil disposed. We owe much to Miss Burr…and are happy to remember that our parents thought highly of her.

“Alice More…had more fire and spirit, more decisiveness of character…the will to work and a keen dislike for pretense and make believe. Stern and outspoken… she was, strictly speaking, more the school-mistress than Mary Burr. Less tolerant, and more critical, her discipline was needed by boys and girls much inclined to take the path of least resistance. Her scorn of ignorance, delivered in words of biting sarcasm, was not lightly to be encountered

“The life of a boy in the Pleasant Valley school between 1885 and 1892 was not all books and lessons. There was an hour at noon and two fifteen-minute recesses…It was also necessary every day for two boys to go about a quarter of a mile down to Miner’s for a pail of drinking water…and this took a good half hour. …The Miner’s saw mill and mill pond were a source of perennial interest…[I]n the winter the pond was fine for skating and sucker fishing through the ice. The Perch Lake Road …was steep and well-beaten, and furnished a great place for [sledding], though the occasional team made this somewhat dangerous. [S]ometimes the larger boys thought it smart to defy the teacher. Frank Burtch would come late to school and climb in a back window, and when the woman teacher remonstrated, …laugh at her.

“Men teachers were frequently employed for the winter term when the larger boys were in attendance. In the fall of 1891, (Monroe’s last year at the school) Benny Goodman…was so employed at Pleasant Valley. Benny had just completed…Bussey Hollow School and what he lacked in training and experience he tried to make up for by discipline. Willie Clement was about to “graduate” and Willie was looking for an opportunity to go out in some glory. To have licked the teacher was Willie’s idea of a well-rounded education. And early in the term he decided that the time had come for him to assert himself. [He broke] some obstinate rule of Benny’s; words followed and Willie was ordered to leave the school, that is to say, he was expelled.

“But Willie refused…the question was could Benny throw him out. Benny undertook it and pandemonium broke loose. Willie was a stout lad of about twenty…Goodman…was lighter, but tougher and faster. The upshot was that despite considerable slugging and struggling on Willie’s part, Benny threw him out like a sack of potatoes.”

Sonny Somelofski, who owns that schoolhouse, now a Country Store, says that  Don Liddle Sr., Russell Dowie, and Ray Winner used to come in, point to the spots where they sat as children and reminisce about those days. One time Sonny ripped off five layers of shingles, down to the original cedar shakes, and below those to the rafters where he spied a thick, black book, entitled:  NEW YORK STATE DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC INSTRUCTION REGISTER 1891-1892. It is a 2000-page compendium of arcane data: lists of per pupil and per capita expenditures for grade schools, the number of pupils (545 in Andes), number of trees planted on Arbor Day (in Andes, 42), reports from the Normal (Teacher Training) Schools and the entrance and Teacher Certification exam questions (tough!), a moving report from a superintendent of an Indian School District in which he laments the sad state of instruction and support and pleads for integration with the “white” schools from which Indian children were excluded.  It includes the decisions of the 90 “most important” school cases to come before the Court of Appeals in that year, pictures with floor plans of new school buildings, and a comparison of schooling in Prussia with its “rival” France.. A veritable treasure trove, which Sonny enthusiastically will show you over the counter of his store. ~