Who can miss the "back to school" commercials and advertisements during the last few weeks? Time has a way of flying by and we find ourselves once again near Labor Day and school starting again. Kids are thinking about the end of their summer freedom and new classes, while those older may reminisce of their own bygone school days and the stories their parents told them of great lengths they had to walk in the snow to get there. It turns out, some people did. The past two weeks have told stories related to the beginning of Chautauqua County in honor of our bicentennial, with a continuation this week of some of our early school history. In a land full of dense forests and unpaved roads, it turns out that these kids did have to make a trek to school and studied in a schoolhouse very different from today. An account of Fredonia even said that children found their way to school by following marked trees.
Two books help tell the story of our county's early days. "The Centennial History of Chautauqua County" (1904) and "History of Chautauqua County and Its People" (1921) both have accounts of our early schools. In the early 1800s, schools were rough log structures at the edge of a forest and were not free. Parents paid for each child based on his attendance in proportion to the school year. According to the 1904 book, in 1821 there were 117 log schools in the county. In 1812, the same year the United States declared war with England, New York State passed legislation to create common schools and school districts. School money was apportioned and paid out in the county by supervisors. According to the 1921 book, teachers were paid from 25 to 50 cents per day and boarded around the district. Teachers were also paid in farm products at a cash and barter store. One teacher in 1819, Fletcher Fenton, received his pay in the form of shingles, while Miss Minerva Willoughby "accepted a wheel-head, pair of cards for preparing flax for spinning, and a bake kettle, all of which she found useful after her marriage in 1819.
Some current residents of our county have roots from these early years and may recognize family or old-time neighbor names of some of the first schools of various townships, with Westfield the first in 1807. As given in our books, they are: Arkwright (Horace Clough; 1811), Busti (Olive Marsh; 1813), Carrol and Kiantone (Stephen Rogers; 1813), Charlotte (William Gilmour; 1813), Chautauqua (Rev. Amasa West; 1811), Cherry Creek (Reuben Cheney; 1818), Clymer (Marie Stowe; 1822), Ellery (Dr. Lazarus Carey; 1808), Ellicott and Jamestown (Rev. Amasa West; 1814), Ellington (Milo Camp; 1817), French Creek (R. Chitsey; 1818), Gerry (Hannah Johnson; 1817), Hanover (John Sprague; 1808), Harmony ( Abigail Durfee; 1813), Mina (Elisha Moore; 1823), Pomfret and Dunkirk (Samuel Berry; 1809), Poland ( Betsey Tracy; 1816), Portland (Anna Eaton; 1810), Ripley (Anna Eaton; 1809), Sheridan (Squire White; 1808), Sherman (Otis Skinner; 1828), Stockton (Abigail Durfee; 1815), Villenova (Elizabeth Browing; 1817), and Westfield (Anna Eaton; 1807).
The Fredonia Academy was the first school in the county (1826) to offer higher education and was located on the site of the present day village hall.
As time passed, there was a need for higher education. Fredonia Academy was the first in the county in 1826. According to the 1904 book, while some gave money to assist in this building, others contributed by giving what they could including merchandise, labor, cattle, and one person donating 20 gallons of whiskey. Hmm. Remember when the high school's mascot had a jug of something similar? Austin Smith was the first principal and was alive in 1902 when the county celebrated its centennial. Other towns followed with academies, including Mayville in 1834, Jamestown in 1836, Dunkirk in 1837, Westfield in 1839, and Ellington in 1851.
Readers employed in schools today are very familiar and often frustrated with the numerous and ever changing regulations handed down from the state. If there's any comfort in numbers, in 1921, upon reflection of the past century from the early 1800s to that time, it was stated that there had been constant change in school legislation. In fact, "these changes have necessitated corresponding changes in local procedure, and from very simple beginnings the present complicated systems have been developed." However, it was not meant to necessarily be negative. One of these legislations provided for the union free school system whereby groups of common school districts united, and we eventually had high schools. Statistics for enrollments around the county in 1920 are interesting to compare and contrast to those in 2011. Other than Dunkirk with 3216 students, Jamestown with 7244, and Fredonia with 946, it appears that all other areas were divided into supervisory districts with a superintendent for each. They say that history repeats itself. Perhaps with our dwindling population today, we might consider some type of similar consolidated organization. However, it doesn't look like we can go back to students finding their way to school by following marked trees through the woods.
Consider browsing through an old book and learning more about our past. Make it a good week, Mary and Rosamond