EARLY SCHOOLS - THE ORIGIN OF TEACHERS INSTITUTES - CHARACTER OF THE PIONEERS.
IT must not be supposed that while the pioneers who settled the hills and valleys of "the Genesee country" were busy reclaiming the wilderness, and surrounding themselves with domestic comforts, they forgot to plant the seeds of those institutions in the midst of which they had been reared, and which by New Englanders and their descendants are considered of paramount importance. As soon as a sufficient number of children could be gathered the schoolhouse made its first appearance, rude at first like the primitive houses of the settlers, but adapted to the circumstances of the people in those times.
Pioneer school-houses, like pioneer dwellings, were usually log structures, and were warmed in winter from fire-places similar to those in these dwellings. The desks were slanting shelves of slabs or boards, supported by long pins driven into auger holes in the logs, with the ends sustained by braces from the logs below. In front of these were benches made of split and hewed slabs, or, where there were saw-mills in the vicinity, of sawed slabs. These were for the "big scholars." A row of similar benches stood in front of these, on which the smaller ones sat.
The course of instruction was limited to reading, spelling, writing, arithmetic, and sometimes geography and grammar. The text books then in use were quite different from those of the present time. Among the primary books in use were the United States Speller, the first reading -lesson in which was
"My son, do no ill,
Go not in the way of bad men.
For bad men go to the pit;
O, my son! run not in the way of sin;"
followed by "Fear God and honor the king;" and Webster's Spelling-book, in which the first exercise was:
No man may put off the law of God;
My joy it in his law all the day."
At the same time that they taught the children reading they inculcated morality, and even loyalty. The whole science of orthography was taught in three or four pages of the "fore part of the spelling book." Morse's, and afterward Woodbridge's, Geography (if any), telling very briefly what was known of the earth, were used; and Dilworth's, Pike's and Daboll's Arithmetics, with their condensed rules and no demonstrations, and in which if the "single rule of three" was reached in one term it was considered remarkable progress. The Columbian Orator, American Preceptor and English Reader were the reading books in use, and Lindley Murray's Grammar was studied by some. The practice with this last was to first commit to memory the "coarse print," then "go through" and learn the "fine print," and when these tasks were accomplished the pupil knew, if possible, less of grammar than when he commenced. These books were well adapted to the capacities of those who had mastered the branches of which they treated, but not to those of beginners. The curriculum of study in those days was, with many, limited to reading, writing and cyphering.
Schools were not conducted then as at present. The Puritans and their descendants were reared with full faith in the maxim "Spare the rod and you spoil the child." Their teachers were usually anxious that pupils should not spoil on their hands, and many old men retain a vivid recollection of what school discipline was in their boyhood.
An account of the exercises during a half-day of school in those days would be amusing, though it is a question whether, in some respects, modern customs are great improvements.
Many can remember that when word was passed around " Master's com in'!" a general scramble for seats took place, so that every one was found in his place and order prevailed when the august dispenser of wisdom entered; and if, for any reason, he remained at the house during the intermission at noon it was necessary that he should walk a short distance away and then retrace his steps, in order that he might be " com in'." On entering he took off his hat and bowed to the scholars, a compliment which they arose and returned. He then walked majestically across the room, hung his hat on its accustomed peg, turned around and announced "School's begun!" Then, taking up his book, he called, "First class in the English Reader! arise!' attention!" At the word, which was often contracted to. "rise," the boys of the class on one side of the room, and the girls on the other, arose as one; and when "tention " or "beesance " (obeisance) was called, the boys bowed and the girls "curchied." If these motions were not properly made a short drill ensued. When they had been executed with sufficient precision the reading was proceeded with. The members of the class arose in their places, one by one, and each read his or her verse, prompted or corrected by the master, who, as occasion required, called to inattentive ones, " Look over!" and to the one reading, " Read louder!" or, " Mind the pauses!" or occasionally to the school " Less noise!" When the class had "read round," at the word " Class dissroissed" they laid aside their books, faced about, and such as chose to do so drew their writing books from under the desk and engaged for a time in a writing exercise; though there was no stated time for this. Writing was then done with quill pens on coarse, unruled paper. Beginners were permitted to rule their paper, which they did with leaden "plummels" and wooden "rulers;" but after a time they were to acquire the art of writing "straight," without ruling. The roaster wrote or "set" all the copies; and it is a notable fact that when printed copies and ruled paper were first introduced they were looked upon with the utmost contempt. At first only "coarse hand" was permitted, which, as the learner became more proficient, was gradually brought down to "fine hand;" then ruling was dispensed with. Strange as it may appear to those who are instructed according to modern system, a majority of pupils in those days acquired a very good chirography. Next in order, the second class was called. The teacher was usually able to hear this class and at the same time respond to the frequent calls to "mend my pen." Then followed the other classes in order, ending with the children that were called one at a time to the side of the teacher and asked: "What's that?" "A-uh!" "What's that?" "B-uh!" etc. Then followed "Boys mer gwout!" and after they were recalled by vigorous rapping on the window the girls were given a similar recess. Next came the recitations in geography and grammar - if any - one at a time, for there were then no classes except in reading and spelling, and blackboards were unknown. Next came (in the afternoon) parsing, if there were any advanced grammar scholars. Then followed the spelling classes, beginning with the lowest and concluding with the first class. Stated times were set apart for studying the spelling lessons, and the practice of "going up" was adopted by all; and those who were "at the head" the greatest number of times were rewarded with prizes. During all this time the teacher was frequently called to respond to the questions: "M'I speak?" "MI gwout?" "MI git some drink?" "Show me how ter do this sum?" "MI go t'the fire?" "Where does the Missippy rise? " etc, etc. Of course the exercises were varied as emergencies arose by practical illustrations of moral suasion - as then practiced - with the ferule and rod. When the scholars filed out of the house at night, after those who were designated to " hand round the things " had discharged that duty, each was required to turn around ' at the door, make a bow or " curchy," and say, " Good afternoon, sir," which was soon shortened to " 'Dart noon sir." Then children were required in going to and returning from school to raise their hats and bow to older persons when they met them. If such a custom were prevalent now the manners of people would not be the worse for it
It must be admitted that, notwithstanding the miserable text-books then in use, and the - in many respects - awkward methods of teaching which prevailed the schools of that period furnished some excellent scholars; perhaps almost as large a proportion as those of the present time. The early establishment of an efficient common school system in this State was due in a great measure to the eager demand for such a system by New England immigrants.
In 1858 an act was passed by the Legislature dividing the county of Wyoming, which is a single Assembly district, into two districts for the election of school commissioners. The towns of Sheldon, Bennington, Orangeville, Attica, Warsaw, Middlebury, Covington and Perry constitute number x of these districts; and the towns of Arcade, Genesee Falls, Java, Eagle, Wethersfield, Pike, Gainesville and Castile, number 2.
It is hardly necessary to call attention to the measures which have been adopted to give greater efficiency to the common schools of the State. In every instance Wyoming county has been among the first to make available the facilities which have been thus provided. In 1835 was passed the first act making provision for school district libraries. About the year 1843, for the purpose of elevating the standard of qualification among teachers, two sagacious men conceived the plan of holding teachers' institutes. These men were the late judges A. S. Stevens, of Attica, and Jacob S. Denman, of Ithaca, Tompkins county, each of whom was in his own county the first county superintendent appointed under the law of 1842. It is a singular fact that each of these men conceived the plan of holding an institute in his own county, and held such institute the same month, without any knowledge of the doings of the other.
From some reports and other documents furnished by E. F. Chaffee it is learned that in the discharge of the duties of his office Judge Stevens, to use his own words, saw "that there was no uniformity of system in the mode or manner of teaching and governing in our schools; that each and all teachers had their own peculiar notions, while but few seemed to have confidence in their own method. In fact, the whole method was without a head. I found many young and not experienced teachers, in small and sparsely settled districts, laboring hard to do something, but having no well digested system of their own, and none borrowed and well arranged, but getting along with detached ideas and forms, often varying them to suit the notions and whims of parents."
To establish the desired uniformity, and to make available for each teacher the best ideas of all the others, he decided to call together the teachers of the county, and to invite the friends of education to meet with and aid them. Accordingly he "issued a circular calling on the teachers to meet and hold an institute at the pleasant little village of Wethersfield Springs, in the center of Wyoming county, in October, 1843." This call was issued " with the concurrence of the following town superintendents:" E. Bishop, Attica; N. Tolles, Bennington; A. W. Conklin, Castile; John Smith, China; J. Durfee, Covington; R. Whitney, Gainseville; L. C. Ward, Java; , Middlebury; P. Merril, Orangeville; C. A. Huntington, Perry; M. A. Hinman, Sheldon; A. Holley, Warsaw; B. Bancroft, Wethersfield.
Seventy-five teachers responded to this call, and so successful was this first experiment that at this session Judge
Stevens was appointed a committee to memorialize the Legislature, through Colonel S. Young, the able State superintendent, for future aid in holding similar institutes. In reply to a communication giving an account of this experiment and its results, Colonel Young wrote to Judge Stevens as follows:
"State Superintendent's Office, Albany, October 26th, 1843. I heartily congratulate you and the friends of common school education in your county on the cheering -results which have been accomplished and are in the process of accomplishment under your auspices. The continuation of such exertions in such a spirit is all that is needed to make our common schools indeed the nurseries of virtue and the temples of sound knowledge. I trust no obstacles will be permitted to deter or discourage you from the completion of the noble undertaking you have begun. You must rely for your reward, not so much upon the temporary and fleeting popularity of the hour, as upon the approval of your own conscience and the ultimate justice which, in the long run, is sure to be awarded to faithful public servants. "Yours truly,
S. Young. 44 A. S. Stevens, Esq.,
4 Supt. of Common Schools, Wyoming County. Attica."
The aid asked was at once granted by the Legislature. From this beginning teachers' institutes have come to be established in most of the States in the Union. Wyoming county, which had the honor of holding the first, has never failed to hold her annual institute since.
A prominent feature in the character of the New England pioneers in this county was the readiness with which they transplanted the religious faith of their fathers in their new home. Religious societies were early established in the new settlements, and these often became the nuclei of prosperous churches. At first meetings were held in private houses and school- houses, but as soon as these societies acquired sufficient strength houses of worship were erected, some of which remain with little change, beyond ordinary repairs, to the present day.
Of pioneer preachers, Rev. Dr Nassau, in an address delivered before the Wyoming County Pioneer Association in 1879, said:
"I hesitate to mention any of these leaders lest I omit some as prominent and worthy as those named. But such ministers as the first bishops and clergy of the Methodist church did a grand work for their generation. There were Bishops Asbury and McKendree, Messrs. Fillmore, Grant, White, Bangs, Laning, Cummins, Paddock, Pearce and a host of kindred spirits. Among the able and successful evangelists and pastors of the Presbyterian and Congregational faith were such worthies as the indefatigable veteran Father Spencer, Zadoc Hunn, John Lindsley, Messrs. Axtell, Higgins, Robbins, Bells, Chapman, Stone, the Hubbards, the Parmelees, the Cottons, Williston, Bushnell, Fulton, Ayer, Harrower, Denoon, Bull, Perrine, Fitch, Richards and Hotchkins. And these were representative of many others. The Baptists, Reformed Dutch, Episcopalians, Friends and other denominations were well and faithfully represented on this ground. Praiseworthy efforts to send the gospel to the destitute were made by several local societies.
"The lives of such Christian leaders were a happy commentary upon their preaching, devoted, enthusiastic and successful. Then, as now, the minister was expected to take part in affairs of local importance, and in times of peril was often looked to as a champion. It has been said, with truth, that 'the office of Christian ministers was no sinecure upon the Holland Purchase in early years. They encountered the roughest features of pioneer life.' "
It is a notable fact that when the descendants of the Puritans brought hither their religious faith they left behind much of the intolerance and bigotry which had disgraced the Puritan character. When, however, it is remembered that most of these were of the younger classes, the fact is no matter of surprise, for they are always the progressive ones. It is sometimes thought by those who have been reared in what are termed old countries, in the midst of the comforts and luxuries which the industry of several generations has accumulated, with the best of educational facilities, surrounded by refined society, and feeling, in the language of Burns, " not a want but what themselves create," that their more active brothers who have turned their backs to the land of their nativity, and sought homes and fortunes in the untamed wilderness, have become in a measure outcasts from refined society; that their manners have necessarily become uncouth, and their tastes coarse; and that were they to return they would be hardly fit associates for those who have remained among the refinements of what they term civilized life. They think, too, that the active, toilsome life which these pioneers lead, and the privations and hardships to which they subject themselves, are not compatible with the development of that intelligence of which they fancy themselves the sole conservators. They sometimes heave a sigh of pity over the hard fate of these their loved friends, and if, in after years, they visit these companions and playmates of their youth in their distant homes, they do so with the expectation of being put to shame by their roughness and ignorance.
They are surprised to find that though these people are not surrounded by all the luxuries which they enjoyed at home, that though indeed they have limited their wants to very few of these, they are not the -rough, uncouth beings they pictured to themselves. They find them in houses that are certainly not built with a view to display architectural taste, for they are formed of logs, with stone fireplaces and stick chimneys; but they shelter the inmates from the rains of summer and autumn, and keep out the chilling blasts of winter. They are not fashionably furnished; for in this respect comfort and convenience, instead of style, have been aimed at. The pioneers' fare is simple, but wholesome. No dainties are set before them to tempt the pampered appetites of slothful, enervated drones, but plain, substantial food, sweetened by the zest and relish which health and industry impart.
The visitors see, perhaps, that in intelligence these more active ones have quite outstripped them, and that they themselves are the objects of pity, because they were not endowed with the energy that might have enabled them to accomplish what these pioneers have done.
They see, too, here and there houses of worship, not with spires pointing skyward, carpeted aisles, cushioned seats, elaborately carved desks and gilded organs, but plain edifices, adapted to the circumstances and wants of the people who meet there for religious instruction and worship, and not to gratify their vanity by a display of stylish finery, or to criticise the display of others. They see all these things, and they awake to the Consciousness that, notwithstanding the toils, hardships and privations that these pioneers have endured, they are contented and happy.
They look upon the children that are growing up in this new country, and they see that they have inherited the sterling qualities of their parents; and that not till several generations of their descendants have grown up in luxurious ease will they become degenerated to the level of those who were left behind by the courageous and ambitious ones who struck out into the forest, and instead of avoiding the obstacles which lay in their way battled against them manfully and overcame them.
They look back and remember that their forefathers left their homes, braved the perils of the sea and peopled the rocky hills of New England with a race of which these pioneers are the representatives; and they reluctantly arrive at the conclusion that they are themselves the degenerate offshoots from this stock.
SOURCE: History of Wyoming County, N.Y., with Illustrations, Biographical Sketches and Portraits of Some Pioneers and Prominent Residents; F. W. Beers & Co.; 1880