Voice of the People: Daily Life in the Antebellum Rural Delaware County New York Area


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Introduction | Letters, Diaries, etc.

1857 illustration of school

Recollection of the District School

excerpt from Murray, David, LL.D., ed. Delaware County New York: History of the Century, 1797 - 1897.

"It may not be uninteresting to recall the district school of the early decades of the present century. It may safely be asserted that nearly all the schoolhouses of that time in the county were of logs. Indeed in the annual report of the Superintendent of Public Instruction for 1892, there were still forty-five log school-houses in the State. And at a time when the greater part of the dwelling houses were of logs it is not probable that the school-houses would be better. The log schoolhouse was a building almost square. It was made by notching the logs into each other and laying them so that the successive logs would be as close to each other as possible. The spaces between the logs were then plastered both on the inside and outside with a mortar made of common clay.

A chimney was built at one end of the oblong building, and an open fireplace furnished the only means of heating the room. A door was cut in the logs at one side of the chimney, and the corner on the other side was used for the storage of wood. A window was cut in the logs opposite to the chimney, which furnished the only light for the little room. Along this end was placed a high slanting shelf at which to write, with a slab seat for the accommodation of the writers. The seats for the other scholars were placed on the three sides of the room, but not across the chimney end. They also were roughly hewn slabs, each supported by four wooden legs. The teacher had the dignity of having a little separate table and chair, which stood at the end of the scholars' bench on one side. There was an open space in the middle of the floor, where the scholars stood up to recite their spelling and reading. The girls sat on one bench and the boys on another; and it was one of the terrible punishments for a mischievous boy to be sent to a seat among the girls.

In the wintertime this school was attended by the larger boys and girls, as well as by a part of the smaller ones; but in the summer the work on the farms kept the older children busy, and then only the little ones were able to attend school. In consequence of this the teacher in winter was always a man and in the summer a woman. They were respectively called Master and Mistress. The wages* of the winter teacher were probably about $10 to $15 a month for three months. And the wages of the young woman in summer were about a dollar a week. In both cases the teachers besides their wages in money, usually "boarded round"; spending about a week at each of the families in the district. (* In a history of the Settlement at Fall Clove in Andes there is a record that Robert Craig in 1842 was hired to teach the district school for three months at $12 a month; also that Miss More was paid $17 for teaching seventeen weeks. This same record also gives the information that $34.34 was received from the State as public money for the support of the school; and $8.63 as library money. History of Delaware County, 1889, p. 109).

School life at this little country schoolhouse was most delightful and fascinating. There was a little brook near by where the boys used to wade and float their make-believe boats. There was a forest where they wandered, climbing the trees, picking wild flowers, and drinking from a cool spring. There was a wild honeysuckle shrub which grew in these woods, and in the season the boys would bring back from their excursions a little bunch of honeysuckle blossoms for the school mistress, which to their great delight she would put in an old ink stand and keep on her little table.

The school assembled at nine o'clock and was dismissed at four. There was a short recess at eleven o'clock; and then at twelve there was an intermission of an hour. Some of the scholars who lived near went home and got their dinner; but most of them brought lunch baskets with them, and at this intermission proceeded to enjoy what their mothers had provided for them. By far the most interesting part of school was this intermission. Nothing ever tasted so good as these simple lunches of bread and butter, a slice of cold meat and perhaps a raw apple. No enjoyment was ever so intense as the plays and races and frolics which were indulged in during this noon hour. Although ball playing was not reduced to the system which has since made it the national game, I venture to assert that these school-boys got as much pleasure out of playing "two old cat" as the great professionals now derive from the most scientific game."

This section provides insight into both the Common Schools and academies of the antebellum rural Delaware County NY area. For example, in 1821 the newly founded Delaware Academy in Delhi, NY advertised for scholars. In 1837,  Samuel Sherwood urged his son William to study 4-5 hours a day.   Legal voters of School District 17 in the town of Kortright voted in 1845 that each "proprieter" bring one cord of wood for each three scholars he sent to the school--the cord was to be measured by the teacher. Edward Frisbee offers his first impressions of Delaware Literary Institute in Franklin, NY in 1854. An 1857 Progress Report for William Edgerton at Fergusonville Academy lists all the subjects taught there.  Maurice Farrington of Delhi, NY kept a diary which included his reaction to accepting a job at a Common School in Bloomville, NY in 1859: "Lord help me".

For further examples, proceed to Letters, Diaries, etc.

For Further Reading

American Memory: Library of Congress: Nineteenth Century in Print: Education.
Encyclopedia of New York State, ed. by Peter Eisenstadt.  Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press. 2005.
Flick, Alexander C, ed. History of the State of New York.  New York: Columbia University Press.  1934.
Alexander C. Flick was a New York State Historian.
Gould, Jay.  History of Delaware County, and the Border Wars of New York. Roxbury: Keeny & Gould, Publishers.  1856.
Available online from the Delaware County Genealogy and History Site.
History of Delaware County, N. Y.  New York: W. W. Munsell & Co. 1880.
Available online from the Delaware County Genealogy and History Site. Includes information on individual schools.
Murray, David, LL.D., ed. Delaware County New York: History of the Century, 1797 - 1897.  Delhi, NY: William Clark, Publisher, 1898.
Available online from the Delaware County Genealogy and History Site. Includes information on individual schools.
Reese, William. America's Public Schools.  Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins University Press.  2005.

Illustration: National Second Reader, New York, Chicago, and New Orleans: A. S. Barnes & Company, 1857, frontispiece.
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