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History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925
Chapter 105: Free Schools and Education in the Early Days of the Mohawk Valley.

[This information is from Vol. II, pp. 1526-1533 of History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925, edited by Nelson Greene (Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1925). It is in the Reference collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at R 974.7 G81h. This online edition includes lists of portraits, maps and illustrations. Some images have been relocated to the area in the text where they are discussed. As noted by Paul Keesler in his article, "The Much Maligned Mr. Greene," some information in this book has been superseded by later research or was provided incorrectly by local sources.]

Contents | Biographies | Illustrations | Maps | Portraits

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The gradual growth of the free school system of the State of New York — Levi Beardsley's Otsego County school of 1790 — The fight for free schools — John Bowdish of Montgomery County, introduces free school provision in the New York State Constitutional Convention of 1845 — Hon. Nathaniel Benton of Herkimer County, James Arkell of Montgomery County, and Andrew W. Young of Schoharie County, back up Bowdish in his good fight — Final full free school state provisions of 1892 — Today's school needs.

The Constitution of the State of New York contains the following provision:

"The Legislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of a system of free common schools, wherein all the children of this State may be educated."

The boon of a free education in a school supported by public taxation is of comparatively recent origin. It is just a little more than fifty years since all the common schools of the state were opened to all the children of the state. This we now look upon as a matter of course and we feel it is a right to which we are entitled.

We are, then, to look upon public education as of recent origin and of rather slow growth. The public, generally, looks to the people of New England as the founders of the public school system, and we have allowed this idea to become firmly fixed without making any effort to change opinion to the contrary. The very nature and character of the early population in New York were opposed to the advertising of their virtues and accomplishments.

The pioneer settlers of New York State, as a rule, had some learning and efforts were made to stimulate the growth of education, but the stern necessity of subduing a wilderness and the unceasing struggle of these frontiersmen for existence caused an almost complete cessation of effort along these lines, and we find that the children born during the period of Colonial wars and during the Revolution largely without any book learning. It is not until after the close of the Revolution that we find the people making an effort to establish a general system of schools.

Now it must not be understood that there were no schools in the State of New York or the Mohawk Valley during the century or more preceding the Revolution. It is true that there were private schools, church schools and charity schools, but these were of rather uncertain life and ministered to but a small part of the population.

However, as early as 1795, public schools were authorized and state aid given for a period of five years, but when this was withdrawn, the schools declined and in some instances disappeared. This proves conclusively that education is a state function and that public education must be administered by the state and largely supported by funds derived from the same source.

After the War of 1812 there came a remarkable period of national growth and development, which proved to be also the time of the beginnings of our present common school system. The Legislature of 1812 enacted a law which provided:

  1. The present plan of school districts. There are not a few districts now existing whose present day boundaries are those fixed by the provisions of that act.
  2. An effective local school organization was provided with the offices of trustees, collector and clerk.
  3. The principle was established that all teachers must possess certain scholastic qualifications and in addition thereto it was recognized that moral character was also a factor to be considered in selecting a teacher.
  4. This same act established the office of state superintendent of common schools. The State of New York being the first state to establish such an office. This officer was clothed with sufficient authority of supervision and administration to put in operation a state system of education.
  5. Among the requirements was one which determined that each district must provide a schoolhouse and site, keep the same in shape and provide for its operation. Authority to levy a tax upon the property of the district for the cost, building and operation was vested in the law.
  6. By the provisions of the act, trustees were given authority to hire teachers.
  7. Certain sums for state aid were provided, and this money could be used only in payment of teachers' wages.

This law established the principle that public education is a state function to be directed and maintained under state supervision, leaving with the several localities the power of executing the provisions of this state power, and lastly fixing firmly the principle that wherever the state funds go, there also goes the state authority.

Formerly, in almost all places, ecclesiastical authority was exercised in the operation and control of education, but the Law of 1812 marked the elimination of such authority from the operations of education. In other words, the schools were controlled by the people who supported them, subject, of course, to state supervision.

Revenue for the support of schools, from 1812 until later, was derived from: (1) A direct tax imposed on all of the property for the building and maintenance of schools and also for the tuition of indigent children; (2) certain state funds apportioned to the several districts amounting to about twenty dollars per school (a limitation was placed upon the expenditures of the state money in that it was to be used only for the payment of teachers' wages); and (3) the balance necessary to meet the salary of the teacher was assessed against the parents of the children attending school. This latter was known as the rate bill system, which was authorized by a law enacted in 1814. Severe criticisms have been directed against this rate bill system, the principle one being that it often placed a burden upon the poor, who had to confess poverty in order to escape its provisions, and naturally they kept their children from school rather than humiliate themselves in this way.

This rate bill system proved a grievous burden for the schools to carry and it took half a century of strenuous effort to abolish it. It might be added that even at this late date there are those who do not favor universal taxation for universal education.

Although a system of supervision was provided, it was rather inadequate with untrained supervisors. There were town superintendents of schools who made official visitations, and it is amusing to note the reports from these supervisors. I have before me one of these old reports. One district in the then town of Palatine, Montgomery County, maintained school for a period of nine months. At that time there were residing in that district one hundred children between the ages of five and fifteen, and sixty-five of these attended school for some portion of the nine months. One district reports that they received $50.72 public money, and in addition to this paid the teacher $119.64 for ten months of school. The text books in use at that time were Dayboll's Arithmetic [possibly Daboll's Schoolmaster's Assistant], [Noah] Webster's [The American] Spelling Book and [Lindley] Murray's English Reader. At this time the town of Palatine, Montgomery County, had three commissioners of common schools.

After the institution of a public school system every little locality tried to have a school of its own, and in those days of large families it was easy to get enough pupils whether there was wealth enough to support the schools or not.

Here we might pause a moment and look upon one of the early schools as drawn in an interesting word picture by Levi Beardsley in his Reminiscences, published in 1852. Beardsley was a prominent man in political circles in the early nineteenth century, representing his district in the New York State Senate. The school he describes and attended was in the present town of Richfield, Otsego County, about ten miles south in an air line from the Mohawk. It will serve also for a picture of our early Mohawk River schools. Beardsley moved to Cherry Valley and made his home there. The description of his boyhood school follows:

"I must say something about schools. My father had learned me my letters some time before we had a school, and I could spell ba, and soon after baker. I remember his first teaching me my letters. There was A, with two feet, i with a dot, round O, Q with a tail, crooked S, T with a hat, etc., etc. After six or seven families had settled within striking distance, it was decided that a schoolhouse must be built. The house must be near water, and must be built where it would best accommodate its patrons; accordingly a place was selected, the neighbors made a bee, came together, cut away the underbrush, and the trees, that were near enough to endanger the house. They cut logs, drew them to the place, and put up a log house, small but low, and the roof nearly flat for several years; covered with bark. One side was so much elevated by an additional log that the water would run off, and subsequently rafters were added, making an ordinary roof, but no floor overhead. The floor beneath was made of split logs, hewed to make them smooth; some narrow benches made from split logs, supported by legs, were put in for the scholars.

"There were no writing tables or desks, but these were added afterwards when they wanted to educate larger boys, and were made by boring into the logs, and driving pins to support a sloping board for a writing table, so that those who wrote sat with their faces to the wall, and their backs to the teacher.

"There was no glass to be had for windows in the country, and, as a substitute, a rude sash was made and placed in the wall, and this sash was supplied with white paper, which, being oiled or greased, would let in the light and exclude the wind. When the weather became cold, a large fireplace and stick chimney, daubed with mud, were added, and this was the first schoolhouse in that part of the country. A school was kept for several summers by a school mistress, who boarded round among the proprietors, and in the winter by schoolmasters, when the larger boys attended. To this schoolhouse scholars were sent from abroad, who boarded with the proprietors.

"The boarding of the school mistress and master always led to one agreeable result. The family lived better, and had more of the delicacies and luxuries of life, than on ordinary occasions. This rendered boarding around popular, among the children at least; for preparatory to the master or mistress coming, an additional quantity of fried cakes must be prepared, and mince and other pies, if they could be afforded. In truth, the master and mistress were regarded as distinguished personages. The first house was used for several years, when it was deemed advisable to build another. * * *

"The schoolboy pranks were rude and abundant, as they were in all schools.

"The day the second house was completed we had some cider brought there, to dedicate the house, being the first I ever tasted, and the first ever brought into that part of the town; the cider having been brought by some one from Cherry Valley or Mohawk River. The snows fell deep every winter; the boys used to wrestle and wallow in the snow, and often fight; then, if the master found it out, they were almost sure to be flogged, for the birch and ferule were regarded, in those days, as indispensable appendages; and by frequent application "the young idea was taught to shoot". In winter all children were clothed with coarse thick home-made clothing; they brought their dinner with them to school, and after eating it indulged in play of course.

"These narrow benches were awfully tiresome. Children would get tired and sleepy, but their vigilant instructors would contrive to stir them up; sometimes by one, and then by other devices.

"The children were of course restless, and wanted to go out, which they were permitted to do, once each half day, and oftener by special permission. Sometimes the instructor so arranged matters in relation to going out that any one might enjoy that privilege as a matter of course, each half day, without asking, provided he could go alone, when all others were in school. To carry out this provision, a hole was bored in one of the logs of the house, in which a loose wooden peg was inserted, which any one might take as a passport out of the house; and when he had stayed the permitted time, he returned and placed the peg in position, which might be taken by another without applying to the master, and thus disturbing the school.

"The boys were taught by their instructors how to make their best bow, and how to address strangers in the most formal style; and the girls to shew off their graces, by the most fashionable curtesies.

"Better progress was made in education than could have been expected, and nearly all of mine was obtained in such schools as I have described."

This was the day of the spelling school and there were many who excelled in this particular art who could not otherwise distinguish themselves. Arithmetic received a great deal of attention and many of the schoolmasters of that early day were real masters of that subject. Some of the masters were not very well educated, while others were college men, among the many who might be mentioned is Winther Reagles, who gave thirty years of his life to teaching, practically all of which was spent in the vicinity of Fort Plain and Canajoharie.

Today the greater number of teachers are women, but in the early days the percentage was reversed. Wages varied from $12.00 to $15.00 per month and we find one superintendent a hundred years ahead of his time who advocated consolidating several schools, and stated that by so doing the wages might be increased to as high as $18.00 per month. These high wages would naturally attract better teachers, etc., etc.

You have noted in Mr. Beardsley's description how the proprietors of his school went about to select a site. I am not at all certain that all selections were made with like care. At any rate, looking at some of the selections at this late date, we are led to remark that in some instances the most undesirable place had been selected. In the early days land was very cheap, but in practically no case do we find the site selected, the actual property of the district, in nearly all cases such land was deeded with a reversion clause, stipulating that in the event that the place was no longer used as a school it must go back to its original owner. Today we reap what our pioneer ancestors sowed.

After getting a state-wide system in operation, the friends of free schools, or better say of education, began their long fight to bring about reforms which would strengthen the schools, broaden their influence and increase their efficiency. They were persistent in their efforts and the opponents of the proposed reforms were just as persistent but not so successful.

The Constitutional Convention of 1845 provided an opportunity for the friends of better educational opportunities to make an effort to get into the proposed constitution a provision providing a state system of public schools free for all of the children of all the people. John Bowdish of Montgomery County, a member of that convention, introduced such a provision which was adopted and made a part of the proposed constitution, but in a manner not satisfactorily explained the provision was afterward removed and the friends of the boys and girls were as yet without adequate legal authority to put across their plans. It may be said in passing that John Bowdish Gove treasures an autograph album containing the signatures of all of the members of this constitutional convention and also all of its officers. This priceless album was secured by his grandfather's efforts and is a splendid example of handwriting of the day. Mr. Bowdish was an accomplished penman and his head pieces and title pages are works of art. Other Mohawk Valley men who were in the front ranks in this fight were Nathaniel S. Benton, Secretary of State and Superintendent of Common Schools, of Little Falls, Herkimer County; Andrew W. Young (born in Schoharie County) and many others.

Failing to secure free schools by a constitutional provision, the friends of the schools next sought to secure the same by law. Finally a law was passed providing that the schools should be free, etc., and providing that before the same became effective, it should be voted upon by the people of the state, with the result that it was carried by a very large majority. However, when the law was put into operation and the taxpayers began to feel the pinch of the taxes, they began to whine and howl and squirm and kick until the legislature again offered a referendum to the people of the state and again the people of the state voted for free schools. This time, however, the vote was much closer and the majorities for the law came principally from the cities. Nevertheless the counties of Montgomery and Schenectady both returned majorities in favor of free schools — the former by 1,200 and the latter by 52. Herkimer 1,379 against; Fulton-Hamilton 973 against; Oneida 897 against; Schoharie 2,548 against. It will be seen in the foregoing that the seed sown by John Bowdish had fallen on good ground and that his county kept the faith. In his work he was given splendid assistance by James Arkell of Canajoharie, whose weekly paper, the Canajoharie Radii, vigorously supported the cause. All the rejoicings of the victors came to naught, because the kickers finally brought the matter into court and the courts decided that the legislature of the state could not delegate its law making powers to the people.

This did not end the fight, however, for permissive legislation was passed and union free school districts were formed and finally in 1868 the schools were made free.

With free schools came a new and added responsibility for the state and finally, in 1892, the state, through its educational authorities, began to put in practice the doctrine that not only are the schools free for all the children of the state, but all of the children of the state must be in schools. At that date the per cent of the actual attendance as compared with the registration was 52 per cent; today this has increased to over 80 per cent and there is no reason to believe to the contrary, that soon this will be over 90 per cent.

In the last quarter of a century high schools have been made free for all the children of all the people; free scholarships are provided for children desiring to continue their education. Think of it. Six free scholarships for each assembly district. Free scholarships in the State College for Teachers! Free scholarships in all of the State Normal schools! It is indeed a long ways from Levi Beardsley's school to the school of today. Truly John Bowdish's dream has come true. If he were with us today he would say with Edward Osgood Grover, "I believe in boys and girls, the men and women of a great tomorrow."

Today's task is that of bringing about a more equitable cost of education so that the boy and girl of the open country may have an equal opportunity with the most favored city child. The fight for this right is just as bitter as any of the fights of the days gone by, and just as certainly will the efforts of the men and women of today be rewarded with victory.

(Note on Levi Beardsley's school.) Levi Beardsley was a distinguished lawyer, a politician of national importance and was also a prominent financier. His "Reminiscences" shows that he had considerable literary ability. During his long and useful career he served in many local offices in Cherry Valley Village and town, represented his district in the assembly and finally for 8 years was a senator, during which time he was president of the Senate. He was an officer in several banking institutions. He was also at one time a member of the Court for the Correction of Errors.

When President Martin Van Buren visited the village of Cherry Valley Mrs. Beardsley entertained him.

Mr. Beardsley was born in 1785 and the school pictured in his description was in operation from 1790 to 1800. It was located in the town of Richfield in Otsego County.

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