From 1812 – when the New York state legislature authorized the formation of common schools to provide basic educational needs to a community’s students – through the early part of the 20th century, one room school houses made up the greatest part of the education system in Sullivan County.
In 1870, when the county had a population of 34,557, of which 13,635 were of school age, there were 198 school districts here. Those 198 districts employed 196 teachers, handling an average daily attendance of 4091 students. Most of those teachers were women. By 1939, there were 98 school districts in the county, and most had grown beyond the one room school-house. Still, women made up a significant part of the workforce needed to keep these districts running efficiently.
In 1870, only a few towns in the county – Callicoon, Delaware and Liberty – had more than one teacher per district. Several towns – Fallsburg, Forestburgh, Mamakating and Neversink – had fewer teachers than school districts, which meant that some teachers had to handle two districts. In many of these cases, teachers were forced to live with families in each district and often had to walk from one school house to another.
Kate Brown, who taught school in Swamp Mills, was one of six teachers in six school districts in the town of Tusten. She was perhaps typical of the early Sullivan County teacher: Kate was a teenager with little schooling and even less training when she began teaching children – some even older than she was – in 1855.
Swamp Mills, later known as Neweiden, was a small community built around a dam on the Ten Mile River where an up-and-down saw mill and an excelsior mill were located. Black powder and bricks were also manufactured in the community.
In his 1994 book The River and The Mountains, David M. Gold reprints a letter Kate Brown had written to her sister Delia in Cochecton, in which she describes her experience in Swamp Mills as far from a pleasant one:
“I like the school-house very much but I do not like the place in which it is situated at all,” she wrote. “But to give you any idea how it is situated, I must commence at the commencement: the village if so it may be called, is situated in the town of Tusten south of Lumberland on a branch of the Ten-Mile River and the branch is dammed up at the lower extremity of the village causing a very long large pond which extends to the upper end of the village; all along this pond is a low level tract of swampy land on which the houses is with a few exceptions. Built in the centre (sic) of this flat and about twenty rods from the pond is the school house. Lumbering and sawing are the principal branches of business.
“Oh dear! How the scholars do disturb me. You do not know what an extra amount of patience a teacher requires. I have taught nearly three weeks have 21 scholars and I have not had to whip a scholar yet. Is not that doing very well for me considering how very excitable my temperment (sic) is you know. I have some scholars older than myself. I have one young fellow eighteen and another fifteen. I find the people very clever, but in some cases I have to go a great ways to board, which makes it very fatiguing.”
New York made education compulsory in 1874, and in 1897 the state required each town board to appoint an attendance officer. This, naturally, increased the burden on local schools and required the employment of more teachers. At this time a teacher was paid about $6 a week, and had to make arrangements for boarding.
Nina Barney Royce, writing in her memoir of growing up in Mongaup Valley entitled My Valley, published in booklet form in 1949, recalls that “even as late as 1892, when I graduated from normal school, $500 per year for a woman grade teacher was considered tops.” This wage apparently did not discourage women from pursuing teaching as a career. Mrs. Royce writes that her own first teacher (around 1878) was a young lady named Margaret Ferrie, whose father was the local minister. About that same time, she writes, Julia Gillespie taught in the “tannery school,” the public school in the valley attended mainly by the children of employees of the Kiersted Tannery. She was 21 years old.
“Aunt Julia was my mother’s sister and was not too professional in the technical sense, because she never went to the Academy,” Mrs. Royce writes, “but through experience she became a professional in public relations and was widely acclaimed as a fine old-time teacher. She taught in many schools in Sullivan County, where for years she ‘boarded around’ – spending one week with each pupil.”
Education had progressed some by the 1920s, at least in terms of training teachers, but one room school-houses were still the norm in many rural areas. Teachers had more formal education and in most cases were responsible for just one district, but traveling was still required. Madeline Cross of Woodbourne taught in seven different one-room schools in 11 years beginning in 1921. A product of the one room school in Krum Settlement near Parksville before attending Cortland Teachers’ College, Mrs. Cross taught school at Briscoe, Beach Ridge, White Sulphur Springs, Hasbrouck, Michigan (near Woodbourne) Thunder Hill, and Old Falls.
“Everyone learned to read and write, and most kids got a good solid, basic education,” she said in 1987. “No one was lost in the shuffle.”
Good teachers – many of them young women not much older than some of the students – made certain of that.
Photo: Nina Barney Royce, who wrote about teaching school in Sullivan County.