Editorial: ‘Dear old Golden Rule days’

Published: 1/23/2020 9:31:41 AM

Recorder readers of a certain age were on the cusp of the trend to consolidate the many one- and two-room schoolhouses in Massachusetts. Within living memory, a single town in Franklin County could have had multiple schoolhouses. Buckland, for example, had 11 schoolhouses at one time or another, one for each of its districts. Schools came and went as neighborhoods swelled or shrank; a factory closing, or a family moving out of town could mean the end of a school that served a dozen students or fewer.

Many senior citizens started out in one- or two-room schoolhouses and went on to become the first students to graduate from one of the new, regional high schools. They may even have started their education in a schoolhouse that had no indoor plumbing, no electricity and was heated by a woodstove, learning alongside schoolmates of multiple grades from a teacher who was probably fresh out of high school. Dorothy (Willis) Giffen attended the one-room Spurr School in Colrain. “We had no electricity, no running water and no indoor plumbing. There was also only one way in and out of the building. To reach the outhouse, we had to go out the front of the building, walk along the side and down a short path to the little ‘privy.’ Snow and ice made for hazardous walking conditions.”

A step up from the one-room schoolhouse was the “consolidated school,” which combined one-room schoolhouses into a two- or four-room building. Belden Merims of Shelburne Falls attended the two-room South School in Colrain in 1946, when it still had eight grades, four grades in each room. She writes, “My third-grade class of three sat in one row, beside the fourth grade, so we could hear what they were being taught, read what they read. As Alice Hebard Lively, 93, of Greenfield, said, ‘They were learning without knowing it.’” Both Lively and her mother, Maude Hebard, taught in one-room schoolhouses in Colrain.

Merims recalls, “We rode to school in a ‘woody’ station wagon driven by a character named Fred Hall, who kept a rifle in the front seat occasionally. If he saw a woodchuck, he’d stop the car and fire out the passenger window. It was another world.”

It was a world that was fast changing.

By the 1950s, regional schools were built to serve many towns, and what a culture shock these institutions could be for students with their cafeterias, gymnasiums and busy hallways full of new faces.

The year 1957 saw the opening of two regional high schools: the Ralph C. Mahar Regional School serving Orange, New Salem, Wendell and Petersham, and Pioneer Valley Regional School, for Northfield, Bernardston, Warwick and Leyden.

Lost to progress were high schools like Powers Institute in Bernardston, which opened its doors in 1857. Louella Atherton of Bernardston said she came to have a lot of respect for teachers of that time. “I didn’t appreciate until much later how much they gave up to teach us. They usually made about a thousand or so dollars a year. They had no life of their own. They would teach, coach, run play groups, etc.” Not to view the past through rose-colored glasses, it should be noted that P.I. didn’t get indoor plumbing until 1936.

After issues that led to the school being condemned and then repaired, Powers Institute closed its doors permanently 100 years later, coinciding with the opening of PVRS. Still, the school’s voluminous archive of yearbooks, class photos and ephemera and its staged schoolroom attract visitors to the Bernardston Historical Society museum every summer.

The pupils of those schools of yore seem to have mostly fond memories of their schooldays. You can read all about them in a supplement published in today’s paper, called In Business Since. Enjoy, and then contribute your own memories because we’ll publish School Days, Part II, next year. It is a seemingly bottomless lode of lore.




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