Written and contributed (including photo above)
by Peter C. Betz, Perth Town Historian.

Sometimes just one old document can provide us with a comprehensive view of the past. Such a trip back in time was made possible recently when a member of the Perth Historical Society loaned me the 1903-04 School Register Book for Perth Rural School #2, commonly known as the “Pine Woods School.” No one driving past this building today on Noonan Road in the Town of Perth would ever recognize it as the 1850’s era “common school” it originally was, for today it has been converted into a thoroughly modern home. The term “common school” did not mean anything bad: it was simply a term of classification that meant this was a free, public school that was open to everyone and one which conformed to the “common”, state-approved curriculum of education.

For some unexplainable reason, this 1903-04 Register Book was never turned in to the State Education Department at the end of the school year as it should have been. But someone’s mistake in 1903 is our gain today because this old book can tell us much about what it was like to be both a student and a teacher in a rural part of Fulton County almost 100 years ago.

The Register Book was more than just an attendance record of the school year. It was used daily by the teacher, Ms. Mabel E. Blood of Gloversville. Ms. Blood had complete responsibility for the education of 14 students whose ages ranged from five to thirteen years. She was able to be hired as a teacher because she was a “licensed teacher”, meaning she held a certificate to teach from one of the New York State Teacher Training Academies which existed before today’s modern SUNY system. Ms. Blood was therefore issued a teaching contract for one year (fall 1903 through spring 1904) by the school Trustee. In order to keep her license, she was occasionally required too attend a weeklong refresher conference or “institute” to update her skills.

For all her hard work, Ms. Blood earned a monthly salary of $34.00, and the method of her payment was much simpler than today. The payment process began with the Register Book because the book contained a page of coupons, one for each month. At the end of each month, a coupon was torn out of the book, signed by both Ms. Blood and the Trustee and submitted to the Town Clerk for cash payment. Part of the coupon remained in the Register as a statement of money owed, and the other half was used by the Town Clerk as proof of payment.

According to the register, the school year ran more like college terms of today. School began September 7th, 1903 and ran straight through until December 24th. The only days off in the Fall term were election day, during which event the schoolhouse was used as a voting place, and Thanksgiving Day. But at the end of the term on December 24th, both Ms. Blood and her students enjoyed a one month vacation before the Spring term started on January 25th. Holidays in the Spring term included Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays, the Monday and Tuesday following Easter Sunday and a half-day on Arbor Day. The Arbor Day event was not really time off however, because Arbor Day was an important occasion in those times. On Arbor Day the students were expected to put on a program honoring the occasion and the event was attended by parents, the Trustee and various other guests. As the Register put it, every school was required to demonstrate “exercises that shall tend to encourage the planting, protection and preservation of trees and shrubs”. At the conclusion of these exercises, the students planted three trees on the schoolhouse grounds and were then excused early.

While we hear stories of old-time rural schools almost never closing because of bad weather and tales of half-frozen students struggling through deep snowdrifts to get to school, Perth’s Pine Woods School was s closed for an entire week in February 1904. Ms. Blood entered her explanation in the Register Book by simply writing, “School closed on account of bad weather”. The school was also closed for “Institute Week” the third week of May. This was the week that Ms. Blood and hundreds of teachers from all over the state gathered together to attend the re-training seminars required of them to keep their licenses.

Ms. Blood’s $34.00 per month salary entitled her to total annual earnings of $272.00 for the teaching year, nor were there any fringe benefits such as medical coverage or pension contributions. About her only ‘fringe benefit’ was the opportunity to keep warm in the winter beside the large schoolhouse stove as various nearby farmers contracted with the town to provide an ample wood supply for the winter. Perhaps she also enjoyed the high quality drinking water: a fresh bucket was drawn up each day by the strongest of the older students from a fine spring (still in use today) located down in the woods just across the road.

And what about the students? Ms. Blood had complete charge of fourteen that year. According to the Register, she had three five-year-olds, three six-year-olds, one who was nine, four who were eleven and three thirteen-year-olds. One wonders today how a rural school teacher with limited education and training compared to today, nevertheless managed to educate children of such diverse age groups, all in the same room and all at the same time. What, for example, were those five and six year-olds doing while Ms. Blood worked with the thirteen-year-olds, or visa versa?

Ms. Blood had other responsibilities besides teaching, and these were all clearly spelled out in the Register. She was responsible for the U.S. Flag being displayed at the front of the school daily, according to the National Flag Law, which declared that “It shall be the duty of the school authorities of every public school to purchase a flag, flag staff and the necessary appliances to display such flag upon or near the building during school hours”. And under the New York State Physiology Law, she was responsible to teach, each week for ten weeks, a serious of lessons on “the nature of alcoholic drinks and other narcotics and their effects o the human system”.

At least Ms. Blood was not responsible for the school privy. The Register declared that the school Trustees were to provide privies “at least two in number, which shall be entirely separated from each other, and having separate means of access, and the approaches thereto shall be by a substantial fence not less than seven feet high, and it shall be the duty of the Trustees to keep the same in a clean and wholesome condition.” Trustees were elected by popular vote on election day and their duties besides cleaning the privy were to hire the teacher, who could not be a relative and could not be hired for more than one year at a time, and, if necessary, to fire the teacher if they determined her conduct or teaching ability was inadequate. Trustees were also required to periodically examine the condition of the schoolhouse, its chairs, desks, stove, etc., and to address any matters the teacher thought it necessary to inform them of. They arranged contracts with local farmers for cutting and delivery of seasoned hardwood for the school stove and were authorized to spend up to $200.00 annually for the over-all upkeep of the building and could level a district tax on the local population if additional funds were required. The Trustees were required by law to fill out and sign an Annual Report which was in the back of the Register Book and send it on to Albany. They were even required in this report to state how many trees were planted each year on Arbor Day.

According to this report, the Pine Woods School also maintained a small Library of 25 books. This collection was inventoried at the end of the school year and all books were accounted for, their estimated total value being $25.00. The schoolhouse land was then appraised and it was listed as being worth $50.00. The building itself was valued at $600.00. At this time, there was only one Trustee, Mr. Jay Buchanan, a prominent Perth farmer who lived within waking distance of the schoolhouse. He was a graduate of Amsterdam Normal (High) School and as such was highly qualified for the Trusteeship. It was to him Ms. Blood was authorized according to Education Law to turn to if anything went wrong, like running out of wood in the middle of winter or if the Privy needed a good clean out in hot weather.

It is very unlikely Ms. Blood was able to go home to Gloversville after school except on weekends. She would have boarded during the week with one of several farm families whose homes were close to the schoolhouse. She would either have paid the farm couple for her room and board or might have worked out an acceptable barter arrangement, such as giving extra instruction to the farmer’s children or assisting the farmer’s wife in some of her necessary domestic chores. When she herself needed chores done around the schoolhouse, she might elect to pay one of the older boys some small fee such as twenty-five cents a week, but that would be money coming out of her own pocket. Duties of such a student-helper likely included daily tasks such as hanging and lowering the flag, going down into the woods across the road to the artesian spring to fetch a large pail of cold spring water, bringing firewood inside from the attached wood shed and stoking the stove, replacing oil in the lamps which might be used on a dark winter day as well as when the schoolhouse held evening town meetings.

And what, if on some pleasant Spring day, a student or two might take it into their heads to ‘go fishin’ instead of attending school? This was not a problem, for all Ms. Blood had to do was inform the local Attendance Officer. This officer had the right, according to Education Law contained in the Register, to “arrest without any warrant any child between eight and sixteen years of age found away from its home who then is a truant from instruction.” Furthermore, this Attendance Officer “shall forthwith deliver a child so arrested either to a parent or to the teacher.” Interestingly, the name of Perth’s Attendance Office was Frederick Kruger. Imagine being a truant and having Freddie Kruger after you!

We will never know why this particular 1903-04 School Register was not sent on its way to Albany in June of 1904 as it should have been, but the fact that it was not and has been carefully preserved within the Town of Perth for almost one hundred years, allows us this opportunity to share a glimpse of local rural education as it once existed in a far simpler time.

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Copyright © 2004 Peter Betz, Jeanette Shiel
All Rights Reserved.

Last updated Tuesday, 13-May-2008 13:10:15 PDT