When school was just a room

Explore the beginnings of American education at the Schocopee schoolhouse

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  • Interpreter Shannon Baird at the Schocopee Schoolhouse in Milford (Photo by Ginny Privitar)

  • The pot-bellied stoves that kept students warm in one-room schoolhouses were also a fire hazard (Photo by Ginny Privitar)

  • An early class supposed to have gone to the Schocopee School (Photo by Ginny Privitar)

  • Disciplinary can (it looks too fragile to have done much good!) (Photo by Ginny Privitar)

  • Closet at the schoolhouse (Photo by Ginny Privitar)

  • Individual student slate board (Photo by Ginny Privitar)

Last teacher's brother hands down Lincoln flag

Jean Struthers Newell was one of the last teachers at the Schocopee School. She lived to be 104 and died in 1988.
Newell was the daughter of Jeannie (stage name Jennie) Gourlay Struthers, an actress who appeared in the play “Our American Cousin,” which Lincoln attended at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C., on April 14, 1865. John Wilkes Booth shot the President that night as he watched the play.
The Schocopee Schoolhouse’s ties to the Lincoln Flag at the historical society's museum, The Columns.
According to Pike County Historical Society director Lori Strelecki, the Lincoln Flag, which was used to cradle the dying president’s head after he was shot, was kept by Thomas Gourlay, an actor and part-time stage manager who worked at the theater. He, in turn, gave it to his daughter, Jeannie.
Jeannie later moved to Milford. After her death in 1928, the flag went to her son, Vivian Paul Struthers, who donated it to the Pike County Historical Society’s Museum, the Columns, in 1954.

By Ginny Privitar

— The red wooden one-room schoolhouse sits on a stone foundation and seems impossibly small. The last survivor of its kind in the county, it was purchased by the Pike County Historical Society in 1975, taken apart piece by piece, and reassembled next to the Apple Valley Restaurant in Milford. Artifacts were gathered, and the schoolhouse, originally located at the intersection of Firetower and Schocopee Roads, was opened to the public as an historic site in 1976.

One of the outhouses was also moved. Originally there were two: one for boys, and one for girls.

Humble schoolhouses like this were the foundation of our educational system, particularly in rural areas and in the ever-westward moving frontier.

“In an age before electronics, calculators, telephones, radio, television, movies, video and computers, people needed even more than today the skills of reading and writing," said Ken Baumel of Milford. "The basic art of communication between people depended heavily on the art of letter-writing, rather than the telephone. It was in the one-room school house that the basic skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic were instilled.”

Baumel insists the students received a good education in part because of the small class size.

“Despite the crudity and simplicity of the one-room schoolhouse, students entered life no less prepared than today’s students, and perhaps more prepared, though the technological demands and knowledge base were less than today’s needs," he said.

The date of its construction is uncertain — perhaps the 1850s or 1860s. There may have been a building, perhaps even this one, on the site as early as 1830.

Much of the building is original, including its walls, windows, stove, and desks. Some of the floorboards had to be replaced. Most of the furnishings are also original to the school, or to other one-room schoolhouses, all except for the exhibit cases, the dunce cap, the wastebasket and — of course — the fresh apple on the teacher’s desk.

Schocopee was an active schoolhouse until 1907, when the school-age population outgrew it. It was electrified and became a community building used for voting and town meetings. Gifford Pinchot and his family of Grey Towers came here to vote when he was governor. In 1946 the population once again outgrew the structure, which was closed and neglected for decades until saved by the historical society.

A welcome break from farm chores

With sunlight streaming in through the windows, the schoolroom is charming. Shannon Baird, volunteer interpreter for the Pike County Historical Society, described the school and its history during a recent visit.

The pot-bellied stove in the rear was welcome but also a danger. Many little schoolhouses caught fire.

The furnishings have a simple beauty. The wooden desks have the patina of age; on them are displayed old-time schoolbooks. Next to one text is a quill pen that students would dip in the inkwell. Handwriting was taught in those days. The desks, with their attached seats, once had beautiful wooden side supports that were later replaced with curved wrought iron supports.

In one corner at the front is a “recitation bench,” where a student would sit while reciting a lesson or perhaps a poem for the teacher and the class. On the bench is an example of a student’s small individual slate for writing. Not every student had one, and they might be shared. Students also shared books.

On the front and side walls are the original “blackboards” — actual wooden boards painted with black paint, which were serviceable for the task. Pictures of Presidents Washington and Lincoln adorn the walls.

A display case, a later addition, also holds many interesting items, some from this very school: books, a slate board used by students, and dippers used to get a drink of water.

On the wall near the teacher’s desk hangs a rather flimsy-looking “discipline cane.” In an earlier age that embraced corporal punishment, teachers used the whip to show misbehaving students the error of their ways. Near the cane is a tall stool on which sits a paper “dunce cap." The unlucky student who did not know the answer would have to put it on and sit there, embarrassed, in front of his classmates. It was a different time, and chances are, most students accepted it as the way things were done. In fact, some of our older readers may remember parochial school teachers who wielded a yardstick or a ruler instead of a cane.

But school could be a happy place, too. It was a break from home and farm chores, and a chance to learn and improve one’s station in life. Abraham Lincoln, who gazes from the wall, attended just such a school.

A community would sometimes choose its most educated person to be a teacher. They had a tough job. Teachers had more than one grade, giving instruction to students age 6 and up. They would work with each grade level in turn, teaching lessons appropriate to each. A teacher might sit reading with a few second-graders, for example, while older students worked on their lessons.

Female teachers especially were expected to be models of propriety. They could not marry, and they could not see "gentlemen callers." It was the teacher’s responsibility to bring in firewood and water before the day started.

The schoolhouse will be open and staffed with an interpreter from noon to 4 p.m. daily from Friday through Sunday through the end of August. Stepping inside is to go back in time.

The only thing missing is a student sitting at a desk.

Editor's note: Thanks to Ed Metzger, owner of the Apple Valley Restaurant who offered his land for a permanent site, and the Pike County Historical Society, this last one-room schoolhouse in Pike County was preserved and moved to its present location, next to the Apple Valley Restaurant on Route 6, on the ede of Milford. The schoolhouse was donated by Kenneth Greening, who owned it when it was acquired by the historical. It is managed by the Pike County Historical Society.

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