When homes began to be established in St. Helena, the need for a school arose, naturally. The exact date of the building of the first schoolhouse cannot be learned. However, it is known that the structure was located in the valley on the west side of the northern highway leading toward Castile. The building was used later for a barn.
The school district was Number Four, at first, but later was changed to Number Ten in Castile Township.
Since the village’s plans were made about 1820, it would appear that the schoolhouse was included. The first school building was used until the summer of 1856, when a large, commodious structure, located on the south side of Main Street, was completed. Philander L. Merithew, an early settler and a carpenter and joiner, built the new school building, as well as several St. Helena houses. Mr. Merithew died in his valley home in 1873 and his wife, Lydia, passed on in 1890 at the age of eighty-eight years. Both were buried in the little cemetery on the western hillside. They were the maternal grandparents of Mrs. Alice Sheer of Warsaw and Otto Clark of Oakland. When Mrs. Merithew was a young girl, she enjoyed riding her pony to Gardeau Flats. She carried fruit to Mary Jemison and her family, and became a friend of the Indians.
As today, in the olden times there was a spirit of rivalry between school districts to erect the most attractive and complete building, and District Number Four at St. Helena was no exception. The new building was a well-proportioned building with eight full-length windows, each having sturdy wooden blinds. The front entrance was surrounded by carved pillars and ornate trimmings. The four corners of the schoolhouse had the same handsome style of architecture. On the end of the shingled roof facing Main Street was a picturesque belfry, topped by a slender spire, pointing skyward. Inside the belfry hung the sweet-sounding bell.
The outside of the building was painted white at all times and the blinds were green.
The front door led into the entry, beyond which was the main schoolroom. The seats and desks were made of polished grained wood. Each seat held two pupils. The desks had sunken inkwells on top, and the usual space for books underneath. The teacher’s desk, on a platform extending across the south end of the room, was of polished wood, too, and had a sloping top which opened to reveal a large compartment.
There were two school terms of sixteen weeks each, summer and winter, so called. The summer term ran from April through July, and the winter term from September through December. Vacation was held during the coldest months of the year, when illness and deep snow were most apt to prevent the children from attending school. There was no heated bus service in those days!
The scholars were not graded, but were first primer, first reader, and so forth, students. Anyone between the ages of five and twenty-one could attend school and many made use of the opportunity, for one reason or another. Mrs. Belle Merithew Clark Piper attended school at St. Helena, as a little girl, when young people, actually grown men and women, came during the winter term from the farms in the valley and on the hillsides to swell the registration to ninety. There were no seats for the overflow students, so they sat on the benches around the sides of the room and on the edge of the low platform. They kept their books and slates on the floor under the benches.
Those were very rugged days for St. Helena teachers. Often the venture became too difficult after a few weeks’ struggle and then a brave new recruit attempted to conquer and instruct the unruly scholars. That procedure was repeated five or six times during some of the winter terms. The situation was not helped by the fact that the teacher was generally younger than the oldest boys and girls.
However, all was not unpleasant for the teachers during their stay in the valley and many good times at parties, dances, and other social affairs were enjoyed. A story is told of the popularity of a certain teacher. One night, a spring freshet threatened to flood the house near the river where the young lady was boarding. Unconcerned with the safety of the other occupants of the dwelling, a local swain rescued the teacher by way of her bedroom window, and carried her the full length of Main Street to the schoolhouse, which was not in danger of being flooded!
The St. Helena children learned well their lessons and enjoyed playing the ever-popular school games, indoor and outdoor, from “Fruit Basket” to “Fox and Geese.”
In the autumn, one favorite recess pastime was to hurry across the field to Milton Burnap’s cider mill. There, two by two, the children sat astride a filled barrel and sipped the thick, sweet fluid through grain straws, which they had hastily gathered from the stack as they passed by. Perhaps that little game was the foundation for the jingle,
“The prettiest girl I ever saw
Was sipping cider through a straw.”
One summer evening when life seemed a bit dull to a St. Helena schoolmarm, she dressed herself to represent a destitute gypsy woman, attired the two little daughters of the family with whom she was boarding to portray neglected waifs and, with them, visited the valley homes to try to solicit alms “for her poor starving children.” All three of the participants performed so well and their disguises were so perfect, that the kindly people gave them food and pennies, much to the chagrin of the little girls’ real parents.
By 1895, the average weekly wage of the teachers was $8.75, and the district received the magnificent sum of $100 each year from the state.
Trustees were given the “power and responsibility of establishing rules for government and discipline in their respective schools.” The Compulsory Education Law went into effect in 1895 and truant officers were advised “to combine firmness with gentleness, discrimination with circumstances.”
A person entering the teaching service for the first time could teach one year on a so-called third-grade certificate, which was secured by passing a written examination. The only other requirement was that the applicant must be sixteen years old. If the person desired to remain longer in the service, a second-grade certificate was obtained by passing another examination. The same procedure was followed in securing a first-grade certificate, except that the applicant had three trials in attempting to pass the last test which, naturally, was more difficult. The first-grade certificate was renewable, also.
The following is an incomplete list of those who taught school at St. Helena. It has been impossible to secure records before 1870. While all of the names are not in chronological order, an attempt has been made to be as accurate as possible. The first known teacher was Elizabeth Walker, of Oakland, who taught in St. Helena about 1870. Later, she was the wife of Rev. Bela Poste, a Methodist Protestant minister at Brooks Grove, who served the St. Helena charge. Her grandson, Donald Edward Poste, of Perry and Buffalo, is District Passenger Agent for the Chicago, Duluth and Georgian Bay Transit Company, Next, in 1878, Edgar Rugg, and in 1880, Ella Chilson (Mrs. Everett Piper). After Miss Chilson came Marietta Barnes (Mrs. John Chase), Fred Danforth, Edward Quick, Jennie Howell, Wealthy Burr, Susie Kellogg (Mrs. Earl Kingsley), Lillian Austin (Mrs. Jacob Democker), Ella Beardsley (Mrs. George Piper), Frank Ackerman, Charles Owen, Marguerite Ward Sillman, Eugene H. Ward, Ida Paul Wilner, Lucy Holmes (Mrs, Elkanah Sanford), Alida Chase (Mrs. Jesse Hurlburt, Castile), Ida Bennett (Mrs. John Holmes), Gertrude Brainard, Effie Clute, Emma Felch, Bert Thomson, Simeon Wells, Edgar Sharp, Kathryn Marsh (Mrs. Clarence Holmes), Mildred Marsh, Kate Phaylan, Margaret O’Donnell, Claude Potter, Victor Barnum, Mary Duggan, Dora Galentine (Mrs. Edward Galton, Nunda), Alice Parker (Mrs, George Davis, Arcade), Mrs. Bradley, Edith Pfaff (Mrs. Otto Clark, Oakland), Marian Chase Marinda, Hattie Kellogg, Clarence Morey, Ruth Phelps, Silver Springs, S—- Fouan?, Mars. Harry Everett, Castile, Amy Robson, Mrs. Ralph Durie, Silver Springs, and Deevier? Wernley who apparently was St. Helenas final schoolteacher, in 1919. The last scholars were Arnold Hopkins; Glen, George, and Frances Streeter; and Virginia Teeple. 1)Deceased
As far as can be learned, Mrs. Alida Chase Hurlburt is the oldest St. Helena teacher now living. She is eighty-five and she and her husband, Jesse, are spending the sunset years of their lives at the Norton Nursing Home, Castile, where they enjoy reminiscing with friends about the olden days. Mrs. Hurlburt taught at St. Helena from 1890 to 1893, and her weekly wages were $5.50, from which she paid her board and room expenses, Besides the pupils mentioned elsewhere she remembers Enos Alcott, Amelia and Merris Nichols, Gaylord and Norman Phelps, and Rollie Wood. She recalls how the clear, sweet notes of the school bell echoed across the valley from hillside to hillside as she rang it twice each day to beckon the children to “come and learn.’
Mrs. Dora Galentlne Galton of Nunda, who taught in the valley in 1901-02, lists Orlo Orsburn, Phyletus and McKinley Phelps as being her scholars in addition to some already mentioned.
Mrs. Alice Parker Davis, of Arcade, who was the 1906-07 teacher, began her work at St. Helena when she was sixteen years old. Although very young, she enjoyed her sojourn in the valley and relates many interesting and amusing incidents of that time. She enjoyed, especially, the beautiful woodlands, the peaceful river and the pretty bridge on which she would stand and imagine she was sailing out to sea on a big ship. Evenings, she visited the area homes where genuine hospitality reigned supreme. Mrs. Davis received $11.00 as a weekly salary during her first term, but offered to teach for $10.00 a week during the second term, since she had only two pupils and her board and room costs were just $2.00 each week. Times have changed, methinks!
In 1908, the school term was thirty-two weeks and the average weekly pay was $10.00, recalls Mrs. Edith Pfaff Clark of Oakland. She had two scholars at St. Helena, Donald and Sewell Orsburn, both of whom were too ill to attend for several weeks when the term began. Nevertheless, the teacher had to stay at the schoolhouse during the appointed hours in order to receive her salary.
Mrs. Sylvia Florlan Everett, of Castile, the 1916-17 teacher, remembers high water and floods during her stay in the valley.
Mrs. Amie Robson Durfee, of Silver Springs, was very lonesome and homesick in 1917-18, when she taught at St. Helena, but learned to appreciate the beauty and wonder of nature and bird life while there.
Slowly, but surely, the little village’s school life was drawing to a close because there were only a few children left in the valley and it became very costly for the remaining taxpayers to maintain the school. About 1920, they voted to abolish “District Number Ten” and contracted with the nearest district, at the Five Corners, to allow the St. Helena children to attend sessions there.
Shortly afterward, the big white school building was sold to Harry Alcox and Alexander Armour, who razed it and drew the lumber to Castile. The timeworn furnishings of the schoolhouse were “scattered to the seven winds” with the exception of the teacher’s desk, which was purchased by the late Harold Harrison, District Superintendent of Schools. As a memorial to him, Mrs. Harrison and her sons have given the desk to the Castile Historical Museum. This gift is a welcome and cherished addition to the museum’s “St. Helena Corner.” There is much speculation as to its age and the tales it could tell. Suffice it to say, the desk is a most important link between the past and the present in the fascinating story of the School by the Genesee.
“Singing School” at St. Helena, New York
St. Helena was the community center for a second type of school which afforded benefit and pleasure to its pupils and the entire countryside.
That was the singing school taught by E. Palmer Phelps of Castile. The large class of young people met on the long winter evenings in the schoolhouse, once or twice each week. Seated around the huge round-oak stove and aided by light from candles and kerosene lamps, the pupils learned the true fundamentals of good singing. After extensive practice, evening concerts were given in the Castile, Brooks Grove, and Ridge churches, as well as at St. Helena.
For the church concerts, Mr. Phelps’ singing schools at all the places were combined and real social affairs were enjoyed. Special features were added for the “Grand Concerts,” such as Miss Lottie Snow, contralto soloist from Buffalo’s Trinity Methodist Church; the great violinist, Professor Arthur L. Chase; and a twelve-year-old child prodigy, Master Johnny George, from the Ridge, near Mt. Morris. The April 11, 1879, Castilian states that “his execution upon the violin is marvelous.” That same winter a Castilian article stated that “the social held at Mr. Phelps’ home on the Upper Reservation Road was a grand success with one hundred twenty-five young people present. Three sleighloads of singing-class members came from ‘over the river’ to attend the party.”
Mrs. Laura Kellogg Willey, who celebrated her eighty-eighth birthday recently at her home near the Ridge, recalls many happy occasions when she was a member of the singing school. In later years, the “child prodigy,” Johnny George, married Mrs. Willey’s sister, Grace Kellogg.
Source: Anderson, Mildred L. H, and Marian P. Willey. St. Helena, Ghost Town of the Genesee, 1797-1954. Castile, N.Y, 1954. Print.