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Dunce caps and lunch pails: Young and old learn about one-room schoolhouses

A group of modern youngsters in T-shirts, shorts and sneakers stared at the wide-brimmed straw hat that boys wore to school in the 1890s, chuckled a little at the ruffled, flowered cotton bonnet that girls wore, and murmured at the challenge of fastening up the high-buttoned leather shoes they all would have worn.

Their amused reactions to volunteer Karen Sherwood's stories about life in a one-room schoolhouse during the free Family Night program at the Niagara County History Center changed to shock when they heard one more fact about school life in that era: The teacher might have lived with each of their families in turn.

When Sherwood, dressed in a floral full-length dress, said, "Your teacher might go home with you after school!" there were audible gasps and plenty of wide eyes among the young pupils.

True to its name, the Family Night crowd ranged from youngsters to young parents to seniors, including close to a dozen people who raised their hands to show that they themselves had attended a one-room schoolhouse.

Sherwood, who taught various elementary grades, ranging from second to sixth, in Lockport for 33 years, now works as a substitute teacher in the district. She also works on the family farm owned and operated by her brother, is a Civil War re-enactor, volunteers at the Niagara County Historical Society and serves on the board of trustees of its History Center, where the Family Night programs are held.

Elizabeth Peirson Bell Fraser, great-grandmother of Karen Sherwood, preserved family documents and photos and inspired Sherwood to understand and share history. In this photo from her scrapbook, Elizabeth Peirson Bell Fraser is dressed in the fashions of an earlier era. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Her portrayal of an 1890s "schoolmarm" is rooted in her own family history. Her great-grandmother, Elizabeth Peirson Bell Fraser, who was born around 1872, was a schoolteacher at the Cobblestone School on the corner of Hamm and Transit Road in Lockport. She also made a strong impression on her great-granddaughter.

"She is the person I like to emulate because she lived a long life and I got to know her. She died when I was 11 or 12,"said Sherwood. "She kept the genealogy, and I got to know a lot about my family because of her. She was the historian in our family."

Before class, Sherwood showed off two precious possessions -- a small copybook used by her great-great-great grandfather Thomas Peirson in 1812, when he was 13, and another one completed by an unnamed family member in 1847. The books are filled with astonishingly graceful penmanship. Tiny, precise writing in rich brown ink filled page after page, with ornate, flowing script and neat lettering in complicated fonts setting off chapters on such subjects as stratified rocks and the Greek alphabet. Those copybooks were preserved and passed down by Elizabeth Peirson Bell Fraser.

Karen Sherwood holds the copybook created by her ancestor Thomas Peirson when he was a schoolboy. Peirson's 1812 copybook, as well as another unsigned family copybook from 1847, are filled with neat and complex handwriting. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

"When I think of Grandma Fraser, I think of her preserving history and family information, and I hope someone else will preserve and pass things along," said Sherwood.

Before Sherwood, with her clarion clear teacher's voice and encouraging manner, even called her class to order with a handbell that her great-grandmother used in her classroom, youngsters and seniors alike anticipated the program.

"They were really excited when they heard they were going to get to work with ink and pens," said Sara Roberts, leader of Girl Scout Troop 70268, which meets in St. Mark's Church in North Tonawanda. Roberts was one of the adults accompanying seven 9-year-old Girl Scouts.

The girls had already examined the artifacts on Sherwood's table, which included a glass ink well, a wooden pencil box, an enameled metal lunch pail with a tight-fitting top and a selection of replica McGuffey Readers that children used.

Alexandria Piechowski, left, Meredith Roberts, center, and Nora Davidson, right, all of Girl Scout Troop 70268 in North Tonawanda, look over some artifacts from a 19th century a one-room schoolhouse during the Family Night in the Niagara History Center in Lockport. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

The scouts had already been impressed by the row of tiny buttons on the shoes. "They can't imagine doing up all those buttons on those shoes every morning when they got dressed," said Roberts. "They said they would be exhausted before they even got to school."

Stephanie Wrobel of Lockport was there with her children, Victor Irizarry, 11; Charlotte Wrobel, 8; and Sebastian Wrobel, 7. They were accompanied by Wrobel's best friend, Jenelle Kuntz of North Tonawanda and her son, Lucas Davies, 9.

Wrobel said she started attending Family Nights at the History Center two years ago after her daughter begged to be taken to a program. Now she not only brings her children to the Family Night events, but she goes to hear the center's speakers, too, if she isn't working.

"I like to learn about local history -- I'm kind of a nerd," said Wrobel. "It's good for the kids, too, to learn about history," said Kuntz.

The children were called forward to sit in a circle on the floor at Sherwood's feet, then divided into boys and girls, as would have been done in an 1890s classroom. Sherwood then handed out paper apple cut-outs with phrases written on them and asked the youngsters to decide whether they phrase on the apple happened in the 1890s, now, or in both eras. While it was clear that computers and tablets were clearly of the modern era, the youngsters agreed that kids in the 1890s probably enjoyed seeing their friends at school, the same as they do today.

Karen Sherwood shows off a bonnet that girls would have worn to school in the one-room schoolhouses of the 1890s. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Eyes widened again at the apple that read, "Discipline could be a dunce cap or a rap on the knuckles with a ruler" and the explanation that the class's drinking water would have been dipped from a stout, dark wood bucket and then sipped from a common cup. One girl summed up the reaction: "Ewww."

The entire crowd enjoyed the "Rules for teachers" of the era, which included an average pay of $20 a month and the fact that male teachers could be given one night off a week to go courting. The children looked baffled until Sherwood explained, "Courting was like dating."

A list of punishments had some older folks nodding their heads: A pupil who was tardy five minutes had to stay after school for an hour; whacks with a rod couldbe administered for throwing something in class, chewing tobacco or spitting -- "that rule was directed at the boys, of course," said Sherwood.

Education in that era was not mandatory, said Sherwood, so if a parent needed a child to stay home and help with chores or farm work, that was done. Two terms were held, with May through August attended by young children and girls. Boys were more likely to attend classes November through April. But after eighth grade, almost all went to work, on the family farm or in a trade.

Teaching was one of the few respectable jobs open to young women, and many began to help in classrooms right out of eighth grade. Still, their teaching careers might be short, because women were not allowed to teach once they married.

There was one exception -- during the Civil War, with schoolmasters off fighting, older women might be called upon to teach, said Sherwood. In fact, as a Civil War re-enactor with Reynolds' Battery, 1st New York Light Artillery, Sherwood portrays a farm wife who returns to teaching while her husband is off at war. "That shows what we were doing here at the home front," she said, "But it was very rare for a married woman to be able to return to the classroom."

"You probably heard your grandparents say, 'I had to walk a mile to school every day in all kids of weather!' but some of them, when they actually see the artifacts, they realize how difficult things were," said Sherwood. "This bucket and that towel is where you're going to wash your hands, and we're all going to wash our hands in that same bucket of water."

Boys and girls who examined the leather high-buttoned shoes children wore to school in the late 1800s were impressed by all the buttons. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

The children got a chance to use chalk to write on handsome wood-framed slates that were made by volunteer and History Center Trustee Michael Allport. Adults dipped fine-pointed steel-nib pens into pots of red ink Sherwood had made by boiling pokeberries. She also makes an authentic brown ink by boiling walnut shells with a bit of rusty iron.

"I have found that even adults enjoy how neat it is to write with one of these steel-nibbed pens," said Sherwood. "Many adults have never done anything like this. Some of the older folks in the audience remember fountain pens, so there are smiles on their faces. The kids think it's pretty cool, although sometimes they get frustrated because they get a big glob of ink."

Ruth Hall of Lockport reminded Sherwood that when nib pens were used, soft pieces of felt were also provided to wipe the excess ink off the pen and keep the ink flowing smoothly on the nib. "They were two or three layers of felt, put together like a pad," she said.

Family Night programs, all of which have a Niagara County emphasis, are free, with a small donation requested for the light supper of pizza, bottled water and brownies. Registration is required in advance by calling 434-7433. Future programs include Farms and Apple Orchards on Oct. 17; Women Get the Vote in New York State on Nov. 21; and Christmas in the 1950s on Dec. 19.

"The Family Night programs are popular," said Historical Society Assistant Director Ann Marie Linnabery. "Most of the programs draw 20 to 40 people, and we have a little over 40 people here tonight."

Sharing history in a way that entertains adults and impresses youngsters is a joy for which Sherwood gladly makes time in her busy life. Having spoken to 30- and 40-year-old former students about incidents in her classroom that made an impression on them -- mostly incidents she had long since forgotten -- she said, "You never know what is going to set off a spark in a youngster."

"I think it's very important for children to learn about their history, and to know where we came from," said Sherwood, whose favorite subject to teach was Social Studies. "Every one of us had ancestors who went though all of this, who struggled through the Civil War, or who struggled to come over here, or were immigrants who were slighted. But today children are not being aware of this. It's important to me, I share it with my grandchildren and I hope to share it with other children as well."

email: aneville@buffnews.com

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