The one-room, one-teacher school is the most well known and loved school structure in the United States. Reports of these schools go back to 1745 before we were a nation. It seems as if every town in the country had one or more. Many of our nation’s leaders began their education in one-room schools including five presidents, one of whom was Lincoln, and two of the five also served as teachers. Several Noble Prize winners, numerous authors, and other cultural icons are numbered among one-room school graduates.
Our Essex, New York Township is somewhat unusual in that all but one of its one-room schoolhouses is still in existence. The most well known, indeed nationally known, is the Boquet School which is located three miles south of the Essex Hamlet on Route 22. The locals call it the “Octagonal School” because of its eight-sided stone construction. Because of its uniqueness it has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1824, William Ross was a successful Boquet entrepreneur who built and operated a woolen mill, machine shops and even a foundry producing rolled iron used for making nails. When the Boquet hamlet grew into over 50 homes with 400 residents, Mr. Ross felt it was time for Boquet to have its own school. Mr. Ross charged his mill superintendent, Benjamin Gilbert, to design and build a schoolhouse using money and land donated by Mr. Ross. Using mill employees and local stones, Mr. Gilbert completed the school in 1826. No one seems certain as to why the eight sided building form was selected.
The walls are made of three foot thick stone with six 20 paned windows supplying light. The school was served by outside privies while a large ceramic jug held the drinking water supply. Initially heat was supplied by a large wood burning stove. During the winter the youngest students sat closest to the stove.
While there were many teachers, it seemed that the usual tenure was about two years. Recollections from Mrs. Leila Wells who taught there in 1907 and 1908 seem to be the earliest found. For convenience, she roomed with the Whittemores at their home next to the school. In a March 22, 1973 article written by Betsy Tisdale for the Valley News, Dennis Wells talks about his 1922 teacher, Mrs. Charlotte Fairchild, who drove her horse and buggy to the school each day from Essex. In 1924 she was succeeded by Mrs. Jean Van Ornam who used an automobile. The last teacher before the school closed was Geraldine Sayward who taught there from 1950 to 1952 and ended her career at the Willsboro Central School in 1973. Another well known teacher was Mrs. Charlotte Pultz who taught in both Boquet and Essex, and who in turn was a teacher when the Essex School was closed.
School life at the Octagonal school appears to be similar to that of any other one-room school. The single teacher used recitation, reporting, learning groups and older students to mentor the younger (though sometimes the reverse occurred.) According to Flora Jerdo Gardner, in the Tisdale article, older students brought wood in from a shed to heat the school, filled the drinking jugs, and did general maintenance work. Younger students had tasks as well: cleaning the blackboard, pounding felt erasers, arranging books, sweeping around their desks and other chores. Obviously the ancient school dictum, “A place for everything and everything in its place” held sway. Research of one-room school experiences reveals that learning and working procedures were similar throughout the country.
Open classroom, student mentoring, and learning groups learning theory used today was in use and perfected in these 19th century one-room schools, proving, once again, that there is nothing new in educational theory. Dennis Wells, a Boquet student in 1920, recalled that daily lessons lasted about 15 minutes. Students gave reports or made recitations standing beside their desks. Younger students listened in on the students from the higher grades. Mr. Wells noted that in the rare event of an airplane flying overhead students were allowed outside to watch. Framed 5″x7″ slates with graphite pencils were in use in the early 19th century. The earliest students desks were primitive affairs made from locally sawn planks. When Flora Jerdo Gardner attended the Octagonal School they had chemical toilets in the back addition on the school.
Attendance began to decline after 1870 when the local businesses began to close, until in the second quarter of the 20th century yearly attendance began to average 15 to 20 students. In 1952, because of low attendance, the Octagonal School was closed by the New York State Department of Education after 126 years of service.
Thirty-eight years later the school had fallen into disrepair and a group of citizens, led by Town Historian Ronald Jackson, conducted a successful drive to restore the school. Now 24 years later the school has a leaking and sagging roof and inside ceiling damage. Once again, a group of citizens, permanent summer residents, friends and visitors have formed Save Our School, a fund raising committee to make the necessary repairs to this school.
Why Build an Eight Sided School?
Historians have disagreed on the origins of the one room octagonal school house. One group feels they are derivations of designs brought to this country by Quakers. It was also thought that the eight sided shape was selected because the instructor could always be the focus of students. A third concept for selection of this type of one room school house was the belief that the eight sides would give the maximum amount of inner space as opposed to a square or rectangle building. When accompanied with a window on each side, the design supplied greater lighting and ventilation and when built out of stone or brick, the thick walls maintained better heat in cold and more coolness in hot weather. There are no records available about the reason for the design of the Boquet School.
- Vintage Photos: Whallons Bay Schoolhouse (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)
- Fundraiser to Save Boquet Schoolhouse (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)
- Vintage Postcard: Essex High School (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)
- Harmon Noble Schoolhouse (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)
- Old Brick Schoolhouse (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)
- Vintage Photo: Union Free School (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)