While in Frisco, Colorado, in August 2015 to welcome our new granddaughter, Larry and I visited the nearby Dillion schoolhouse, a two-room museum that was built in 1883 and served as the town’s main educational facility until 1910. Walking into that old building with its wooden floors, dusty chalkboards, and old-fashioned seats transported me back in time to my own experience in a two-room school house in the 1950’s.
When our family moved to Keeseville, all classes from kindergarten to twelfth grade were held in a big brick structure on top of Main Street that was built in 1936, when improved methods of transportation allowed for consolidation of the the area’s small one-and two room school houses.By the mid-fifties, however, a growing population fueled by the near-by Plattsburgh Air Force base necessitated the construction of a new elementary school. In the meantime, students were shipped off to other locations. My brother Jay spent fourth grade in the town’s old shirt factory. Two years later, I was part of the the group of students who were bussed the four miles to the two-room school house in Port Kent.
I am not sure how the teachers felt about being transported back in time one hundred years, but we students loved it. The building itself was comprised of two huge rooms that were linked by a connecting door. Two wooden stoves provided the heat, the old oak floors were scuffed and the bathrooms were far from modern. However, it was fun for us in Mrs. Smith’s second grade class to be next door to the third grade class. The school was set on a hill in a large grassy lot that overlooked Lake Champlain. Lessons were punctuated with the sounds of train whistles from the Port Kent railroad station and horns from the ferries that transported cars to and from Burlington, Vermont.
Each day, we would be taught reading, writing, and arithmetic. The school would transport lunches, and we would eat at our desks. We loved our teacher, Mrs. Smith, who was sweet and kind and looked a great deal like Loretta Young. My friend Julie Thompson Berman had special memories of Mrs. Smith: A left hander, her second grade teacher tried to “convert her” until Julie’s father set the teacher straight; having Mrs. Smith was a relief.
Most of the students walked up to the high school and took buses to Port Kent, but some of the students lived in Port Kent. Steven Bullis and Barbara Klages lived within walking distance of the school. Barbara lived in a huge house right next to the railroad tracks. The trains went roaring past her front porch several times a day, and I thought she was the luckiest person in the world. No matter where we lived, the intimacy of the small school resulted in friendships that have lasted a lifetime. Along with Barbara and Steve, I met Julie, Betsy, Linda, Betsy, and Mike in Port Kent, and most of us remained classmates and friends throughout our graduation in 1968. It was also while in Port Kent I had my first heartbreak: I was in love with Jay Sussdorf, who moved away at the end of second grade.
One of my clearest memories was our performing in Hansel and Gretel. As I had been a witch that past Halloween, I got to play the villain to Julie’s starring role as Gretel; she pushed me into the “oven,” a table covered in black construction paper with a drawing of the fireplace.
The next September, we started the school year in Port Kent. The elementary school was finished over the winter vacation, and we started going to classes there in January, 1958. The new school was shiny and modern and beautiful. However, looking back, I have fonder memories my year and a half in that little red schoolhouse than I do about the new building.
Ironically, many years later, Adam and Julie had the opportunity to attend school in a similar building. Both children went to the Clifton Park Nursery school in the little red school house on the corner of Moe and Grooms Road. As a cooperative preschool, Larry and I participated as a helping parent in Adam and Julie’s classrooms on a rotating basis. One of Julie’s earliest memories is Larry coming in on Halloween as a clown with a big red honking nose. She thought she was the luckiest child in the world to have such a funny, talented father. Both children loved going to nursery school in that old building with its wooden floors, huge old windows, and parent-made shelves lining the walls filled with toys and books and arts and craft material.
My Mountain Girl’s elementary school in Frisco, a modern building with a huge playground, is only a few blocks from her home. I doubt if she will follow in the footsteps of her grandmother and mother. However, she is learning about the history of her small Rocky Mountain town: the Ute Indians who originally lived along its rivers, the mountain men who trapped beaver in this territory in the first half of the nineteenth century, the miners and their families who settled the town in the 1870’s. She enjoys picnics and concerts in the town’s historic park, where she plays in original buildings that once served as homes, a jail, a chapel, a saloon and brothel! And she can explore the the Schoolhouse Museum, with its wooden floors, dusty chalkboards, and wooden seats. And on one of our visits, I will share the stories of my own adventures in a two-room schoolhouse on top of a hill overlooking Lake Champlain.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish World News, a bi-weekly subscription-based newspaper in upstate New York, on August 6, 2015.