Development of the Ilion School System
UNION SCHOOL DAYS
Early History of the Ilion Union School and the Alumni Association
By FRANK D. RUSSELL, A.M., 1881
At the Alumni meeting in June, 1924, the writer told some details of the early history of the Ilion Union School and the Alumni Association. The Association promptly voted to print it, but there was no manuscript to print. In revising the talk for publication the question arose whether to continue it as rendered, a narrative of personal reminiscences. Latin pupils will recall that Caesar always speaks in the third person yet blows his own trumpet vigorously. See Chapter XX, Second Book of the Gallic War: "Caesar had to do a lot of things at once: to hoist the standard, which was the signal for coming to arms; to blow the trumpet for calling back the soldiers from work; to summon those who had gone a little too far in seeking material for a mound; to draw up the line of battle, make a speech to the soldiers and give the signal." Evidently Caesar was not only the main guy but the whole push.
But Cicero speaks in the first person, as in the Fourth Oration against Catiline, paragraph 2: "For I am that counsel, fathers, to whom not the forum, in which all justice is held, not the campus consecrated with consular auspices, not the senate, the highest aid to all races, not the home, the common refuge, not the bed given to quiet, not, in short, these seats of honor, have ever been free from the peril of death and from plots. I have hid many things, I have borne many things, I have permitted many things, and in your anxiety I have relieved many things through my own personal grief."
On the whole it seemed best to write out the talk as read originally, recounting personal reminiscences. A few details, the omission of which the shortness of the time made necessary, have been added. As the Morgan Street School in its prime was considered by the Regents to be one of the best schools in the State, and certain propagandists have labored vigorously, though less actively since the spring of 1923, to do away with the building entirely, it seems well, before they succeed in their efforts, to recall for preservation some of the history of what in its day was a great school:
The Ilion Union School
Ilion grew out of the Civil War. Until 1861 it was a hamlet of about 800 souls, and its one industry was the gun factory of E. Remington & Sons. This consisted of two or three wooden buildings, situated on the northern slope of Armory Hill and fed by two canals along the western slope. The upper canal remains, but the lower, which started at a point known as the "double dam" in Steele's Creek and flowed through a swamp along the east side of Otsego Street, was done away with several years ago; the swamp was filled in and a row of modern houses built along its course, from Steele's Creek to Benedict Avenue. The principal business of the firm was making sporting guns to fill customers' orders. Since no two customers wished their guns precisely alike, the arms could not be made wholly by machinery, but required much skilled hand labor, expert workmen filing the rough forgings into shape with much dexterity, and fitting them into place with nicety and perfection. These men made guns. They had served a long apprenticeship and knew their trade.
When there was a number of guns to be made, all of the same pattern, that could be turned out by machinery, other workmen came flocking into Ilion, leaving families behind and boarding as best they could, until the job was finished. They departed then for their homes. The little hamlet resumed its normal somnolence.
The village consisted of a few widely scattered houses, mostly on the south side of the canal, with more on the north side and a few straggling up Armory Hill. West Hill was forest and farm land; the only roads up the hill were the Barringer Road and the Old Forge Road at the entrance to the Gulf. (Some people call it the "Gorge" today; United States government maps call it the "Gulf.")
Steele's Creek had formerly flowed where the Methodist Church, now stands, but some years before this time the citizens, wishing to open a street in that neighborhood, turned the course of the creek toward the base of West Hill, where it would not interfere with their plans. The thoroughfare, which was named West Street, because it was the farthest west of any street in the village, was mapped. Second Street ended at Steele's Creek, which was spanned by a narrow, wooden bridge, that was still standing as late as 1874; and from this bridge a lane ran toward the south, through woods and pastures; this became John Street.
The sole church of the little community was the Union Church, a fair-sized wooden building, situated where the Baptist Church now stands; the school, which met the needs of the people, was a neat, two story stone building on Morgan Street, with a large lawn in front and surrounded by dwelling houses.
The Civil War broke out. The nation needed many guns. With skilled workmen as a nucleus, E. Remington & Sons proceeded to expand into what then was probably the largest gun factory in the world, and most of the brick buildings on Main and Otsego Streets sprang up during the first year of the war. Others were added later, to make room for the sewing machine department, which at one time promised much for Ilion; but the bulk of the construction was done at this time. Workmen came flocking into Ilion as before, but now they brought their families along. They bought land and built houses, and the village soon grew to a bustling community of 9,200. The little school house could not hold a quarter of the children who poured into' the village-a fact which pleased them more than it did their elders and in December, 1864, it was decided to build, on the lawn in front of the stone school house, a large, modern building, which would meet the needs of the community for years to come.
The building was constructed as rapidly as honest workmanship would permit, by men who expected their own children to attend that school and had the recent downfall of Pemberton Mills firmly engraved on their minds. When finished it was the finest schoolhouse in the Mohawk valley; better than Utica then could boast. It was a handsome building then, but its architectural beauty was spoiled when it was enlarged, some years ago.
For a while a Mr. Darby taught there, but in 1868 he was succeeded by a prominent educator, Virgil G. Curtis, who, with his wife and a Miss Morgan, began to teach academic subjects. Several pupils finished their work under Mr. Curtis and left the school, but they could not receive diplomas, since the school had no authority then to grant them. Every diploma bears a corporation seal in one corner; all academies, high schools and colleges in the State of New York are corporate bodies, chartered by the Regents of the University of the State of New York. Before a school can obtain a charter certain requirements must be met. By 1872 the school was enabled to receive its charter, and in 1873 the first class was graduated with diplomas.
Here the trustees took a step which at the time seemed to be an error, but later proved a blessing in disguise. In the little village which had now grown to about 3,400 inhabitants, Mr. Curtis was receiving a salary of $2,000 per year. The most of the schools in the State did not pay more than $1,000; a few paid as high as $1,200; in the cities some men received $1,500, and a very few in larger cities received as much as $2,000. So the trustees decided to economize by reducing the salary to $1,500, which was more than the most of the schools were paying. But it so happened that the city of Corry, Pennsylvania, had been watching with interest the work Mr. Curtis had been doing in the previous five years, in transforming the Ilion School from an overgrown district school to a full fledged graded institution with an academic department; and just at this time they sent him an invitation to come to Corry at a salary of $2,500 a year. He accepted it, the local trustees selecting for his successor a young man named Mosher, of pleasing appearance. But after the remarkable work that Mr. Curtis had been doing, Mr. Mosher did not prove highly satisfactory; in the middle of the school year the trustees dismissed him and began looking for a new man. It is not an easy matter to pick up a good man in the middle of the school year, because such men are already engaged on a year's contract and trustees will not release them. But providentially for Ilion it so happened, that a young man named Addison B. Poland (later Ph.D., Columbia), had been teaching with brilliant success in a small town in Massachusetts for a meagre salary; he had about made up his mind to give up teaching and take up the study of law. Attracted by Mr. Curtis' salary, he had resigned his position and offered himself as a candidate, but had not been chosen. The trustees learned that he was quietly reading law at home, preparatory to entering a law school; so they sent him an invitation to come to Ilion to a talk with them. As a result of the interview, he was engaged to fill out the year at Mr. Curtis' old salary, and to remain thereafter as long as was mutually agreeable to himself and the trustees. He proved to be a brilliant scholar and a man of rare executive ability. He built up the school to a high standard. So highly, indeed, did the Regents regard his work that in 1883 they sent two officers to attend the graduation exercises and present the diplomas in person-an honor which few schools in the State have ever shared. Before he died, he was considered one of the twelve leading educators in the whole United States. And he remained for eleven years in this little village, that never had more than 3,500 citizens during his entire stay. Dr. Poland came to, the school in time for the second graduating class of 1874.
In 1875 and again in 1877 there were no graduates. But in 1878 came the largest class so far, and in some respects the most remarkable class that has ever left the school. Those who went elsewhere made their mark in their communities, and those who stayed at home have had a wonderful influence in molding public sentiment. In all efforts for the advancement of Ilion, mentally and morally, the class of 1878 has taken a foremost part; and their influence in this community has been very marked.
A few features of the old Morgan Street School deserve mention. The first was school recess. School lasted from 9 to 12 and from 1:30 to 4:30, with a recess from 10:30 to 10:45 and from 3 to 3:15 each day. These were the brightest spots in our students' lives. The first floor, the "Primary" Department, was confined to the school yard, but the second floor, the "Junior" Department, and the third floor, the "Seniors" and "Academics," had the liberty of Morgan Street between First and Second. There were no automobiles then. For about a year a group of boys regularly played a continuous game of tag in a vacant lot next to the Opera House on First Street. The last one tagged when the school bell rang stayed "it" until the next session. It was a serious offense to break school bounds, but, although they must have made some little noise, and the Principal must have been fully aware of their doings, he never "caught" them at it. He doubtless considered that they were no farther away than those in the neighborhood of Second Street, and as they were always back in time and committed no malicious mischief, and the neighbors made no complaints, they were probably as safe on that vacant lot as anywhere, and the rest perhaps a little safer for their absence.
Again there was the annual May Day on the first Friday in May. Because of depredations committed by older boys who followed the crowd but were not connected with the school, this had to be abandoned. The Primaries did not go along with the crowd but held a May Day of their own a little later, in the woods on the brow of West Hill. But the juniors, Seniors and Academics marched in a body to Oak Hill to spend the entire day. The Juniors were unorganized and each brought along an individual lunch. The Seniors appointed class committees and had class dinners. The Academics acted as one group.
School opened that morning as usual, with roll call and morning exercises. Then all went to the street, forming ranks, two abreast. The line of march was up Morgan to Second, down Second to Otsego, down Otsego past the Armory where their fathers worked, Main to Railroad to Oak Hill. Trucks were on hand to carry the provisions as far as the base of the hill.
One year the "C" and "B" Seniors each decided to have ice cream. In those days there were no big ice cream factories; one made his own and it was a rare treat. The "C" class had ten quarts in an old fashioned freezer packed with ice and salt. The class dinners were held in the neighborhood of the old "Haunted House." Eight boys carried that freezer all the way from the base of the hill to the place, by relays, marching two abreast, the two in front carrying the load until their arms grew tired, when they dropped it and took their places in the rear, the next two picking it up in turn. Class "C" had plenty of ice cream for themselves that year, and a lot left over to give to particular friends in the upper classes. There were no wooden or paper plates then, but the G. A. R., Chismore Post, No. 110, loaned tin cups, spoons and plates. The Academics gathered by the ruins of the old "Haunted House," which had a spring in the cellar, to furnish drinking water and water for the coffee. There was also a comparatively level lot for a game of baseball, in which both boys and girls took part.
Clark's camp kettle was always in requisition to brew the coffee and in the afternoon to make maple wax. As there is no clean snow now for maple wax, few people know what a delightful concoction it is. But at that time the only village factory burned hard coal, and snow stayed clean. In a ravine near the haunted house snow could always be found as late as the first Friday in May. The maple sugar - Ilion was then a maple sugar center - was melted in Clark's kettle, with a very little water, and when thoroughly melted, was poured on snow in the tin plates. It cooled suddenly in a brown, transparent mass, very sticky and very sweet, and was eaten along with a cucumber pickle. Older people who had enjoyed their third dentition were debarred this pleasure but for the children it was a keen delight.
One afternoon there was a box of hard boiled eggs and Dr. Poland was pitching them at different boys. Among them there happened to be a raw one, brought to settle the coffee. Dr. Poland pitched it at Elmer-who made a good catch, but, alas, it broke and plastered him. He had to go to the spring and wash his clothes, and then sit by the campfire to dry. The rest enjoyed the incident very much.
Another school feature, now lacking, was the double desk. Our ancestors were practical men. A single desk takes up almost as much room as a double one, sells for almost as much, and wastes a lot of space in unnecessary aisles. But there is money for the desk makers in the single desks, and it is not at all likely that the double desks will ever be restored. It is a pity, too, for a congenial desk mate added much to the enjoyment of school life.
A pleasant custom was the drill in elocution on the last Friday in each month. Elocution and reading aloud were cultivated and thought to be a great accomplishment. Expert elocutionists like Alfred P. Burbank and Helen Ladite Potter traveled about giving readings which were always well attended. How often in the Morgan Street School has the Assyrian come down like a wolf on the fold, to be met by Sheridan riding from Winchester twenty miles away, while Barbara Frietchie defiantly waved her flag over the head of Stonewall Jackson, and poor little Casabianca stood alone on the burning deck, as the palaces and domes of Carthage were burningly with the splendor of noon! Dr. Poland was a finished elocutionist, and the afternoons with him were most delightful.
By 1882 there were 66 graduates. The Rev. Dr. Herbert B. Johnson, later a noted missionary to Japan, inspired by the class of 1878, called on Dr. Poland, with a view of forming an alumni association. Dr. Poland fell in with the plan at once, and over his own signature sent us each a personal invitation to meet him in the Opera House after the graduation exercises. As a result of that meeting we formed "The Ilion Academy Alumni Association." Dr. Johnson was chosen as the first president, and a committee of three was appointed to frame a constitution and report at a special meeting during the Christmas vacation. There the constitution was adopted, the temporary officers were made permanent, the meeting adjourned, with lively anticipations of the first annual meeting, in June, 1883.
The meeting was held in the hall at the -corner of First and Otsego Streets, now occupied by the Salvation Army. It was the largest hall in town outside of the Opera House, in great demand for social gatherings.
The school at the time had a motto, "ONWARD AND UPWARD," and the school colors were scarlet and gold. It was decided to festoon the walls with banners of scarlet and yellow, and to frame and tack on the front wall in large letters the school motto; the upper half of each letter to be in buttercups and the lower in geraniums. The committee on decoration was on hand bright and early to carry out the scheme. They were assisted by the entire class of 1883, - not so large as it sounds. But take notice-they were all present. Frank Harrington arrived promptly with a wagon load of buttercups from a meadow near Harrington's Pond.
The geraniums gave little trouble. They grow in bunches, and so long as scouts kept returning with full baskets, that part of the work was easy. But the buttercups presented a real problem. They are delicate little flowers, with slender stems, that do not grow in bunches, but singly; when 25 or 30 were plucked and bunched together, they occupied an alarmingly small space. It required at least 500 buttercups, and in some cases more, to fill in each letter; and, what made it worse, two of the letters were "W's"-needed twice as many buttercups as the rest! All day long we toiled at that motto, and Frank Harrington and the writer had to go back to the meadow twice to get another load. It was not until long after six o'clock that the last letter was finished and tacked in place. But when finished the effect was very brilliant and admiring exclamations of our fellow alumni, as they came pouring into the room at eight o'clock, almost paid us for our trouble. But we never tried it again.
The meeting opened with a roll call of members by classes. As there were but nine classes and the most of us were present and answered to our names, this was quite an interesting procedure. But as class after class was added, it grew irksome and was discontinued.
Then came reports of the various officers, including the historian. Dr. Albert D. Chattaway was the first historian, and it was his duty to keep track of every member, and report at the end of the year whatever of interest had happened. We also had a Necrologist, but for some years this was a purely ornamental office, as we were a healthy young bunch and none ever died.
Then followed the election of officers, which was by formal nomination and paper ballot. This continued until Gilbert B. Pelton was president, when the meetings were attended by from 125 to 150 and the counting of the ballots became a task. Mr. Pelton solved the problem by appointing a nominating committee of five, to retire and frame a slate, which if acceptable, should serve in lieu of formal nominations and elections. This has been the practice ever since and the slate is never disputed.
Then followed a carefully selected and well rendered programme, literary and musical, after which we adjourned to the Osgood Hotel for an excellent banquet. This was followed by formal toasts, carefully prepared in advance. Indeed, some of the writers brought their manuscripts along and read them. This closed the exercises. There was no dancing. We did not dance, in fact, until William A. Wilfert was president, about 1900, when, despairing of getting up a good programme, he decided to substitute a dance. It proved popular, and alumni have been dancing ever since.
The second meeting took place in the hall over the meat market on First Street, next to the Opera House, and the third, in 1885, in the Opera House itself. This was the last that Dr. Poland was with us and he was loath to bid us good-bye. After the banquet he suggested: "It is still early; let us adjourn to the school house for a little talk." Upon arrival we realized that this was the proper place for the gathering and most of the meetings thereafter, until the High School was built, were held there. Each of us had spent six years of our lives on the top floor of that building and the place was home to us. In that time we had come to know intimately everyone who was graduated for five years preceding ourselves, and everyone who was to be graduated for the next five years to come. This gave us a sense of unity, of companionship, of solidarity, which is lacking in the large classes of the present day, where one knows none outside his class, and sentiment is more for one class than for the school. We knew everyone and acted as a unit when anything worth our while took place.
Again, we were not sharply divided in classes but merged into a general Academic Department, with the knowledge that when we had completed a certain line of work, some time within the next three or four years, we would receive a diploma; but in the meantime we were free to pursue studies as best suited our fancies and the convenience of instructors. A young giant of eighteen about to leave might find himself on the same bench with a slender boy of thirteen, and even being bested by him in recitation. This prevented delusions of grandeur on the part of the young, man and forced him to admit: "Young Jones is a smart little "kid"- He could not long regard the youngster as one of the lower forms of vertebrates, for where would he himself be ranked? Thus friendships were formed of lifelong duration.
So much for the early history of the Alumni Association. What has been done to justify its existence? First, each year more money than was needed, was collected; and it was a practice to turn over the balance to' the school to purchase much needed textbooks. Then, about 1884, some of the Alumni began to agitate the question of a public library. The school had a good library which was open to the public on Saturday afternoon and evening and one other evening during the week; it was closed during vacations. As a nucleus of a public library, about 1891, alumni decided to raise among themselves, the sum of about $500 to purchase books which they wished to read, and to loan them to the school library until a public institution might be started; it was provided that trustees would take steps to have the library open in vacation, so that we could get at our own books. Before this plan could be put into effect the school library burned and all books were lost, except those in circulation. The need of a public library now became apparent to all, and our committees redoubled their exertions. Here Mr. Clarence W. Seamans took the first step, by purchasing of Mr. Michael Giblin the land on which the library now stands. But the work progressed slowly, and again Mr. Seamans came to the front, with an offer to the alumni, that if they would collect from the citizens the sum of $5,000, to prove that they really wished a library, he would provide the building.
Our committees succeeded in raising the sum of $1,100 among our own membership, though it was small at that time, and from the citizens at large they collected over $5,000, thus meeting the terms of the gift. Besides this, in canvassing the town they unearthed a number of valuable books in the possession of citizens who were perfectly willing to turn them over to a public library where they would be well taken care of. So the library opened in the fall of 1893, Mr. Seamans turning it over to the Alumni Association and they in turn to the village. Of our own fund, $1,000 had not been touched, and it was decided not to dissipate this but to keep it intact as an Alumni fund, the interest to be spent on periodicals. This fund has been added to from time to time, and from the proceeds is derived that wonderful array of periodicals with which the library is so bountifully furnished.
Again from our surplus funds we purchased and erected in the vestibule that bronze tablet commemorating the gift of Mr. Seamans.
Next, committees of the alumni held a series of public entertainments and raised the sum of $1,000, which was spent in purchasing works of art for the Morgan Street School, etchings, statuettes, etc., that the pupils in going through the school might get a taste of real art and learn to know the good, true and beautiful.
Lastly, during the later years of Mr. Seamans' life, the alumni were engaged in raising a large sum of money to procure a first class oil portrait of him to hang in the library; we were getting along fairly well with this and had begun to see the way clear toward raising the balance by private subscription among a small number if necessary, when Mr. Seamans died and the World War came on. This brought the work to an end. But through the kind gift of Mrs. Seamans a beautiful photograph of Mr. Seamans now hangs in the library he built.
This ends the work of the Morgan Street Alumni. We are old and have lost our enthusiasm, and the younger generation does not seem to be taking our place. If the Alumni Association is to thrive, its members must do some worthy work, something involving time and sacrifice.
And now, as we assemble in a modern high school building, which, however beautiful, has no sacred ties of memory to call us back, as we sit around in rear seats and listen to what our successors are doing, and occasionally break into the programme, because it is unavoidable and we feel that, after all, this is our association which we founded and maintained so gloriously for so many years, we feel that we have a right to point with pride to the past and say: "See what we have done, we graduates of the old Morgan Street School."
In conclusion, the Morgan Street School graduates may be congratulated upon their sincere efforts to accomplish worth while objects. It remains now for younger men and women to take their parts honestly, to strive to retain the confidence of predecessors by their own works. -Editor's Note.
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