On October 13th, nearly 100 people attended the 140th anniversary celebration of Bleecker's District No. 3 School. The morning of the event was tense for the Museum. The promised sunshine sulked stubbornly behind a cloud bank hanging low over the mountain, threatening rain. But as noon approached, the skies relented. By the time the band arrived, to quote one of my favorite authors: the sun got up, the clouds vanished, flags were unfurled and the fun began. I'm pretty sure the old school, whose birthday we honored, hasn't seen such a shindig in decades. The Museum is enormously grateful to everyone who attended, with a special thanks going to our musical talent Just Us, who played a three-hour(!) set with the accompaniment of Carl Chamberlain, who luckily brought his guitar along with him, and joined in. For me (I'm Eliza, museum owner Nancy Buyce's daughter), the day gave a whole new perspective on the long-abandoned building where I used to play "teacher" as a child, not knowing then how truly significant the school was to our community.
I spent the night before the party reading the Trustee Minutes, a ledger of mostly handwritten notes documenting annual and special school meetings for 116 years, 1853-1969. Two themes loom large in these pages, one mundane, the other considerably less so. The first is a reminder that however swiftly rolls the stream of time, one thing never changes in Bleecker: getting in the wood. Not an annual meeting passed without a motion approved to obtain "good, merchantable, dry" cordwood (often specified by species) for the coming year, until the final installation of a coal stove in 1955. This resolution was frequently followed by the election of a school librarian, and a set fund for the purchase of books. How trees and Bleecker go together, I thought, as I settled down before my own fire to flip through the paper pages.
The most striking thing about this record, though, is the dedication of a small community to the education of its children. The Town of Bleecker, through its 182-year history, has seldom been called home by more than 1000 souls in a given year, and Bleecker Village, served by District No. 3 School, is only one neighborhood within it. To be sure, fortunes have been made (and lost) in this quiet corner of the world, yet through the vagaries of history, the people of the village gathered in this schoolhouse to set a budget for teachers, books, maintenance, and supplies, however mean the times.
There is a school of thought in educational history, one to which I generally subscribe, which argues that American education exists primarily to serve the needs of industry. Yet it was not so here in Bleecker Village. The school was undoubtedly born of the tannery, but when the tannery died, the school did not. It survived deindustrialization, war, and depression, succumbing at the last to the regulatory requirements of modernization. It is a testament to the Bleecker citizens who showed up - year after year for 116 consecutive years - at the meetings this book records, to ensure an education for the village children, whether industry required it or not. There's a lot of talk these days about "child-centered education." It appears that Bleecker Village lived up to this ideal long before it was fashionable.
The students who returned to their old school today recounted memories both fond and forlorn. Their school memories are not always happy ones (whose are?), but that in itself is a useful historical exercise, especially when contrasted with their positive experiences. This worked and that didn't; this is when I learned stuff and that is when I didn't; this went right and that went wrong. As most of our alumni attended District No. 3 School in the 1940s and 1950s, consider it a half-century student evaluation. For educators today, these histories are a valuable lesson in the good, the bad and the ugly from an era of education we will never know. For historians, they are a reminder that the educational past is one vein in a vast historical mine, with treasures to be preserved and refined and used, as well as slag to be left forever behind.
The Museum would like to thank all those who attended, and those who wrote or called in lieu of being there on the day, for sharing these memories with us. If the school should survive another 140 years - and we will do all we can to give it the best chance possible - just imagine what these memories will mean to the students and teachers of the future. One tradition, at least continues. The building is still a site of education. So it was for me today.