A Catskill Catalog: Jan. 14, 2009
Zena R. Travis. I must have walked by an inscription of that name thousands of times. You may have walked by it, as well. Her name appears on a commemorative plaque in the front hall of the Roxbury school, of the Margaretville school, of the Stamford school, of the Gilboa school, of the Windham school…
Zena R. Travis was the longtime Superintendent of New York State’s Fourth Supervisory District of Schools, the district that comprised much of the central, western, and northern Catskills. Supervisory districts are sub regions of the state created by the legislature back in 1910 to improve the overall supervision of local schools. The State Commissioner of Education was authorized by this legislation to divide the rural part of the state – municipalities of fewer than 4,500 people - into supervisory districts.
These districts did not have the authority to provide educational services. That was the job of locally elected boards of education. Rather, the Supervisory Districts were designed to improve educational quality through greater supervision and assistance. Each district was headed by a district superintendent, who was a state official with salary paid by the state.
In the early part of the 20th century, most rural education occurred in one-room schoolhouses. High schools were found only in the larger villages, but every hamlet and hollow, every valley and crossroad seemed to have its own little eight-grade schoolhouse. As late as 1940, there were over 4,000 small independent public schools throughout the state. Today there are a little over 700 public school districts.
As you drive through the Catskills, you’ll notice a certain similarity in the central schools that serve our towns. The Downsville school looks a little bit like the Tannersville school, the Stamford school reminds one of the Windham building. Each was built as projects of the infrastructure re-building Works Projects Administration of Franklin Roosevelt’s depression-fighting New Deal. Zena Travis presided over much of the 1930s centralization that combined little Catskill Mountain districts into gleaming new central schools. Hence, her name on the plaques.
Zena Travis was quite a Catskill Mountain success story. She was born around 1890, raised on a Meeker Hollow farm in the Town of Roxbury and graduated from the old Roxbury High School. Roxbury, Margaretville, Fleischmanns, Andes, Grand Gorge, Stamford and other mountain villages established high schools where village children were educated in grades one through eight, and high school education was offered to those few who chose to pursue it. Zena was an excellent student, graduating from high school at the top of her class.
We can piece her story together through newspaper clippings. In 1909, she appears in the Catskill Mountain News as a student home on school holiday from the Oneonta Normal School, precursor to today’s State College. By 1912, she is spending the summer in Meeker Hollow, home from a year teaching in the public schools of far-off California, preparing to return for a second year. What an adventure!
By 1916, Zena Travis is listed as a teacher at the old Margaretville High School, probably teaching village children in one of the paired grades: grades one and two, three and four, five and six, or seven and eight. In 1919, she is listed as the teacher in one-room School #14, perhaps the Meeker Hollow school she had attended as a child.
And then, by 1921, the 29- or 30-year-old schoolteacher from Roxbury has been elected district superintendent. And from that point forward, she is everywhere. She visits schoolhouses in Bovina one week, on Dingle Hill the next, up Redkill one day and Montgomery Hollow the next.
In 1922, she publishes a newspaper article urging local schoolteachers to monitor their pupils’ nutrition. Children cannot learn if they are hungry, Miss Travis points out. Provide malnourished children with a quart of milk per day. We thought concern with student nutrition was forward thinking and progressive in the 1970s. Zena Travis was focused on children’s health and nutrition in 1922!
I knew lots of Catskill Mountain folks who got their education in a one-room school. I never heard anyone complain about the lack of opportunities there. On the contrary, many boasted that their one-room schoolhouse education was a good one, with a real focus on reading, writing, and mathematic skills, and a cooperative learning environment among children of varying ages. I think that emphasis on quality and cooperation is a tribute to Zena Travis, who helped set the standards high and the school climate inviting.
In 1936, Miss Robinson, teacher in the Meeker Hollow School, took sick. Who substituted for a week? District Superintendent Zena R.Travis.
Miss Travis set the standard for Catskill Mountain country schools for three or four decades. The quality of education that many of us found here is, I think, a tribute to her. She made sure Catskill Mountain kids had a chance.
In 1960, Zena Travis was the guest speaker at the Fleischmanns High School graduation. By that time, she had been pursuing and urging excellence in education for over 50 years.