A Catskill Catalog: March 25, 2009

Sonny Somelofski runs the Tremperskill Country Store, one of the few general stores left in the mountains – every little hamlet and valley used to have one – and a beacon for Catskill Mountain fishermen from April to October. The store was originally a one-room schoolhouse, it’s an old building, and a few years ago Sonny and a friend put on a new roof.
They ripped off several layers of asphalt shingles, down to the original shakes, tore those off, and were looking through the rafters when Sonny’s friend noticed something lying down in on top of the attic sheeting. “Reach down in and get it,” Sonny told him, “Your arms are longer than mine.” His friend pulled out a book, in good, readable condition, a book that had been laying in there for over a hundred years.
The book was the Department Register of 1891-92, published by the State of New York Department of Public Instruction, Andrew S. Draper, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, and distributed yearly to each of the over 10,000 school districts throughout the state. Sonny’s store was once School District Number 21 in the Town of Andes. The teacher had to sign for the school’s copy.
Education in New York State began under the Dutch with the establishment of common schools, neighborhood schools designed to transmit literacy to as many people as possible. The English, perhaps not surprisingly, placed more emphasis on the establishment of academies to provide a classical education to the children of the elite. With independence, the common schools once again became the center of the new state’s educational system.
Common schools educated children from about age seven to about age 14, for 20 or 25 or 30 weeks a year, in reading, ’riting and ’rithmetic. Teachers, at the start of their careers, were often little older than their oldest pupils, with only a bit more education than the scholars they taught.
The schools were financed through a local land tax levy combined with state aid from a Common School Fund, endowed from the proceeds of state land sales and lotteries. Any costs not covered had to be made up by charging tuition, or rates. Rate bills kept many poor children out of school. After numerous attempts, rates were outlawed and public schools became free to all families in 1867.
Fourteen years earlier, a state law allowed one or more common school districts to form a Union Free School District, governed by a Board of Education, which could establish an “Academic Department” to provide a secondary education to students who desired it. This was the beginning of public high schools in New York.
The Department of Public Instruction supervised the common schools, dividing the state into 113 School Commissioner Districts. Delaware County, in 1891, was divided into two such supervisory units. The eastern, Catskill Mountain portion of Delaware County was the Second School Commissioner District, comprised of 170 common schools in 10 towns. Andes had 21 district schools, Middletown 23, Roxbury 18, Bovina 11 and Delhi 19.
The Town of Shandaken, in Ulster County’s Third School Commissioner District, had 13 school districts, Olive 16, and Hardenburgh nine. Greene County’s Town of Halcott had four schools, Lexington 12, and Prattsville seven.
The number of children in school in 1891 is even more surprising than the number of Catskill Mountain school districts. Today Andes Central School educates 120 kids, Kindergarten through 12th-grade. In 1891, 545 children were enrolled in the 21 schools throughout that town, the great majority in common schools that covered grades one through eight. Shandaken had 711 kids in school; Roxbury 543; the Town of Middletown had 812; Halcott 97. That’s a lot more children than any of those towns boast today. A lot more.
The bigger mountain villages boasted graded schools, many union schools that offered a secondary education through an Academic Department. Roxbury and Margaretville, Andes and Hobart, Griffin’s Corners and Downsville all had graded schools.
Delaware Academy in Delhi was the first secondary academy in Delaware County founded in 1819. The Delaware Literary Institute, in Franklin, incorporated by act of the state legislature in 1835, was the second. Both transformed into the public central schools that serve their towns and surrounding communities today.
Throughout much of my own career teaching in the Catskills, I heard the drumbeat of criticism of our public school system, how we weren’t doing as well as the Japanese. It was comforting for me to read the same concerns in 1891, how our New York State students were two years behind the French and the Prussians. Eek!
Our economy, tough as it is today, is still well ahead of the decades-long doldrums of the Japanese economy, and the Prussians, organizers of modern Germany, lost two World Wars to us, so perhaps we Americans haven’t been doing too badly right along.