Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Origins of Chazy Central Rural School, Part 1

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the opening of Chazy Central Rural School, I thought it might be interesting to take a closer look at its origins. These blog posts, which will delve into the historical context of the school’s founding, are based on a talk I gave for the Clinton County Historical Association. Part 1 looks at the broad social changes happening at the turn of the century and their effect on education.

Chazy Central Rural School
From a set of instructional lantern slides produced by
the New York State Education Department, 1919
New York State Archives
When Chazy Central Rural School first opened its doors to pupils in the fall of 1916, it was like nothing that had ever been seen before in the North Country. A five-story Spanish Mission style structure, topped with turrets and a bell tower, it towered over all the other buildings in the village. Inside were classrooms for students from first through twelfth grade, laboratories and workshops, two swimming pools, a thousand-seat auditorium with film projector and organ, doctor’s and dentist’s offices, and a sunlit cafeteria where students ate at marble-topped tables.

Rev. George R. Mott,
first Dean of CCRS
CCRS was formed when the village school and ten other rural school districts in Chazy and Champlain merged under a new state law that allowed for consolidation. The two main figures behind the push for consolidation and the creation of a new school were William H. Miner, inventor, philanthropist, and owner of Heart’s Delight Farm; and George R. Mott, minister of the Chazy Presbyterian Church. While their goal was always to create a school that would serve the particular needs of the children of Chazy, they were also deeply connected to broader currents of thought regarding education. CCRS was very much the product of a particular moment in time and beliefs about the role of public schools in 20th-century America.

Chazy Central Rural School grew out of two early-20th century movements: the Progressive educational reform movement and the Country Life Movement, both of which attempted to solve some of the problems associated with the shift from a primarily rural, agricultural society to an urban-industrial one. In both movements, public schools took center stage as as one of the key sites of social change. Progressive educators and advocates of the Country Life Movement had many ideas about what rural schools should look like and what role they should play in rural communities. In fact, if you read the dozens of books on the subject published between 1900 and 1920, and then planned a school based on what you had read, you would probably end up with something that looked very much like Chazy Central Rural School.

So what were the problems that rural school reformers were trying to solve, and why did CCRS look the way it did when it opened in 1916? Over the course of the 19th century, agriculture and rural life had been transformed by demographic shifts and technological changes. In 1835, more than 2/3 of all Americans lived on farms. If you were a white man, you had a good chance of owning property and working for yourself, rather than for wages. But as the United States became a more industrialized nation, that changed. In 1880, the Census Bureau found for the first time that the majority of the workforce was in non-farming jobs. By 1900, two out of every five Americans lived in cities.

Farm family posing with a threshing machine, late 19th c.
from Passion for the Past
For those Americans who remained in the country, farming was altered by the introduction of new machinery and long-distance transportation. Farming had always represented independence and financial security, but by the 1890s, that was less true than it ever had been. Farmers depended upon seed and equipment suppliers, storage facilities, banks, and railroads, which were increasingly part of impersonal corporate conglomerates. They had little control over what prices their products would command, or where they would be sold.

In both city and country, there was a growing sense that schools were not adequately preparing students for life in a modern, industrial society. In cities, this sense of crisis was compounded by a growing and diversifying student population that included first- and second-generation immigrants along with students who did not plan to attend college. In 1890, less than 5% of American adolescents attended high school, but by 1920 over 30% did. Instead of preparing students for college and professions, the high school now also had to provide a general education to students with varying needs. Traditional academic subjects were supplemented by programs in music, drawing, sports, nature study, and the like. Schools expanded their offerings to include technical, business, and other vocational training.

John Dewey, the best-known proponent
of “education for democracy”
In making these changes to American schools, Progressive educational reformers were guided by two main philosophies, which historians have described as “education for democracy” and “education for efficiency.” Proponents of education for democracy emphasized the need to make schools creative environments. They promoted child-centered activities and programs based on the child’s individual interests. The school itself should be a microcosm of the larger society, where students would learn about all aspects of life and would be given opportunities to use their hands as well as their heads. Nurturing the individual child, it was hoped, would help produce a more just, equitable, and democratic society.

On the other hand, proponents of efficiency in education drew upon the practices of business and industry to make schools run more smoothly. They introduced reforms in administration, supervision, teacher training, and testing, with the goal of turning out students who were prepared to take their places in the modern bureaucratic system. In this case, the personal happiness of the individual child was secondary to the needs of society as a whole. These two perspectives could, and did, exist within the same school system. And although their approaches were different, both ultimately had the goal of producing a harmonious society made up of well-adjusted individuals.

In Part 2, we’ll see how proponents of the Country Life Movement tried to bring city innovations to country schools, and look at some of the urban schools that inspired William Miner and George Mott.


Joseph C. Burke, William H. Miner: The Man and the Myth (Langdon Street Press, 2009)

Ronald D. Cohen and Raymond A. Mohl, The Paradox of Progressive Education: The Gary Plan and Urban Schooling (Kennikat Press, 1979)

David B. Danbom, “Rural Education Reform and the Country Life Movement, 1900-1920,” Agricultural History 53, no. 2 (April 1979), 462-474.

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