Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Origins of Chazy Central Rural School, Part 3

Our series on the origins of Chazy Central Rural School concludes this week. This Saturday, October 22, CCRS will officially mark its 100th anniversary with a variety of events—visit for more information.

In Part 1, we looked at the broad social changes happening at the turn of the century and their effect on education. In Part 2we saw how proponents of the Country Life Movement tried to bring city innovations to country schools, and looked at some of the urban schools that inspired William Miner and George Mott. In Part 3, we’ll see how Chazy Central Rural School implemented the ideas of educational reformers.

Chazy Union School, ca. 1900. The building was later
incorporated into Gray Gables.
In 1915, 189 pupils were enrolled in the Chazy Union School in the village of Chazy, which employed 5 teachers. There were also seven schools in Chazy and three in Champlain that would become part of the consolidated school district. These were one-teacher schools that served between 20 and 40 students. The old one-room country school evoked nostalgic associations, but reformers insisted that it was a thing of the past which had no place in a modern, complex society. Thus, any school reform had to begin with the building itself.

Writers on rural schools painted horrifying pictures of run-down, unsanitary, and poorly ventilated school buildings. George Mott, in his proposal for consolidation, drew a stark contrast between Chazy’s “fine homes, well kept lawns, sanitary barns, flowers, and automobiles” and the “one roomed ‘building’ where ventilation is impossible, sanitary conditions a disgrace, and the whole exterior and interior not only so different from their own homes, but oft-times an offense to the eye and a disgrace to the whole environment of the community.” Children could not be expected to learn in stuffy rooms, sitting in uncomfortable seats (Moulthrop Movable School Chairs to the rescue!), under inadequate lighting.

Shakespeare Room, Chazy Central Rural School.
Decorative features in the school were meant to
inspire a love of beauty in students.
New York State Archives
Aside from these practical considerations, reformers also argued that schools should be beautiful. The building itself should be well-designed and made of good quality materials, and interiors should be painted in cheerful colors and decorated with pictures. George Mott wrote that the new Chazy school would be situated on an “ideal rural school site combining beauty with utility.” The 15 acres of land, purchased from Harvey Fisk by William Miner, provided ample space for a large building, “land for agricultural experiments,” a playground, and recreation areas. It also “offer[ed] a natural knoll, upon which the stately building may be seen above even the surrounding tree tops, a ‘thing of beauty and a joy forever.’”

The new school building was to be the setting for a new curriculum. As reformers were quick to point out, rural schools generally used the same curriculum as city schools, in spite of the fact that much of what was taught was irrelevant or foreign to the experience of country children. Mott pointed out that this system of education tended to have two effects on students. Either it pushed them toward the cities, or they became “disgusted with the hollowness and the unsatisfactoriness of such an education, and fall by the wayside with a contempt for that which they call ‘book learning.’” The solution was to make sure that the curriculum of rural schools was grounded in the everyday life of the country.

Agriculture Laboratory and Lecture Room,
Chazy Central Rural School
The goal of incorporating agriculture into the curriculum was twofold. One, it was hoped that by learning about nature at a young age, children would develop a love and appreciation for rural life that would help keep them in the country. Two, practical instruction in agriculture would be an important step towards introducing modern, scientific farming. Many in the country life movement felt that it was too late to reach adults and that it was better to focus their efforts on children. As William Miner wrote, “It appears to me that in order to improve farming methods in the State of New York, it will be necessary to start with the sons and daughters of farmers, during their school years to thoroughly drill them in habits of orderly, thorough and businesslike methods in dealing with the problems of enlightened agriculture….As you know, the minds of young people accept impressions and improved ideas far more readily than could be hoped for in dealing with the thinking apparatus of middle aged farmers, who proudly announce that the methods of their grandfathers are plenty good enough.”

Scientific Cookery, Chazy Central Rural School

Courses in agriculture were aimed at turning boys into modern farmers, while the Household Arts program approached housekeeping from a scientific perspective. The farm home also needed updating. “Far be it from any of us to criticize the bountiful and satisfying country meal of childhood,” wrote George Mott, “but the question still remains unanswered as to who is educating the growing girl to take the place of her mother in these days of canned groceries, tinned meats and tissue wrapped bread.” It was the school’s responsibility to “teach the girls not only sewing and cooking, but the application of modern scientific principles in food values, well balanced meals, the detection of impure foods, the proper organization and administration of a well organized home on an economic basis.”

Although agriculture, domestic science, and other vocational skills were an important part of rural education, the traditional academic subjects were also taught, along with drawing, music, handicrafts, and physical education. Carrying out this new curriculum required highly trained teachers who understood the special needs of rural schools. Reformers identified what they called the “teaching problem” as one of the main obstacles to improving rural schools. Many teachers had only high-school educations themselves and were barely older than their students. Short school terms and irregular attendance made it difficult for teachers to make progress. Teachers in rural schools had a harder job but were paid much less than their urban counterparts. In Chazy, they earned, on average, about $10 per week. School was in session for 36 weeks per year, and only about 65% of the students officially enrolled actually attended school regularly.

Providing faculty housing was one potential
solution to the problem of retaining good teachers.
One of the aims of the rural school reform movement was to make country schools more attractive to teachers and to find potential teachers who would not be deterred by the special challenges of rural life. The advertisement for prospective teachers laid out the situation quite clearly: “As the village of Chazy has only about 300 inhabitants, teachers who are dependent upon the city for means of study, recreation and amusement, will find few inducements. On the contrary, those who enjoy rural life and who wish to have part in a great undertaking where there is opportunity for pioneer work in a worthy field, will find that this school offers them many advantages.”

When it came time to work out how all these changes in teaching, curriculum, and infrastructure were to be brought about, the answer inevitably was centralization and consolidation. Consolidation of small school districts would increase the financial resources available, facilitating the hiring of better-trained teachers, including specialists in the new subjects proposed for the rural curriculum. Modern facilities could be created, and grading and/or platooning instituted. Children would benefit from schools with larger enrollments that would “provide social and cultural contact with companionable associates necessary to the best development of every child.” However, consolidation was a common sticking point when it came to actually carrying out rural school reform. 

Reformers attributed resistance to conservatism, ignorance, or just plain stubbornness, but rural communities articulated valid concerns about proposed reforms. They worried about the costs associated with changes, and did not want to relinquish control over their small, local school districts. They often felt that reformers were condescending and resented the implication that the rural family was failing in its educational role. They were also concerned that the reforms being instituted were meant to benefit urban areas—that the ultimate goal was to make the countryside more productive in order to support the cities. And there was often some truth to that.

Article from the New York Times,
October 16, 1921
What may be most remarkable about Chazy Central Rural School is not the form of the school itself, but the fact that William Miner and George Mott were able to carry out their ambitious plan. A year after the proposal was first brought before the public, the school was open (though not yet complete) and within a few years was attracting attention from all over the United States. Here was a community that had actually accomplished what most people only talked about.

William Miner’s financial support of the school project eliminated one of the major obstacles and potential objections to the plan. As someone with family roots in Chazy, who had himself attended a one-room district school, residents probably felt that he could be trusted to have their best interests at heart, in spite of his wealth and connections to the broader reform movement. And George Mott, whatever his flaws in other areas, was skilled at generating enthusiasm among the members of the community and making them feel that they had been offered a rare opportunity that they would be foolish to reject.

In the 100 years since Chazy Central Rural School welcomed its first students, much has changed in American society. Although agriculture still plays an important role in the economy of Chazy, we no longer assume that most boys will grow up to be farmers, and most girls to be housekeepers, and the curriculum has changed to reflect that. In 1968, a new school building was erected and the original building torn down. But Chazy Central Rural School continues to be, in many ways, the center of public life for the community. Indeed, that may be even more true now than it was in the early 20th century. In those days, the school was closely identified with William Miner, but now we can say it is an institution that truly belongs to the community of Chazy.


  1. Thank you for this wonderful essay. It's very interesting to learn more about my grandfather and his life. I wish I could have met him.

    1. Thank you for your comment! It's always a pleasure to hear from the families of people who are important to the museum and the town of Chazy!