The Cobblestone Schoolhouse was a center of learning for eight decades, then vacant for the next eight

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

Under the watchful eye of their schoolmaster, boys play outside of the cobblestone Schoolhouse in about 1900.

The early history of Guilderland Center District No. 6 goes back to 1812 when New York state passed new legislation requiring towns to create common school districts to educate local children up to the eighth grade.

In 1813, Guilderland town officials met at Widow Appel’s tavern where they laid out eight school districts, which eventually were realigned, increasing to 14 districts as the town’s population grew during the 19th Century. Each of these districts had at least three trustees to serve as its board of education.

Property for the Guilderland Center school building was deeded to the community by Stephen Van Rensselaer, the last patroon, in about 1840. The deed contained a revision clause stating that, if it were no longer used for education, it would revert to his heirs. He had a large family and many descendants.

Guilderland Center’s District No. 6 Cobblestone School was built in 1860 by Robert Zeh, a Knowersville mason who left his name incised in the quoin at the corner of the building. His skill must have been held in high regard as Guilderland Center was one of three cobblestone one-room schools he put up in Guilderland.

The Osborn Corners School burned in 1893, while the cobblestone school building on Stone Road still stands; it was converted to residential use when District 10 joined the Voorheesville Central School District.

Today the Guilderland Center cobblestone school building looks very much as it was when Zeh originally completed it. The bell still hangs in the cupola, most likely purchased from one of the Meneely bell factories either in West Troy (now Watervliet) or Troy as were the other surviving town school bells.

This cobblestone building replaced an earlier structure and remained in use for the children of the hamlet and the nearby surrounding area until 1941 when students began to be bused to Voorheesville schools. It had never had running water with the result that privies were in use up until 1941. Heating was provided by a pot-bellied stove, originally burning wood, which in later years was converted to coal.

Guilderland finally centralized in 1950 with modern elementary schools opening in 1953 and the junior-senior high school in 1954. Once these schools were in operation, Guilderland Center students returned to the town’s central school district.

At this time, the centralized district sold the other existing one-room schools, but because of the original restrictive deed, continued to own the Cobblestone Schoolhouse. For a short time, it was used as the central district’s office.


First-hand account

Fortunately, a woman who was born in 1896 left a written account of what it was like when she attended this one-room school in what would have been the early years of the 20th Century. The school day at the Cobblestone Schoolhouse began in the morning at 9 a.m. with the ringing of the school bell at top by pulling a rope inside the entry, ringing again at 4 p.m. when the school day ended.

There was a heavy front door opening into an entry where there were two doors, one on the right for the boys and the other on the left for the girls. In the back corners of the main room were hooks for coats and hats.

A shelf ran around above where the lunch pails were placed. Almost no one had a lunch box at that time. A low shelf ran along the entry wall. On the boys’ side was a basin and towel and a mirror above the basin while on the girls’ side a pail for drinking water with a dipper that hung from a nail.

In a time when contagious diseases such as diphtheria or scarlet fever took the lives of children, this primitive sanitation could spread an outbreak. Usually local teachers closed schools for several days if one child developed one of these possibly fatal diseases.

Inside the school room, there were four rows of seats with two longer rows on either side of the room. There were two short rows in the center of the room.

To account for the wide age range, the seats and desks were lower in front and higher and larger for older pupils in back. In the very front of the room was the teacher’s desk on a platform up about a foot off the floor.

There were blackboards in back of the teacher’s desk. At either end of the blackboards were narrow bookshelves running floor to ceiling, which they called the library. In the corner between the blackboard and the library was the place where an unruly pupil had to go stand with his back to the other students.

In the early 20th Century, the big po-tbellied stove in the center back of the schoolroom burned coal, which was stored out back in a small shed called the coal shed. Also out in back of that shed were the two privies, which they called backhouses with a board fence between them, one for the boys and one for the girls.

Recess time often meant baseball for the boys with the girls standing around watching. Otherwise, there were other games that were played such as “Burn the City” and “Annie, Annie Over.” There was usually a picnic at the end of the school year as well.

From old photographs taken at various times over the decades the school was open, there were either male or female teachers. They were expected to invite in the community to special programs presented by their students at such times as Columbus Day, Arbor Day, and Christmas when the children sang, acted in skits, or recited poems or speeches.


Mrs. Witherwax

In 1922, Marguerite Witherwax was appointed teacher, bringing a breath of fresh air for the old school. The author of the Jan. 19, 1923 Enterprise Guilderland Center column was very impressed, enthusing that “the new seats have been installed and the room presents a much improved appearance. Mrs. Edmund Witherwax (she was never referred to by her own name, always her husband’s) has the school well in hand. The pupils are interested in their work and really enjoy going to school.”

What really seemed to count with the writer, however, was that Mrs. Witherwax was turning over part of one Friday afternoon on a monthly basis to a representative of the WCTU, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, to promote the benefits of sobriety and temperance.

The next year, Mrs. Witherwax’s students “rendered a very pleasing program of Christmas songs, recitations and exercises” in a school room with a decorated Christmas tree. This was followed by gift-giving to her students who in turn responded with gifts for her. Then, after all that excitement, the children later repeated their Christmas program at the Community Club Christmas Party.

Mrs. Witherwax, a community resident and an active member of one of the local churches, seemed to have probably stayed on for the remainder of the years the school was open. In 1933, it was reported she was back for the 1933-34 school year when “a successful year of teaching is anticipated.”

Again in 1939, school opening was announced with the comment, “Mrs. Witherwax has been the successful teacher of the village school for a number of years.”

Memories of a few 1930s students have been recorded as well. Apparently “Burn the City” and “Annie, Annie Over” were recess games passed down from one generation of students to the next as they were favorite recess recreations where the children formed two teams, one on each side of the schoolhouse. Soft ball and tag were also played and, with the ringing of the teacher’s hand bell, everyone knew recess was over.

Academic work seemed to consist of geography, reading, arithmetic, and spelling. None of the memories included learning any American history and certainly no science.

While Mrs. Witherwax taught the upper grade children, bright students from the lower grades often listened in, learning the more advanced work. Children would be assigned reading while she worked with other grade levels, then she would question them to check comprehension when she had moved on to their grade level.

One woman remembered a set of “well worn, fuzzy edged phonic cards,” used by a group of children sitting together on the floor flashing them to each other for responses.

Mrs. Witherwax kept firm control, but at the same time loosened up enough sometimes to play Chinese checkers with five students at a time. She was also caring and on frigid mornings stood by the door as children entered holding a bowl of cool water for children to plunge in frozen hands to warm them.

One woman, who started at the school at age 6, lived on a farm outside of the village, walking one-and-a-half miles each way, one of many farm children who hiked similar distances. And during those Depression years of the 1930s, some of these children may have had inadequate clothing for winter weather.

For these children, being bussed to the modern Voorheesville schools must have been a great adventure, but something of a shock at first after being in a little one-room school. In the meantime the school sat empty.


After centralization

With centralization and the opening of Guilderland’s modern elementary schools in 1953 and the junior-senior high school in 1954, Guilderland Center children returned to Guilderland schools. However, seniors were given the choice of becoming part of Guilderland High School’s first graduating class or remaining in Voorheesville to graduate with the class they had been part of since the 1940s.

Because of the original restrictive deed, the outdated school could not be sold when the district’s other old schools were put up for auction. Over the years, attempts have been made to find a use for the building that met the terms of the deed.

Beginning in 1970, the newly formed Historical Committee, later chartered as the Guilderland Historical Society, began raising funds along with the school district’s Yorker Club.

The June 5, 1971 School Festival, spotlighting the Cobblestone Schoolhouse as the center of attraction, was a fundraiser seeking to draw attention to the venerable building. The event kicked off with the ringing of the school bell by the man who had been school custodian long ago.

Exhibits were inside and a large turnout of former students from classes from 1906 to 1941 attended. Farnworth Middle School children were involved through a grant for “Community as a Classroom.”

In 1973, the Guilderland Historical Society began selling historic photo calendars to raise funds and volunteers commenced to work to restore the long unused building. Fred Abele, president of the historical society, and Alton Farnsworth, retired superintendent of the Guilderland Central School District, were co-chairs of the committee directing restoration.

Then in 1982, the Guilderland League of Arts planned to use the school, continuing restoration begun a decade earlier, planning to locate their office there and as a space to exhibit art and to display school memorabilia.

A new century and new plans to utilize the building came in 2000 from Deb Escobar, a Farnsworth Middle School teacher who had received a grant from the New York State Archives and Records Administration for students to learn about the old school through documents and records. She was hoping to visit the school as part of their study.

Fast forward about a quarter-century and the Guilderland school district has done the legal work to clear the deed and is willing to sell the building to the town of Guilderland. It is to be hoped that district voters will allow the sale, which will preserve this gem of cobblestone architecture on the National Register of Historic Places and the last remaining intact one-room school in the town of Guilderland.