Bells that once called young scholars to school now bear silent testament to bygone days

This bell not only rang for classes, but was reputed to ring mysteriously on Halloween. Here it is visible in the cupola atop Guilderland District 4 School on Willow Street. The empty cupola remains on the building now housing a New York State Police substation.

Many decades ago, peals of bells housed in cupolas atop local schoolhouses signaled dawdling children that classes were about to begin. Once standard equipment for old-time schools, most school bells have disappeared along with most of the school buildings where they once hung. Fortunately, a few of Guilderland’s historic school bells have survived.

In 1900, Guilderland’s several common school districts were scattered throughout the town to be within children’s walking distance from home, offering education up through eighth grade.

With district numbers in parenthesis, they were: Settles Hill (1), Dunnsville (2), Parkers Corners (3), Hamlet of Guilderland (4), Wormer School (5), Guilderland Center (6), Altamont (7), Gardner Road School (8), Osborn Corners (9), Cobblestone School on Stone Road (10), McKownville (11), McKownville Annex (11A), Fullers (13), and Fort Hunter Bigsbee School (14).

District 12 had disbanded in the 1890s, followed by the closure of the Wormer School in 1906. By 1902, Altamont had become a Union Free District and had opened its high school.

Early in the 1930s, New York State began to urge rural areas with many small local districts like Guilderland’s to merge into centralized districts, doing away with old-fashioned, one-room schools and offering modern high school education.

In 1941, the Voorheesville schools centralized, including Guilderland districts 5, 8, and 10. That same year, Guilderland Center residents voted to pay tuition, enabling their children to attend Voorheesville schools even though they didn’t become part of that central district.

Eventually, Guilderland’s remaining districts plus North Bethlehem voted to form the Guilderland Central School District in 1950. Once modern Fort Hunter, Altamont, and Westmere elementary schools opened in 1953, the old one-room schools were auctioned off.

Whatever became of the school bells?

Parker Corners bell to inspire modern scholars

Hidden away in a grass-covered courtyard at Guilderland High School rests the bell that once warned the little scholars attending the Parkers Corners District 3 School that classes were about to begin. The three-foot high bronze bell, cast in 1864, is inscribed in raised lettering, “Joy and gladness shall be found therein, Thanksgiving and the voice of melody.”

The bell is 33 inches in diameter and originally called worshippers to the Old State Road Methodist Church. Charles Parker, a wealthy New York City man who lived for a time in the area, donated $4,000 in 1864 to build a Methodist Church near his home. At that time, a church bell was purchased from Jones and Company Bell Foundry of Troy, a foundry in operation from 1852 to 1887. By the late 1930s, the dwindling congregation forced closure of the church.

Nearby on West Old State Road stood the Parkers Corners one-room school where one November morning in 1942 fire erupted just as pupils were arriving. While desks, books, and the adjoining wood shed were saved by neighbors’ immediate action, the building was a total loss.

Realizing that, due to World War II shortages, there was no chance of arranging the transportation of students to another district, residents quickly noted the empty church building in their midst would be the perfect solution. The former church served as the Parkers Corners School until 1953 when students began attending Fort Hunter Elementary School.

After having been sold at auction, the building burned in a suspicious fire, but not before the bell had been removed to be placed by the flagpole near the front of the new Guilderland Junior-Senior High School when it opened in 1954. The bell was to serve as a “symbolic link of the ten former common school districts with the new centralization.” Today, because of the extensive expansion of the high school building over the years, the bell is now in an enclosed courtyard.

Guilderland bell traveled to Greece

The trip from Parkers Corners to the new junior-senior high school was a short one compared to the journey traveled by the bell from the Guilderland District 4 School.

In 1847, the District 4 School became the town’s first two-room school. When the building was remodeled and enlarged in the 1890s, it boasted a “fine” new bell donated by village residents Messrs. Newberry and Chapman, owners of the Guilderland foundry. Because casting bells was such a specialized operation, it is unlikely the bell was cast at their foundry.

After the 1953 opening of Westmere Elementary School, the Willow Street school building served as Guilderland’s first real town hall before becoming a State Police substation.

As Nazi invaders swept through Greece in 1941, they confiscated anything that could be of value to their war effort, including the bell that hung in St. Nicholas Church in the small Macedonian village of Siatista. Communist unrest in that area of Greece during the years immediately following the war prevented the villagers from replacing their cherished bell.

Mrs. F.C. Cargill of Guilderland became aware of the village’s loss and knew that the Society of Siatisteon Siatista, a New York City group of former Siatista village residents, sought a replacement bell. She contacted William D. Borden, president of the Guilderland Board of Education to inquire if one of the district’s old school bells could be donated.

The board quickly approved, giving the bell from the Guilderland District 4 School to the society which took over the responsibility and cost of shipping the bell to Greece. After its arrival, the bishop sent a gracious thank-you for the bell to the board of education saying, “By its sacred tolling it may summon Christians to worship God.”

Dunnsville bell at Town Hall

The Dunnsville District 2 one-room school dated back to 1875 when it replaced an earlier 1820 building. In 1882, a bell cast at the Clinton H. Meneely Bell Company, a Troy bell foundry, was placed in the cupola of the new school where it rang out 15 minutes before classes began, again at class time, and then again at noon.

Viola Crounse Gray, a Dunnsville student in the early 1900s, recalled her father and other local farmers coming in from their chores for their midday meal at the sound of the school’s noon bell. As the last trustee of the school, in 1953 she had the opportunity to purchase any school property not needed by the district.

Sentimentally, she wanted the bell she remembered so fondly from her childhood. In 1982, when she and her husband, Earl Gray, offered the bell to the town, it was placed in front of Town Hall.

Stone Road bell at historic house

Once ringing out from above the Cobblestone District 10 School on Stone Road, today the school’s 320-pound bell rests silently in front of the Mynderse-Frederick House. Because this Guilderland district became part of the Voorheesville Central School District, it isn’t clear when the building ceased being used as a school and became a private residence.

At some point, its bell came into the possession of the Albany Institute of History and Art, later passing into the hands of the Christ Lutheran Church in McKownville. When the bell proved too heavy to place in the church’s bell tower, it languished in a storeroom for 30 years.

Eventually, the church historian got in touch with then-Town Historian Fred Hillenbrand to offer the bell to the town. After Guilderland Highway Department workers refurbished the bell, cast in 1868 at the Meneely Bell Foundry of West Troy (after 1896 renamed City of Watervliet), it was placed in its newest location in front of the Mynderse-Frederick House.

Cobblestone school still has its bell

To have a genuine glimpse of the past, observe the old Cobblestone District 6 School in Guilderland Center with its bell still in its cupola as you drive by on Route 146. The building was erected in 1867 and is still owned by Guilderland Central School District.

During the period of time when these rural schools were built, the cities of the Capital District were manufacturing centers employing countless workers. Among the factories in Troy and West Troy (Watervliet) were bell foundries turning out thousands of bells sold all over the country for schools, churches, and government buildings.

When you pass by the bells at Town Hall or in front of the Mynderse-Frederick House, remember the early system of common-school education they represented as well as the industry that was once so important to this area.