Rich are the lessons from a restored schoolhouse in Knox

Enterprise file photo — Marcello Iaia

Daniel Driscoll, a man of many talents, plays the penny whistle in Altamont last June.

Enterprise file photo — Marcello Iaia

Pauline Williman, seated at right, told visiting schoolchildren last spring about her days as a student in the 1930s at Knox School 5. Teacher Michelle Pahl rings the old school bell with the restored schoolhouse behind her.

 We all have stories to tell; that is something that humans alone do among all the species on this Earth. And storytelling is and has been universal among all tribes and nations.

Peoples without written words tell stories aloud, and sometimes the oral traditions are passed along or preserved in drawings on rock walls or in beads strung in particular patterns. Other stories survive in structures — buildings can tell us who made them and how by their materials and their means of construction.

A recently published book uses several of these methods to tell an important local story — the story of Knox School District 5. The small frame structure stands straight and true in the place where it was built well over a century ago — on Ketcham Road in the southeast corner of Knox.

The last time we wrote in this space about the book’s author, Daniel Driscoll, it was to celebrate his work as a preservationist. A retired sound engineer and a musician, Driscoll founded the land conservancy now called Mohawk Hudson. Among its lands for public use is the Wolf Creek Falls Preserve in Knox with a stream over which Driscoll constructed a bridge of black locust planks that serves as a giant marimba, complete with mallets so visitors can play their own tunes.

Driscoll’s book involves a different sort of preservation — that of a rural schoolhouse, emblematic of an era when such schools were an experiment in a new nation’s democracy.

What a bold and stunning idea: that all children — not just those of the wealthy — should be educated. A democracy, after all, as a government of the people, depends on an informed electorate.

As Jack McEneny, retired state assemblyman and former Albany County historian, writes in the book’s forward, “Ironically, elected trustees who committed themselves to empowering the next generation and the future with a basic educational foundation, often lacked the same sound education they wished to impart to their children.”

The handwritten ledger, which Driscoll has painstakingly transcribed, details the history of the school district from 1824 until 1905 through the minutes of the school board meetings.

So meticulous is Driscoll in his transcribing, he even notes, for example, at one place in an 1830s account, “The thought appears to have been interrupted at this point and the ink becomes slightly lighter.” What follows is a list of the 74 students who attended the school that year, grouped after their father’s names. The number of school-aged siblings in each family ranged from one to eight.

Driscoll also notes, when the ledger’s description of the participants at the annual meeting shifted from “freeholders and inhabitants” to “legal voters.” That was in 1845, and Driscoll comments, “The previous year had been one of the most violent of the Anti-Rent Rebellion, with armed resistance by bands of Calico Indians, so the distinction between freeholders and inhabitants was probably a sore issue.”

A table in the back of the historic ledger, now with the New Scotland Historical Association (the school served part of New Scotland as well as Knox) includes such titles as Polar Seas and Regions, Franklin’s Life, Natural History of Birds and Natural History of Quadrupeds, and Power of Religion.

Decades later — Driscoll, with his intimate knowledge of the text, can determine by the handwriting and ink that it was written by Isaac Reamer in 1876 or 1877 — a list was made of how much wood, in fractions of cords, each landowner must contribute to keep the school warm with its potbellied stove. Lawrence Clickman’s required donation was written over as ½ rather than ¼ of a cord, or vice versa, notes Driscoll.

Why should we care about such minute and distant details? Because they form the fabric of a bygone way of life.

Our current public education system evolved from this grass-roots start. We no longer require cords of wood from district residents to keep schoolchildren warm, but the principle is the same as the many contribute for the good of the future.

Driscoll’s book also tells a modern story — about the saving of history. As a Knox resident and a member of the Kiwanis Club of the Helderbergs, Driscoll describes the way the Kiwanis worked with the state’s Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, which owns the schoolhouse that had served District 5, to preserve the structure and its nearby woodshed. (Copies of the book, History of a One-Room Schoolhouse in Knox, NY, may be purchased for $15 online at; proceeds go to the Friends of Thacher State Park.)

Driscoll details the grants received and the labor — largely through volunteer work parties — that consisted of everything from replacing rotted joists after removing three layers of flooring to refurbishing the school’s original desks, discovered in storage nearby. This is a story of dedicated volunteers caring enough about local history to preserve it.

At the same time, Driscoll tells another story, setting the Knox school in the context of national history. He quotes Daniel Webster from 1825 — the year after the first Knox schoolhouse was built — saying of the era, “Our proper business is improvement. Let our age be the age of improvement.” This speaks to the irony McEneny commented on: an unschooled generation wanted to improve the next.

Driscoll describes the exodus from rural New York State, including the Hilltowns, after the Erie Canal was completed in 1825, opening rich farmland in the West. He also describes the rise and fall of tourism in the Helderbergs as the automobile made a different kind of vacationing popular.

And Driscoll directly ties the Knox school to the Anti-Rent Rebellion through Isaac Hungerford, a school trustee first elected in 1828 who served in various capacities through 1851. After the anti-renters had sent a new “Declaration of Independence” to the patroon, Stephen Van Rensselaer IV, Van Rensselaer had the sheriff draw up writs of ejectment against the leaders. In August 1839, the undersheriff delivered the first writ to Hungerford.

“You can’t go through this country with patroon papers and get home a live man,” Hungerford told the undersheriff.

Driscoll culled this anecdote from Henry’s Christman’s definitive book on the Anti-Rent Wars, Tin Horns and Calico, one of a number of historical sources Driscoll draws from. The account goes on: “Hungerford then drew a long knife from his belt and said, ‘I’m warning you! There are hundreds like me. We’d as soon die as not, if we have to.”

Driscoll also details the year-to-year life of the district school, which had its last incarnation in the “new” 1890s building, the one restored by the Kiwanis. Driscoll writes of how the school had two terms — three months in the summer and three months in the winter, with teachers paid twice as much for the winter terms.

Teachers, most of whom served for short stints, typically boarded with local families progressing from grade to grade as they were able. Frequently, only half of the number of enrolled children would attend on any given day. Students worked at their own pace, progressing from grade to grade as they were able.

The richest stories in the book are those told by the students who attended the school. These interviews are included with the ledger transcription in the extensive appendices, which account for three-quarters of the 120-page paperback book.

Not all the students were fond of their school. David Sagendorf, in a 2003 hospice bedside interview, said, “I don’t want to know nothing about that school no more. I don’t even want to hear about it now. I hated it.”

Tellingly, the book includes a signed picture from Sagendorf’s teacher. On the back of her photograph, Fanny Ellis, a young woman with bobbed hair, wrote: “To my little nuisance who is also a little dear when he wants to be.”

After getting out of the school in the 1930s, when he was 16, Sagendorf worked on his family’s farm until he married and went into construction work.

Pauline Williman attended the one-room schoolhouse along with her brother, Bill Salisbury, who was paid $10 in 1937 to serve as custodian for the year, carrying drinking water to the school every morning, sweeping out the mudroom, and starting the fire in the school’s stove.

Williman’s recollections are vivid and informative. She finished at Knox District 5 in 1936 when she was 10 and went on to Altamont High School, graduating in 1940 at the age of 14. Then she had to wait two years until she was old enough to get into business school. She became a certified shorthand reporter, recording her first hearing when she was just 15 years old. In 1949, she began and successfully ran her own business.

Teachers boarded at the Salisbury home and were treated “just like family,” the siblings reported. During a bad winter, when they couldn’t get to classes because the roads weren’t plowed, the teacher held classes in the Salisburys’ living room.

One year, their father bought Pauline and Bill sheepskin coats to wear when they walked to school. When the temperature dropped to 12 degrees below zero, they asked their father if they could stay home. He replied, that is why he bought the coats. They walked to school but no one else was there, so they walked home. Their father said, at least they tried.

One of their teachers, in a quickly changing series, was Venita Davis, a singer from Binghamton. When she boarded with the Salisburys, she had her piano shipped up and would practice singing at night. She would have her students sing to start the school day, walking about the classroom and stopping at every desk to listen. At Pauline’s desk, she would say, “complete monotone,” which made Pauline feel small.

Still, Williman said, she got a good education at the school. When she went to high school in Altamont, the students of the more well-to-do families there ignored her except to ridicule the way she dressed, Williman reported. “Their children dressed differently than a poor farm girl from the Hill,” says the book.

We, at The Enterprise, have written stories before about Pauline Williman. We’ve told of how she set up a foundation to farm her family’s land to grow food for the needy. We wonder if part of her courage to pursue a successful business career, which was rare for women in that era, came from lessons she learned at the one-room schoolhouse in Knox — lessons that taught her to at least try when others stayed home.

She also perhaps learned lessons in both humility and generosity. Clothes don’t matter when you have a richness of intellect and the generosity to share. A “poor farm girl from the Hill” has shared the wealth of her land to help feed the poor for generations to come.

“My parents had so little when I was a kid,” Williman told us for a story we wrote 13 years ago as she formed her foundation. “We ate what we raised on the farm. If people came to the house, no one went away hungry. People were welcomed and offered the best that we had.”

She went on, “I could never imagine in those days that I could do half of what I’ve been able to do. If anyone ever told me I’d work with a couple of governors on a regular basis or that I’d shake hands with a president, I’d have told them, ‘You have rocks in your head.’ I’ve been privileged to do a lot of things. This is paying back.”

Stories inform and connect us, sometimes in ways we least expect. We commend Daniel Driscoll for his book and his leadership, and the Kiwanis members for following through in the restoration of a landmark.

We urge our readers to visit the past, and so enrich their lives and our future.
— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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