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Hilltown Archives The Altamont Enterprise, July 1, 2010
Marking history, students of crumbling schoolhouse shore up memories
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
MEDUSA The schoolhouse may be crumbling but the memories of the scholars who once studied there are still solid.
A handful of them gathered on Sunday to dedicate a historical marker noting that the Sayre School in the hamlet of Medusa served students from about 1885 to 1951.
David Lewis, a dairy farmer who lives nearby and goes by the old one-room schoolhouse every day, remembers his school days vividly.
His favorite subject was history and now he’s part of it.
He used to play baseball with his schoolmates, using a rag ball and an old board from a barn for a bat.
His father and grandfather went to the same school before him.
“All the different classes sat together,” said Lewis. “We had to carry our water from a spring, and we kept warm with a kerosene heater.”
That was about the only change from his father’s day when the school was heated with a wood stove, he said.
Lewis remembered seeing television for the first time on a school field trip of sorts. “Our teacher took us to a relative of hers that had a television. Guess who was on the television?” he asked. “Ernie Tetrault,” he said, referencing a longtime local newscaster.
“We didn’t have a projector at our school,” Lewis went on. Naming another Rensselaerville hamlet, he said, “The Preston Hollow School five miles away had one, though, and they would invite us to see a movie every once in a while. We’d get in two or three cars and drive over.”
Pearl Haskins was a teacher at the school. She died in 2004 at the age of 104. Haskins once described her teaching as “fun, pure fun.”
Former students of Haskins who attended her 100th birthday party in 2000 said she was a great teacher. “With eight grades in one room, you had to be good,” said Mary Snyder who was 92 at the time of the birthday party.
Haskins had attended a different one-room schoolhouse in Medusa and gone on to Greenville High School and Oneonta Normal School.
Lewis went on to Greenville High as well, graduating in 1960. He was forced to move to the big regional school when the Sayre School closed in 1951. “I was in the fourth grade,” he recalled. “I was terrified to go to Greenville. There were so many kids and classrooms.”
The memories of the Sayre School students will live on in a book. The book was the brainchild of Gene Mackey Smith, a longtime Medusa resident who moved to Dutch Manor in Rotterdam after falling and suffering a broken hip and wrist.
For years, Smith wrote a column for local newspapers called “Notes from Lilac.” She has always liked the color and often wears it.
Many of her columns were gleaned from her mother’s diaries, which date back to 1914. Smith said she was named for her grandfather, Eugene Cook, who had lived next door to the childhood home in Medusa where she spent most of her life.
“My mother, bless her heart, why did she do it?” Smith asked earlier of her unusual first name. “It must have been I was supposed to be a boy.”
As a young girl, Smith went to the Sayre School. She described it as “falling in and falling apart,” but wanted to preserve the memories it held and so talked others into contributing to the book.
Smith, who is now 87, attended all eight grades in the one-room schoolhouse. She remembers when it was painted white, and the little outer room was stacked neatly with wood to stoke the stove.
“The stove was in the middle of the room and the teacher’s desk was near the open door,” Smith recalled this week. “She taught all the grades in one room. If we were done with our own lesson, we’d listen to what the others were taught.”
Smith’s favorite subject was art, and she still enjoys coloring pictures, which she gives to other residents at Dutch Manor or to the Ronald McDonald House.
She recalled, as a child, fetching water from a spring and carrying the bucket to the schoolhouse, where the children used a long-handled dipper to get drinks.
It saddens her now to see the dilapidated building. “The place is broken down. The poor little schoolhouse is not in good condition.”
She hopes the booklet at least will keep the memories alive for future generations.
Smith’s niece, Adrienne Mackey Saurer, who lives in New Jersey, took up the cause of seeing that the 45-page booklet was printed.
“She paid for it out her own pocket,” said Lewis with admiration. “Gene asked everyone that went to the school to contribute a page of memories.”
“I’m not an editor or a publisher,” said Saurer this week. “I just wanted to finish it for my aunt because it was her dream.”
Saurer’s father was the oldest of four children; he had three sisters. “The girls were like sisters to me,” said Saurer. “She’s the only one left,” she said of Smith.
Sauer herself went to the Sayre School from 1940 to 1945 and has fond memories of it. “When I first went, there were only two other children there,,” she said. “Then one brother of a guy and my sister came.”
When Sauer, in later years, came back to Rensselaerville for visits, she said, “I would always take my kids there. They don’t comprehend a one-room schoolhouse.”
They came to understand its importance. Saurer’s son, William (Bill) Saurer Jr. donated over $900 for the historical marker that was dedicated on Sunday.
The cream-colored marker with green trim was made by the son of Saurer’s cousin.
The marker is important, said Smith, “because the school is falling in.”
She concluded, “There was nothing there saying it ever was a school. It will fall down and be wood to burn….The plaque is beautiful. Now people will know what was there.”