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Reminiscences of Montclair
Chapter 7

In the center of the town was located the two-story stone school house. From an old school record that came into my possession a few years ago, is the following item: "At a School meeting held at the house of Joseph Munn, Friday, March 13th, 1812, Capt. John Baldwin was appointed Moderator and E.D. Ward, Clerk. It was resolved that the Trustees be instructed to secure a deed from Israel Crane for a site on which to erect a schoolhouse, containing twenty-five hundredths of an acre, bounded on the northeast by the Turnpike Road, on the south by the Old Road and on the west by Pumenas Dodd's garden fence. The Trustees were Israel Crane, Matthias Smith, Joseph Munn, Eleazer Crane, Oliver Crane, David Riker and Justice Baldwin."

The description in the above deed covers the point of land in front of the First Presbyterian Church. The garden fence of Pumenas Dodd ran on about the front line of the church as it now stands, and the easterly end of the schoolhouse green extended about ten feet beyond the present curbstone. Near the point was an elm tree, one of a line of trees that was set out by the young men of the town, who dug them in the woods, carried them and planted a row on each side of the Green the full length of the lot. Those on Bloomfield Avenue were sacrificed in widening the avenue, the one at the point being removed when that end of the Green was thrown into the public highway. Only two of these original elms are now standing on Church Street. This Green, not enclosed at the time, was the playground for the scholars and baseball was played with less exposure of windows than it would be at the present time. One school exercise that I can remember in connection with the old Green was a plan of the teacher to fix the multiplication table in our young minds by marching us in line about the Green with martial treat, repeating in concert "twice one is two," etc., etc.

The school building stood about twelve feet in front of the present church building, and at the foot of the Green was a creditable liberty pole with gilded ball and liberty cap on top. The schoolhouse was two stories, twenty-two feet by forty-four feet, built on red sandstone, with entrance at the south gable end. The upper story was reached by stairway from the entrance hall and was arranged with two rows of permanent seats, painted green, with platform and reading desk at the north end, and was used for religious service, the pastor from the Bloomfield church holding service periodically Sunday afternoons. The service was sometimes conducted by a layman.

Mr. Israel Crane, who had undertaken to study for the ministry but was compelled to give it up on account of ill health, sometimes led the meetings in this upper room, and I well remember, as a boy, his striking face, his slightly stooping form and his peculiar accent as he read for us the long sermon of some good old preacher.

The schoolroom below was arranged with platform and teacher's desk at the north end, with continuous stationary desks on each side, the full length of the room, with benches painted lead color. In front of these was a row of smaller benches for the younger scholars. This room was also used for public entertainment, singing school, etc. Mr. Thomas Hastings, of New York, used to come out and give instructions in singing.

The early teachers were Gideon Wheeler, Philander Seymour, David J. Allen, Warren S. Holt, Isaac B. Wheeler, Silas Stiles and Mr. Packard. While I can remember several of them, my early instructions were from Mr. Holt and the impressions made by him may have been more strongly fixed by disciplinary treatment for which he had a good record. Mr. Holt conducted the school successfully for a number of years, introducing some new methods, closing each year with a public examination and in the evening a grand display of the elocutionary powers of the scholars, which was called the "Exhibition," and was regarded as the school event of the year. Conspicuous in oratory was "On Linden when the sun was low All bloodless lay the untrodden snow" and Patrick Henry's famous speech, "Give me Liberty or give me Death," was declaimed with oratorial effect. Dialogues of William Tell, illustrated by shooting the apple from the boy's head, and of David and Goliath, wherein the little David would lay low the big boy Goliath with a stone skillfully thrown from his sling, where rendered at the Exhibition with great satisfaction to the numerous audience.

Mr. Holt's final parting from the school, I think made a more lasting impression on the minds of the scholars than the dry rules of arithmetic or English grammar. The entire school was invited to his boarding house and treated to all the scholars wanted of good home-made root beer and gingerbread.

After Mr. Holt closed his engagement with the district school he married a daughter of Elder Caleb Baldwin and opened a day and boarding school at the Mount Prospect House, which he conducted successfully for many years. The popularity of the school drew scholars from various parts of the country, also many of his former pupils in town. Mr. Holt died at the age of eighty-six on June 16th, 1894.

I have no information as to the annual cost of the school in those earlier days. Taking for data the year 1852, when the male teacher received $340 per annum and the lady assistant $200, we perceive a wide contrast with our present school assessment of $98,768.70 and the corresponding advance in the facilities for public education, giving opportunity to the young people of this day that ought to be appreciated and improved. The low rate of teachers' pay in those early days, as it seems to us, doubtless compared favorably with wages in other industries and with the cost of living, but it would seem to give some justification to a traditional story of a teacher who, when the periodical time for the payment of his board came around, would regularly, but rather privately, take the required amount from a certain earthen mug on the mantel where the good landlady had placed the previous payment. I don't know that it is true, but they used to tell it of good old aunt Hannah Crane's teacher-board.

I may perhaps mention, as of some interest one or two incidents of the old school days. The geography class was arranged in line before the teacher. The lesson was a review of the rivers of the United States, the scholars answering in their regular turn. The teacher gave the location of a certain river in one of the States, and the particular question put to the scholar in line was the name. The boy, who was a little noted for his dullness, hesitated for some time, when the teacher failing to use the tonsorial phrase of the present day, "next," called emphatically, "Emmons," meaning the next scholar, which the boy to whom the question was first given understood as a kindly help from the teacher, and immediately responded, "Oh yes, I remember now, the Emmons River."

While the teacher was illustrating from the platform to the class in philosophy some point by the use of a mirror, with his back toward the scholars, a big, athletic fellow sitting next to me did not seem to discern how the teacher could see him with his back towards us and began to throw out his pugilistic fists towards the instructor on the platform, when immediately came the words from Mr. Holt, rather emphatically and to the chagrin of the chum, "Take care, Surds, I am looking at you." There was a sudden drop in the fighting attitude.

One feature of school life would be a novelty to the present day scholar, and that is the goose quill. It was the only pen we knew of, and when the hour came for writing practice the teacher with penknife in hand would follow the class in line, sharpening each pupil's quill pen in turn. This was superseded by the steel pen, then the gold and now the fountain pen and typewriter, and much after its order comes the adding machine, which adds and multiplies numbers without limit so correctly that it looks as though arithmetic, like the quill pen, is liable to be driven from the school by advancing mechanism.

Reminiscences of Montclair (NJ) was written in 1908 by Philip Doremus
Please do not reproduce this document for profit without notifying me first.

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