by Robert Uzzilia
Cairo Town Historian
Originally published in Daily Mail September 14, 2003
Bong. Bong. Bong. The toll of the bell called the children of Cairo’s pioneer families to humble one-room schoolhouses for most of the nineteenth century.
Originally, there was only one school for the entire town, situated in Cairo village and it functioned only a small portion of the year. But a New York State Law, enacted in 1813, required the support of Common Schools. This created the annual apportionment of a public school fund to be used for the establishment and improvement of public education. Eventually fourteen districts were created and a basic education was made available to the many rural farm families in the hamlets surrounding Cairo village. The first school commissioners elected were Simon Sayre, Benjamin Hine and James Renne.
The conditions in those early schoolhouses were primitive for both student and teacher but all made the best of it. Small, simple clapboard structures, they lacked adequate insulation and were heated by wood or coal stoves. The blackboard was literally a large board painted black. New book acquisitions were limited by lack of funding. The floors creaked and windows often remained with missing panes for months. Salary for teachers started at seven dollars a month in the early 1800’s and it took nearly a century for it to rise to thirty dollars monthly. Lighting was limited to available natural sunlight and good kerosene lanterns. Class size varied from a handful to about twenty.
When Fall Harvest season came many children were needed on the farm and missed some of their instruction time. The family livelihood took priority. This was likely the case for children of the Taylor, White, Roberts, Abeel and Slater families, who attended School No. 5 in the 1850’s near (present day) Rockefeller Lake on the Susquehanna Turnpike, now Rte. 145.
Discipline in the school was paramount to have any chance at completing lessons and giving a child a good education. Occasionally, a student was punished for disobeying a command. This could range from standing in the corner to a whipping with the Hickory Switch, and was at the discretion of the teacher. A booklet was kept by some teachers to chronicle these events and provide justification for actions to School Superintendents.
Jerome Thorne, who taught in Purling and South Cairo kept such a log during the late 1890’s. An additional punishment might even be in store for the child at home just for getting in trouble in the first place.
There were certainly many happy and rewarding moments for students in those early schools. Successfully reciting a poem in front of family and friends, recess in the schoolyard and of course, graduation were among the highlights. For Walter Baldwin, who attended School No. 6 in Purling in the late teens, it was being entrusted with simple pleasure of ringing the school bell that strikes him as a fond memory of those days.
The early twentieth century saw much growth locally, as families which had emigrated to the eastern cities were now migrating north and west to the rural towns of upstate New York. Much of this growth could be directly attributed to the new markets created by the advance of the automobile.
By 1924 it was decided by school officials that an up-to-date facility was needed to replace the aging and inadequate rural and village schools. This took shape in the form of a two-story mission style structure at the site of the present day elementary school. While having current facilities inside, the school’s appearance seemed out of place to many locals, looking more like it belonged in the Arizona desert. After graduating just one class (which included Wilson Chadderdon of Acra) the building sustained heavy damage from a fire. It was decided to use the remaining shell as the nucleus for a brick building, which received later additions and became the full structure by the time centralization of rural districts had occurred in 1931. Children would now be taken to school on large buses instead of walking or getting rides.
Land had also been purchased by the district from local pilot John Cryer, who had run an airstrip directly behind the school building. This area would later provide ample space for the soccer and baseball fields as well as a fine playground. (Children still also played in the remnants of the old concrete airplane hanger until the 1970’s.)
Most of the primitive schoolhouses deemed useless by centralization were sold to private buyers. Many were converted into dwellings. The only ones surviving intact as schoolhouses are Purling’s District #6 and South Durham’s #4 (which was moved behind Lange’s Groveside off Rte 23).
The imposing new red brick school must have created an initial excitement for young people. Conducting experiments in their modern science lab, performing a play on the large new wooden stage or playing on a sports team or cheering in the new gymnasium. Even the fine marble staircase in the lobby with its brass handrail (which we called “Golden” and thought was meant only for upperclassmen) were settings for many memorable moments to come. Cairo Central School, as it would be known for the next forty-four years would be the site of many plays, proms and sporting events enjoyed by both participants and guests. These extra-curricular activities would help round out thousands of students lives and provide lifetime memories.
The school yearbook would chronicle many of these moments starting in 1945, aptly named “the Forge” after our industrial beginnings along the Shingle Kill.
By 1976 the continued growth of the school district created the need for a larger building. It was decided to build a new Junior-Senior High School on a beautiful piece of property along Rte. 145. This school commands an inspiring view of the Blackhead Mountains and has established it own legacy of great moments for many students as a quarter-century has quickly passed since its inception.
The facilities have changed much since those early days but the bell still tolls for students to come and better themselves, to prepare for a better future.