Monday, February 28, 2011

"EAST OTTO DISTRICT 6A TO BUILD NEW SCHOOL"

The above item appeared on the front page and rated its own heading in "The Cattaraugus Times." Usually news of our valley was buried among the personals under a caption: "Interesting News of East Otto and Vicinity."

A new schoolhouse for District 6A was exciting news in the Brooklyn community. The one which burned had been a landmark, as it had been in use for over sixty years. It was by no means the first educational structure in the locality, that distinction going to a school taught by John Pratt somewhere on Hammond Hill Road.

The New York State Education Department mandated selection of a different site for the school, citing two deficiencies of the old location. A larger area was deemed necessary for a playground. In case a well were ever drilled, having a cemetery just uphill from the school was thought inappropriate. Albert Pratt offered to donate half an acre of land if the school board would purchase a like amount from him. The spot decided upon was just north of the Free Methodist Church, reducing by four minutes my walk to school.

Action by the school board specified a cost of not over $5,000. Insurance from the burned structure amounted to $1,750. Out of eight sealed bids, the lowest totaled $2,395. Actual work on the building didn't get started until August 6, 1931. Even so, classes began there in September. New single-unit desks in a variety of sizes were a great improvement over the old combination units which had been screwed to the floor.

Our new teacher was Miss Katherine Lincoln whose home was between Brooklyn and East Otto village. Early that fall George Fleckenstein's milk truck frequently halted in front of the schoolhouse. George appeared at the door for a brief conversation with the teacher. All of the students displayed great interest in these developments.

My classmate Don nudged me. "I'll bet he's asking her for a date," he whispered.

"Why don't you ask her if he did?" I countered.

"Quiet!" Lillian interrupted. "Let's see if we can hear what they're saying.

Just then Miss Lincoln closed the door and came back into the room. Seeing our impish, inquisitive faces all turned in her direction, she blushed and tried to turn our attention back to our lessons.

"Fifth Grade Arithmetic," the teacher announced as routine took over again. Later in the day, while she was briefly absent from the room, this scrawled message appeared on the blackboard, "Teacher has a date."

Resumption of the customary Christmas festivities that December was a joyful occasion. We felt the holiday season had really begun when Don's grandfather, Albert Pratt, arrived with a wagon-load of lumber with which he erected a temporary stage or platform about a foot or so high across the front of the schoolroom. He strung a wire above the stage from one side of the room to the other. Volunteers brought bed-sheets from home which we hung on the wire to create stage curtains. On one disastrous occasion, in the middle of an act a supporting hook pulled out of the wall, dropping the sheets to the floor. To the consternation of cast, they were exposed to audience view while in the middle of changing costumes.

The second sure sign of the season was the appearance of a local farmer carrying a big Christmas tree. Decorating the tree called for ingenuity, for most of the trimmings had to be improvised by the students. We pasted together paper chains of rainbow hues and created cutouts by folding long pieces of paper in various ways to form repeated figures or objects. Such activities served as our art lessons. A tasty standard feature was the stringing of garlands of popcorn. We never permitted ALL of it to reach the tree. The teacher brought a few shiny ornaments to hang on the branches along with red apples. Mothers baked and decorated molasses cookies. A loop of string baked into the top of each cookie made it easy to attach it to the limbs. The defective ones whose strings came loose dropped the cookies to the floor in a crumby heap. We eagerly salvaged these rejects for instant taste testing. We weren't above helping to create some of these "accidents."

For two reasons we had no lights on the tree. First, electricity was not available. Second, real candles which some used sparingly at home were banned from school due to the fire hazard they created. At home we had eight or ten little tin candle holders which clipped to the branches. Each one had a socket which held a small candle three or four inches tall. Due to the cost of candles plus the fire danger, they were lit only for short periods of time under the supervision of adults who had a pail of water close at hand. At home we had one near-conflagration. A dry hemlock branch caught fire. It burned furiously. Mother doused the flaming branch before major damage occurred.

The Christmas program at school was composed of a combination of individual and group recitations and songs plus a number of short plays or dramatizations. While the theme was in keeping with the season, often the mini-dramas were intended to be humorous and bore titles such as "Mehitabel and Jerusha." The teacher reduced regular classes or suspended some to give time for practice. This was especially the case as the day neared for the performance. The program took place in the evening so parents and everyone in the neighborhood could attend. Invariably the schoolhouse was so packed that some people were forced to stand. To miss this annual event for any reason was considered one of the worst things that could occur to a pupil.

"Son, I don't think you're well enough to attend the Christmas program." I was stunned.

In mid-December 1931 I had been running a temperature due to the flu. At mother's stern pronouncement, my world fell apart. During the years of the Great Depression, the annual school Christmas program shone as a bright spot in that little one-room schoolhouse. Missing the only Christmas festivities of the entire year seemed more than I could handle.

I had already been psyched up in helping to decorate the tree and by daily practice of recitations, songs, and skits. With only fifteen students spread over eight grades, I, along with others, had memorized and practiced multiple parts. Besides missing participation in the program, I feared losing out on the exchange of gifts presided over by Santa Claus. Too, I didn't want to miss the distribution of the little red mesh bags of hard candy which included one chocolate. My despair deepened as I pondered this unfair fate.

After lunch, as they were leaving to visit a sick parishioner, mother and father cautioned: "Stay quietly by the stove and rest." No sooner had they departed than I had an inspiration. One of the remedies peddled by Hayden Silvernail, the Watkins dealer, was a potent brown liquid named Watkins Liniment. Directions on the bottle read: "Apply externally to aching joints and muscles. For internal use, mix a half- teaspoon of liniment into a glass of warm water and drink."

Recognizing the precariousness of my situation, I wanted a miracle, even one of my own making. I reasoned that if a little of the stuff was beneficial, a greater dose would be even more effective. I poured a glass half-full of the medication and finished filling it with warm water. From previous experience, I knew the potion would be bitter and burn. The only way to get it down was to swallow it quickly without stopping to breathe. Once again that technique worked.

Gasping for breath, I felt my insides aflame. Chills shook my body. In total misery, dreading my parents' return, I wrapped myself in a quilt and huddled next to the roaring wood stove.

The moment mother entered the house she exclaimed: "What do I smell?" I had been burping the horrible stuff. Since it was alcohol-based, it's a wonder the fumes from my breath hadn't caught fire!

"You know how much I hate taking Watkins Liniment," I plead. How well mother did know that! "I wanted so much to get well enough to go to the Christmas program that I took a strong dose."

"How strong," mother demanded. She gasped when I admitted that it was a 50/50 mixture.

"Let me take your temperature," she insisted.

From the burning within, I expected the mercury to soar. Twice she returned the thermometer to my mouth before reluctantly admitting: "It reads normal."

"Then I can go!" I shouted, jumping up and down in my excitement.

Mother hesitated, and then agreed. To the concession she attached a stern proviso: "Promise me that you will never pull this stunt again."

"I promise," was my prompt reply.

That was one promise that I kept scrupulously. However, I still remember Watkins Liniment as "the medicine that saved Christmas."

Monday, February 21, 2011

Strange Semester

After the old schoolhouse burned in early winter, finding a temporary place to hold classes presented a real problem. The community was small, so options available were few. Some people thought this an auspicious time to merge with East Otto Union School in the village three miles away. However, enough voters wished to retain the district school so their will prevailed. After several school board meetings presided over by chairman Frank Woodard, the location for interim classes was selected and the site for the new building chosen.

The location decided on for temporary classroom space should have delighted me. It was right next door to the parsonage in a house owned by Charles Wing. Some years before, the two rooms facing the road had housed a small grocery store. These were now vacant as Mr. Wing lived in the back portion of the building. Of all of the pupils in the district, I now lived nearest the school.

The old desks, salvaged during the fire, were installed in one room and faced a newly-purchased blackboard. The other room was used for storing wraps, lunches, and what remained of the library. Most of the library books had been saved, although a majority of the volumes were old and would not have been much of a loss. Soon classes were convened in these rather unusual facilities.

From my point of view, I soon discovered the change to be not entirely favorable. The fact that I could reach the school in only three minutes prompted my parents to decide that I should come home for lunch. Not having to prepare lunches freed up time for my mother around breakfast and other farm activities. Chores and other duties soon multiplied to keep me occupied at home during the noon hour. Consequently I missed participating in the major play period of the day.

Secondly, I became aware that most of what went on around the outside of the school building was within easy view of the parsonage. It wasn't that I was doing things of which they would disapprove. Simply, I didn't like to be so visible. I disliked having to explain to my parents some of the happenings they had observed. A seasoned teacher might have found better ways to handle problems caused by this deficient school environment. Still, the physical setting contributed significantly to the disruptions.

Christmas vacation was reduced to only the holiday itself to make up the days lost during the transition to the new premises after the school burned. Christmas exercises were entirely omitted. The students resented missing out on this high point in the school year. The restive attitude of the pupils reflected their frustration and disappointment at forfeiting the normal holiday season.

The coming of spring brought not only maple sugar season but also an epidemic of spring fever. The sun shone into that small room crowded with farm children whose norm was one bath a week on Saturday night. Footwear worn to the dairy barn carried more than the odor of leather and narrowly prevented the snake's escape from the box.

"Take that away at once,' the teacher ordered. "Snakes do not belong in the classroom."

"We were just trying to do what you asked us to," we explained, pleading our innocence and good faith. The teacher was totally unimpressed.

Shortly after the snake episode, I became ill with a fever which lasted three or four days and caused me to miss classes. I awoke one morning feeling just fine. I got dressed for school and was about to leave the house.

"Let me look at you," mother demanded. After brief scrutiny, she reached her conclusion.

"You have measles. Get right back to bed."

Mine were the nine day variety and caused me to miss a total of two weeks of school. In addition, the health officer appeared to quarantine the house. He fastened a large red sign to the front door to warn people to stay away.

Isolation had happened before in Cattaraugus when my brother, Irving, had a severe case of scarlet fever. Then even father couldn't go away from the premises. He placed a list of grocery needs in the oven along with money to pay for them. These were heated until hopefully any germs were killed. A neighbor took the list and money from the porch and brought back the needed supplies. Being sick was no fun in those days.

The sound of a car driving into the school yard in mid-morning alerted the students to a possible diversion from the daily routine. Whispered guesses circulated in the room.

"I was right this time," I whispered to Lillian as the teacher opened the door to welcome the County Superintendent of Schools. The conversational buzz quickly subsided into an awkward hush.

Quality control of education in that era had at least two dimensions. One was the periodic visit of the County School Superintendent to each school. The man filling this post for Cattaraugus County was Mr. Levi R. Tubbs. He was a well-rounded grandfatherly gentleman as even his name implied. After consulting with the teacher, he selected students at random from each grade to recite for him. The questions he put were representative for the grade and subject. The awe with which we viewed him strongly affected our responses. Along with the rest of the students, I desperately hoped he would not call my name. Harry, Carol, and Clair had each been called.

"Arnold Cook?" he looked inquiringly around.

"Yes sir." I arose and went forward, stumbling over Clinton's foot. A titter went around the room and my face began to burn.

"Please name the continents for me," he requested.

My voice quavered and my knees shook as I haltingly gave the correct response.

Next he tried my arithmetic skills by posing a word problem which required division. Although my answer was right, the voice in which it was given lacked conviction.

To his final query, "Do you enjoy reading books?" I finally was able to crack a smile.

"Yes sir, I really do."

The second, and more comprehensive, evaluation of the outcomes of the educational process, came in the form of standardized tests for each subject. These were prepared by the New York State Board of Regents but were administered by the teacher. The questions were printed on tissue paper and enclosed in sealed envelopes printed with the precise day and hour at which they were to be opened and distributed to the students. A certain hush always accompanied this ritual as the teacher cut the end from the envelope and passed out the questions.

The outcomes of these tests determined not only if a student would pass but also judged the teacher's effectiveness. That June the result for a number of students from District 6A was repetition of the grade. For the teacher, one consequence was failure to receive a contract for the following academic year. In the autumn of 1931, we had a new teacher and a brand new building.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Fiery Nightmare

"Is breakfast almost ready?" I asked Mother for the fifth time as I paced impatiently from living room to kitchen. The night before I had scarcely slept as thoughts of the new school raced through my head. I checked my pencil box, tablet, drinking cup, and lunch box again to make certain I had everything I would need.

Regular school attendance was always important to me as I was growing up. I disliked missing classes and avoided being late. One problem arose by my being part of a Free Methodist parsonage family. The annual conference, at which assignment of pastors was made for the following year, occurred Labor Day weekend. Until appointments were read by the Bishop as almost the last action of the business sessions, often late Saturday night, I was unsure where I would be going to school for the next year.

Once father returned home, moving even our meager furnishings required a little time to pack and arrange for one of the farmers to haul them in his open truck. The result usually was my starting a day or more after classes had begun. Being very self-conscious about my feet, I felt conspicuous arriving after the other students had already settled in. Drawing attention to myself was what I wished to avoid. But this was one of the burdens I had to bear as a PK.

On my first day at East Otto District No. 6A, my father chauffeured me to school in the 1928 Chevy and delivered me to the classroom veteran, Mrs. Wing, for whom this was the last year of teaching before retirement. Looking down at me from what seemed like a great distance, she asked the question: "Young man, what grade are you to be in?"

Since I had completed kindergarten and first grade at Cattaraugus, I replied: "Second grade."

Looking thoughtful, she paused for what seemed a very long time before making the pronouncement: "No. There aren't any other students in second grade this year. You will be in third grade."

The speed of this promotion dazzled me. And to this day I'm not really certain what I missed by not taking second grade. Since this one-room school usually offered all eight grades, I'm sure that Mrs. Wing looked forward to the omission of one-eighth of the classes through this logical solution.

The schoolhouse for District No. 6A, located on Utley Road near its intersection with Hammond Hill Road, was a plain-looking white clapboarded structure consisting of one main room plus a small entryway or cloakroom for hanging wraps and stowing boots and lunches. Adjacent to the entryway were the two restrooms of the type involving no plumbing. The teacher granted permission to use these facilities as a student raised the appropriate number of fingers. Several sugar maple trees provided shade and softened the starkness of the setting. Adjacent to one side of the school yard, just beyond the perimeter of its board fence, lay a small cemetery used by a few local families.

A wood-fired furnace standing in the right front corner of the room provided heat. In partial payment of his school taxes, a local farmer provided the wood supply to satisfy its enormous appetite. During noon hours, two or three of the older boys split the big logs with double-bitted axes. One of the teacher's many responsibilities was to stoke the furnace. Cantankerously independent, the heater offered two levels of heat: "Too cold" and "too hot."

All of the water for drinking or other purposes had to be carried in pails by the larger boys from the outdoor pump at the Pratt farm, a few hundred feet away. What didn't slosh away in transit was poured into a covered cylindrical container with a spigot. Each student was supposed to supply a cup for personal use. The standard model, costing ten cents, was an ingenious device. Composed of four or five tapered metal bands of progressive diameter and a solid bottom section, it could be pulled out and twisted slightly to lock it into drinking cup shape. Then it could be collapsed for storage in the desk. Easily bent out of shape, often cups would leak. The sterility of these folding cups was indeed questionable. It was not unusual for the cup to collapse while in use, drenching the unwary pupil.

The desk and bench units were constructed of a cast iron frame painted black with wooden desk tops and seats. The seat for one unit was attached to the same frame as the desk for the one behind it. These units were screwed to the floor in rows. Separating individual students by moving desks was an impossibility. As a consequence, the person sitting behind you always had golden opportunities to make life miserable in ingenious ways. Girls with their hair in pigtails were easy victims to having them "fall" into the inkwell of the person behind them.

One day in the fall of my second year at this school is forever etched sharply in memory. The morning of November 26, 1930, began in a normal fashion. I walked the three-quarters of a mile from the parsonage to school, hurrying to get there on time. Because father often prayed for many concerns at family devotions after breakfast, the margin of time in which to reach school punctually was often slim. My attempts to buffer this time period by advancing the hands on the Elgin clock in the living room by ten or fifteen minutes were short-lived after father's discovery of my ploy.

I had just trudged into the schoolyard, damp and cold from the wind which had been hurling a mixture of wet snow and rain in my face, as the teacher appeared at the door ringing the hand bell to signal the end of play and the beginning of classes. The morning droned away as she called up each class, starting with the lowest grades and proceeding up the ranks. The noon hour passed quickly as students played games at the board or read, since the weather was too unpleasant for outside activities.

The teacher, Miss Edith Wehling, had several times replenished the wood in the furnace. The room seemed unusually hot, almost stifling. At two o'clock in the afternoon, one class was at the front of the room reciting. Almost simultaneously I saw flames start licking through the wall at the front of the room and sensed the acrid irritation of smoke in my nose and throat. The fire had made fast headway between the inside and outside walls before breaking through into the room around the stovepipe.

"Fire! Fire! Get outside," the teacher ordered. She dispatched one of the older boys to run to the Pratt farmhouse where there was a phone. Already the sight of the smoke and blaze had brought neighbors running or driving to the fire. The pitifully meager supply of water in the container, usually not over five gallons at peak and approaching empty near the close of the school day, was hardly a token. Some farmers tried desperately to carry water from the pump at Pratts in pails or milk cans. Others yanked some of the seats loose from the floor and carried them out along with the globe and library books. The teacher rounded up the students and kept them at a safe distance. The futile efforts to save the building ceased as flames totally engulfed the structure. That school day ended early!

But for me that was far from the end of its frightening effects. Many nights afterwards I awoke in terror as the flames were a constant element in nightmares which left me in a cold sweat, fearing to return to sleep lest the flaming vision repeat itself.

Two years after the new school building had been occupied, a second occasion threatened to repeat the fiery consequences. As far as water source, nothing had changed since the old schoolhouse except that the new one was built near the church. Again, in the middle of recitations, we smelled smoke and saw flames around the stovepipe. Leaving the older boys to cope there, I raced the several hundred feet to the Pratt farmhouse to give the alarm and get a fire extinguisher. Finding no one there except Grandma Pratt, I grabbed the big extinguisher and carried it to the school only to discover that the fire was out. When I later attempted to pick up the extinguisher, I could scarcely lift it. The adrenaline had reduced its flow and only normal strength remained. Little damage was done and school was not dismissed even for one day.

The specter of fire in that little farming community was ever-present, as no effective means of fire protection was available. With electricity unavailable, the kerosene lanterns in the barn and kerosene lamps for house illumination added to the hazards presented by heating with wood stoves. Hay stored too green was another prime cause of barn fires. I can't remember a single instance where a fire was extinguished once it really got started. Lack of adequate water sources doomed the valiant efforts made to save buildings. Neighbors and friends would rush to the scene and attempt to turn livestock loose if it was a barn or salvage household effects from a home. Throwing items of furniture from a second story window often destroyed them as effectively as had they been left to burn.

One particularly sad case occurred when the Bergholtz farmhouse and barn on top of Hammond Hill burned on September 26, 1934. Banks had failed and people were reluctant to trust their money to their custody. Mary Bergholtz had, over time, secreted their savings to make payment on the farm mortgage. The accumulation of currency was stored behind a loose brick in the chimney. I recall with great clarity her grief as her hoard of paper money was discovered reduced to ashes. Consequently she gave up the farm. These were difficult days in our valley.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

He'll Never Walk

"Look, Betty, from up here we can see the entire valley!" I pointed off to the west. "There's the church. That white structure next to it was the schoolhouse. See the parsonage and barn beside the big elm. And off to the east Mock Hill stands guard." Eagerly I introduced my red-haired wife to the landmarks of Brooklyn Valley. I wanted to share with her this chapter of my life.

"Why are there apple trees way up here in this pasture?" Betty queried. "I don't see a house near here."

"Look at those foundation stones over there," I pointed. "This is the old Garlock farm. The buildings were all gone even when I first climbed this hill as a little boy."

"That must seem like a long time ago," Betty mused. "Seeing it again probably brings back memories."

* * * * *

"He'll never walk. But I think he has a good mind," the old country doctor spoke kindly but honestly to my parents. Dr. Williams had just assisted at my arrival into the world on a cold and miserable 29th of March in 1922. Both of my mis-shapen feet were grotesquely twisted and turned backwards. The place of my birth was the white frame Free Methodist parsonage nestled in a tiny settlement bearing the name of Brooklyn.

Several conflicting stories explained the origin of such a pretentious name for so tiny a community. By one account, the locals jokingly referred to the span over the modest stream flowing past the cheese factory as "Brooklyn Bridge." This appellation later expanded to the nearby area.

Another explanation involved the little Free Methodist Church erected at the T of the crossroads in 1870. A famous church trial raged in the New York City borough of Brooklyn at the same time that a difference of opinion surfaced in the small congregation at the crossroads. In jest, someone drew the comparison with the city church in New York City. Whatever its origin, the name has adhered for over a century.

The small valley, tied so closely to my childhood, spread between hills forested with sugar maple, beech, ash, basswood, oak, cherry, ironwood, and hemlock. Small dairy farms constituted the only economic activity of consequence for those living in the valley. The nearest village, East Otto, lay three miles to the south of the valley and acted as the center of trade for the area.

Aside from its uniqueness to me as the only place of my birth, this cluster of small farms offered little to distinguish it from countless other rural communities across America. My father, the Rev. Elmer J. Cook, and his wife, Eva, had come to Brooklyn on his first appointment as a pastor in the Genesee Conference a year and a half before my birth.

In that era, pastors of Free Methodist Churches were moved to new appointments on the average of every two years. It was reputed that when my father pulled into the parsonage yard upon return from annual conference, the chickens would lie down on their backs to have their feet tied for moving to the next place.

After three years at Brooklyn, our family moved to Belfast, a small village along the Genesee River in Allegany County. My only brother, Irving, arrived during father's two-year stay at Belfast. Our next move was to Cattaraugus, the village which bore the name of the county.

Somewhat softened by memory are the painful recollections of attempts to improve the condition of my feet. During the first year of my life came the operations at the Mountain Clinic in Olean where my feet were broken and forced to face forward. Next I suffered through a series of casts up to each knee, forcing my feet into the desired configurations. A woman doctor carried out this procedure in Utica. The moment the old casts came off, new ones tightly encased my feet and legs with their stern grip. I always pleaded for a respite between casts - but in vain.

When the casts finally came off for good, the doctor prescribed placing my feet in icy water for ten minutes both morning and night to stimulate circulation. It usually required father and mother to restrain me and keep the feet under water. After releasing my feet from the icy bath, my parents rubbed them briskly with a coarse towel until the skin showed pink and my toes tingled.

Steel braces from my feet to my waist felt like shackles during waking hours. Finally, a shoemaker in Utica built successive pairs of corrective shoes for me. Each pair became distorted and scuffed as my feet grew. These cost $25.00 a pair when ordinary shoes sold for $1.49. Now I marvel at the sacrifices my parents made to help me walk. Although not like normal boys, walk I did, but with a peculiar gait.

The year 1929 was memorable for two reasons: the stock market crash ushering in the Great Depression and my father's acceptance of the assignment to return to the church in Brooklyn. No one else was willing to go to this circuit, the least-desirable in the entire Genesee Conference. At six years of age, I made the twelve-mile move with my family from Cattaraugus back to the house where I was born. Experiences of the nest seven Depression years as a boy in Brooklyn Valley, exerted a profound influence on my view of life.