Jul 13, 2009 Steve McMahon Uncategorized
This week’s story is about the Little Utica School, 15th in a series regarding the rural schools of the town of Lysander. Just east of East Mud Lake Road on the north side of Lamson Road, the school sits nestled in the shadow of the Little Utica United Methodist Church next door. The church building dates to 1834, and no one knows for sure the exact age of the schoolhouse. But, the hamlet itself is much older than either one.
According to Clayton’s “History of Onondaga County,” folks first settled this place circa 1810, including Reuben Coffin, John Butler, Benjamin Rathbun, Sanford Dunham, and John Lamson. “A post-office was established in 1832, then called Paynesville; Noah Payne, who then kept a store, was postmaster, under the name of Paynesville.” Later, the post-office was removed to Jacksonville, which changed its name to Polkville. By 1864 the post office was back in Paynesville, renamed Little Utica in honor of the settlers’ former hometown. Pearl Palmer, Lysander Town Historian, wrote in the 1940’s that, “the first frame house in Little Utica was built by a Dickinson, and stood where the Carpenter place is now.”
Little Utica has been described by a local historian as “once the hub of a thriving community.” One political rally in 1860 attracted over 1,000 people to the place. In that same year, so many people attended a “Republican Jollification” that the floor in hamlet’s Harrington Hotel collapsed, carrying the participants into the cellar. An 1874 map of the place shows the post office and store operated by W. Allen on the southwest corner of the crossroads and the hotel on the northeast corner, by then owned and operated by the Gifford Brothers. Clayton claimed in 1878 that “Little Utica has one store, two blacksmith shops, a hotel, a cigar factory, saw-mill, cheese factory, and some very good dwelling houses.” By the turn of the century, the hamlet held more than 30 households.
But by the 1930’s, Little Utica had already begun to contract. The Agricultural Experiment Station at Cornell University issued an educational bulletin in 1934 about the rural areas and small towns of Onondaga County. It listed Little Utica as one of ten hamlets in the county with populations of fewer than 50 people. Today the place is smaller still. Long-gone is the local post office, with which the people of Little Utica and nearby Jacksonville played political tug-of-war for years. Gone, too, are the cheese factory and the saw mill that sat northeast of town beside the outlet from Beaver Lake, once known as Buttonhole Creek. In fact, this mighty stream once powered eight mills on its way from the lake through the lost village of Picketville to Little Utica, before flowing into Ox Creek and the Oswego River beyond.
On the way west from Wright’s Corners, the stream flows under Lamson Road just before you reach Little Utica. East of the stream, there’s a high spot with a white house on the right, red barns on the left, and a field full of ponies beyond. John and Frances Horner moved out here from Syracuse just after the turn of the century. They had five children, Wilbur, Madeline, Roswell, Frederick, and Leslie. Roswell’s son, Reggie recently joined me and a few of his friends for a small reunion. I picked up Reggie, his daughter, Debbie Waugh, and his grandson, Brian Degone. We drove down the road to the corner, where the church and the schoolhouse are the only vestiges of Little Utica’s lost livelihood.
Bob Cook and his wife Jolene joined us at the church, as did Joyce Wolford Mattice, and her husband, Gary. Like Reggie, Bob and Joyce also attended the Little Utica School. Carole Kozma Menzel met us there, too. Carole coordinated the interview for my Hortontown School story a few months ago. As a lifelong member of the Little Utica Methodist Church and Secretary of the United Methodist Women, Carole agreed to do likewise for this story. Carole remembers that, “When the Ladies Aid Society would have their monthly meeting, they’d invite the children over from the school, and they could have a nice, hot lunch. And, if you went to Sunday School, then you’d get a candy bar at Nate Aller’s store on the way home. She giggled as she said that, “We school girls were all members of the ‘Loyal Temperance Legion’ at the church, or the ‘LTL’ for short. We couldn’t smoke, we couldn’t swear, and wine was not to touch our lips.”
Aside from their obvious proximity, the church and the school have always been close. The Baldwinsville Gazette & Farmers’ Journal reported in 1923 that, “The play by the S.O.S. class held in Scriber’s Hall Thursday evening was a great success. They cleared about $75. This class of young people and Little Utica School District have gone 50-50 in putting down a much needed well between the school house and the church, and it sure is much appreciated by everybody who drinks the water, and especially the ladies who have had to carry water so far for the doings at the church.” A 1935 book given by Carrie Whitbeck to the Co-Workers Class at the church lists familiar local names like Blakeman, Carpenter, Chase, Coville, Dickinson, Horner, Huntington, Hulbert, Jakway, Reeves, Weller, Weston, White, and Wolford. Also listed are Gale and Jennie Beebe Foster. Jennie taught school in Little Utica for nine years during the 1940s.
Bob said, “I started in 1939 when I was six years old. Ruth Vanderbilt Burdick was my first teacher, and my only other teacher after that was Jennie Foster. Joyce added, “I started school in Little Utica in the first grade in 1946 when I was only four and one-half years old.” Reggie remembers that, “Joyce and I were in the same grade. We went to school there from first through sixth grade. There was no kindergarten. Jennie Foster was our teacher, too.” Joyce said, “She was the only teacher we ever had.”
Joyce remembers that “Mrs. Foster would take us up front as a group and seat us on benches, one grade at a time. Sometimes we’d have to memorize lines and then recite them later.” Reggie recalls “standing on the drain board of the sink at home to memorize my lines for the next day.” Joyce said that one of her favorite school memories is “Mrs. Foster reading a chapter aloud from a book every day after lunch, like Roy Rogers and such, while we ate candy. I remember that I was swinging my taffy around my finger one time and it flew across the room.”
It didn’t seem to affect her grades. I glanced at Joyce’s report card from 1950, and spotted only A’s. When I brought this fact to Joyce’s attention, she responded nonchalantly, “Of course! I had Mrs. Foster for a teacher, didn’t I?” Joyce still has her composition book from 1950, too. One page lists her classmates in a neat, but cautious cursive. They include Larry, Nate, and Sara Jane Aller; Jimmy Benedict; Ellen, Kenneth, and Virginia Bennett; Glenn Ellison; Peggy and Terry Gillan; Reggie and Virginia Horner; Judy Kellogg; Ricky Leiby; Billy, Diane, and Robert Polak; and of course, Joyce Wolford.
Reggie fondly recalls “taking turns ringing the bell. I think we rang it to call the kids back from lunch.” He said that the children had some fun at school every day. “At recess, we’d play pick up sticks, kick the can, hide and seek, and games like that.” In addition to school, Reggie remembers that the local grange provided another place for kids to have fun. He said that, “They used to have round and square dances at the grange halls years ago. You could dance for awhile, and then grab a bite to eat downstairs. It was good, clean family fun.”
But, life wasn’t all fun and games for these schoolchildren. They worked hard at school, because they were used to hard work at home and on the farm. Joyce’s husband, Gary said, “When you got out of school, you had chores to do at home.” The others nodded their heads in agreement. Joyce remembers that “I had to cut seed potatoes. We had rows and rows of potatoes.” Reggie added that “I got 5 cents and my wife got 7 cents picking up potatoes for Glen Blakeman. And, we had to fill the wood box every morning. My brother and I would fight over whose turn it was every morning.” Bob added, “I had to fill the wood box, too. And, I ran the tractor for my dad from the time I was probably six years old.”
Life changed when they left the familiarity of the family farm and the security of the schoolhouse for the village of Baldwinsville and its brand-new school building. Reggie remembers that, “It was hard at first to change classes and find your way around the building, but you just did it. You had to make new friends, too.” Joyce added, “When we went to school in Little Utica, we knew all of the people around here.” Carole continued. “People had good role models and parents. The mother was at home and it made a difference.” Joyce added, “You got a good start at school. If you had a problem with something you got help right away. But, you had discipline at home, too. If you didn’t do what the teacher said then you knew that you’d catch it when you got home.”
Once just neighbors, the Little Utica schoolhouse belongs to the Little Utica Methodist Church now. After the citizens of the district voted to close the school in November of 1955, the Palmertown Society of the church bought the building in January of 1956 to house its Sunday School. Inside the school sits the old stove, on top of which Joyce says that “many a mitten was burned.” Odds and ends are stacked around it, waiting for the next rummage sale. The United Methodist Women hold the sale twice per year to raise funds for charity. It’s for a good cause, and you can’t beat the bargains. More important, it’s a chance to peak at the past inside the only perfectly preserved rural schoolhouse left in the Town of Lysander. And, for that reason alone, Little Utica is well worth a visit.
In two weeks read the next article in the series, “Lysander Goes to School.” Looking Backward will appear in the Messenger every other week, as long as there are stories to tell. If you have questions about this story or suggestions for future ones, including any local historical images or information, please contact me via e-mail at BvilleHistory@earthlink.net.
Photo courtesy of Steve McMahon
Former students of the Little Utica School, District #2, with friends and family. Shown here in front of the schoolhouse are from left to right: Jolene Cook, Student Bob Cook, Gary Mattice, Student Joyce Wolford Mattice, Student Reggie Horner, Carole Kozma Menzel, and Reggie’s grandson, Brian DeGone, and daughter, Debbie Waugh.