Mar 24, 2009 Steve McMahon Uncategorized
This week’s story is about the old Belgium School, District no. 7, eighth in a series regarding our early schools. Belgium is the only one of 18 rural school districts not actually located in the town of Lysander.
Its students were spread on both sides of the Seneca River, which divides the towns of Lysander and Clay. The school was located north of the Belgium Bridge on Gaskin Road in the town of Clay. Now a rental property, the building has deep roots.
According to the 1896 history book, “Onondaga’s Centennial,” by Dwight H. Bruce, the Belgium School was the second one built in the town of Clay. About 1809, “a second log house was erected at Belgium, near Seneca River, and in it Mose Kinne, who had previously taught as a school in his house, became the first teacher. This was superseded by a frame school building in 1812.” One of the oldest rural schools in the county, Belgium was also one of the three longest-lasting rural schools in the town of Lysander. Only Plainville and Lysander closed later.
But, all good things must come to an end, and the old Belgium School is no exception. The voters of former School District no. 7 petitioned the larger Baldwinsville Central School District on July 25, 1956, for a meeting to discuss improvements to the school. District Principal Donald Ray responded by listing the upgrades required by the state. These included “running water under pressure” and several other amenities that we take for granted today, all at an estimated cost of $2,511. This cost did not include the installation of an automatic heating plant to keep pipes from freezing in the winter. One student who attended the school in the 1940’s remembers that “even though the bathrooms were connected to the main room with that big, pot-bellied stove, boy, they were cold.”
Based on the expense of keeping the Belgium school open, on Aug. 9, 1956, the voters decided to close it permanently. According to that Thursday’s edition of the Messenger, “Those gathered agreed to sell the schoolhouse at a public auction within 30 days after clearance of title, Baldwinsville Academy and Central School is to receive whatever it has put into the building; Dr. Eno, perennial benefactor of the school, is to be consulted concerning the disposition of books, which he has contributed to the school; and Miss Susie Connor, teacher, is to receive her possessions.”
On Nov. 11, 1956, The Baldwinsville Gazette & Farmers’ Journal reported that “last Saturday, the former Belgium school building was purchased by Louis Olmstead (sic) for the sum of $2,500. Contents of the building were sold to various purchasers for $119. The total, less expenses, will be distributed to the owners of the property in the former Belgium district in proportion to their assessed valuations.” Note that these rural schools were owned not by the town, county or state, but in common by the people of the community. Lewis Olmsted, Sr., was Jacquie Olmstead’s father-in-law. She remembers that her husband, Lew, and his father remodeled the schoolhouse, before she and Lew moved into the building in 1959. They lived there for 18 years before selling it in 1977. Lew’s aunts, Doris and Wilma Olmsted, had both been teachers at the Belgium School in the late 1920’s, when they lived up near Moyer’s Corners.
Chester “Chet” Kingsley first attended the Belgium School in 1921 at age 6. He remembers the school when all eight grades had just one teacher. “She also acted as a mom, school nurse, housekeeper, and tender of the coal-burning, pot-belled stove. In the latter years when I was there, the main floor in the main building was for fifth through eighth grades, and the back room was for first through fourth. The upstairs room was a conference room for school board meetings, church suppers and square dances. Years later, they would have ‘Upper Room’ meetings there for church.” This was how Lorraine Sahm remembers the school a generation later. She attended there from first through eighth grade, beginning circa 1940. She recalls that “Downstairs was what we called the big room for the upper grades. The back room was for the lower grades. The upstairs was for community organizations and meetings and such. But, it got to be unsafe, so we stopped using it.”
Chet said, “We had to walk in all kinds of weather. I remember walking through snow up to my hips back and forth to school.” Lorraine remembers walking as well. “We all walked to school and then home for lunch in all kinds of weather.” She was born in her grandfather’s house in Belgium, and then moved into the house that her father built in 1935 when she was 2 years old. “When the state took the property for the new bridge, they took both homes out. The old bridge was right next to a hotel. Right next to that, there was livery where they kept mules overnight, which were hauling loads on the old Oswego Canal.”
By the way, there has been a succession of bridges over the Seneca River in Belgium, which was once known as “Gaskin Rifts.” The first, a toll bridge was built by J.L. Voorhees in 1824, which was rebuilt as a free bridge in 1843. These two were followed by at least three more. The current was built in 2003, replacing one that was reassembled upriver over the State Ditch near Jack’s Reef.
Chet always lived on the Lysander side, the second house from the river (now the east-end of Woods Road, which dead-ends at the river).
“I had to walk to school and be there at 9, and then come home for lunch at noon and be back by 1.” Chet retraced his steps for me. “As you crossed the bridge from Lysander into Clay going east, the first house on the right was the post office at one time. There was a big hotel right on the banks of the river, but it burned. Across old Route 31 (north) right on the banks of the river again was a brick store. C.J. Church had it at one time. Across Gaskin road, Neupert the Blacksmith was on the (northeast) corner. A.T. Potter Cigar Works was next, and then two more houses, and then the school.” Chet said, “We used to stop at Neupert’s Blacksmith on the way home from school. He would shoe horses, and it was interesting to watch. He would also tap the trees and share his maple syrup with us. He was always good to the school children. We would also stop at Potter’s Cigar Factory.”
Both Chet and Lorraine have fond memories of the Belgium School. Lorraine said, “It was just an easy-going life and it was a lot of fun. There’s nothing extra-special that stands out in my mind, but that’s because there are so many memories and they’re all good memories. Boy, when I look back on it now, I realize how lucky we were. At the time, you didn’t realize how good it was. We always had a big school picnic and the parents and brothers and sisters. We had our graduation exercises in the old Methodist-Episcopal Church across the river. It was turned into the Community Hall. We had baskets of flowers and the girls wore gowns and the boys wore suits and ties.”
Chet remembered the old M-E Church, too.
“At Christmas time we would have school plays over at the church. I was a kid, but I had to clean up after the farmers, who would chew and spit tobacco during the performance. I was the last custodian of the church. The church property bordered on a farm property that ran all the way to the river (the Willett homestead).”
Although they attended the Belgium Rural School about 20 years apart, both Chet and Lorraine said that it prepared them well for secondary school, and for life.
Chet said, “It was great because you had a jump-start on it. If you were in the first grade, you could see and hear what the others were doing.”
“Well, it was on a smaller basis,” she said. “The teacher taught more grades, but there were only two or three kids per grade. Our teachers were great. Susie Connor was a sweetheart. She was tough, but she was good. We learned a lot from her. She worked with us individually, and made it very easy to learn. She had the time and spent every minute with us, every minute.”
Chet said, “If I missed out on a test, I used to feel bad for the teacher, not for me.”
Along with Chet Kingsley and Lorraine Sahm, I’d like to thank Pat Reynolds for sharing her rare photographs of Belgium with me. Until last Friday, I had only one image to accompany this story. Pat generously shared her photos with me Sunday night. If you have old local photos or artifacts, please consider donating them to the Shacksboro Schoolhouse Museum or the Local History Room at the Baldwinsville Public Library. They are an irreplaceable part of our community’s history.
The hamlet of Belgium as it looked circa 1900 from what is today the intersection of Route 31 and River Road, just west of the Seneca River. Note that the old toll bridge is visible to the right of the free one constructed later.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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