Thursday, January 13, 2011
A few hours after midnight in January 1, 2002, an ancient old lady died at Sharon Hospital, just a few months shy of her 100th birthday. Her name was Emily Mills Hopson, and she was one of the most extraordinary people I have ever met.
This brilliant, stubborn, fascinating woman was not a teacher by profession (she was international buyer for the famed G. Fox & Co Gift Shop), but she was one of the best teachers I had. As long time president of the Kent Historical Society and Kent Town Historian, Emily took me under her wing after a chance conversation about Kent history while pulling weeds together at our Seven Hearths museum. At age 92, she still had energy and stamina! I began to volunteer for her one day a week, and was immediately in awe of her vast knowledge about our town and the local iron industry. I scribbled notes constantly, even on the back of my hand if no scrap of paper was handy. Hers was a nonstop history lecture.
Miss Hopson came from the large Kent Hopson family, and was a member of a generation that was primarily women. They were all well educated – Vassar, Wellesley and Smith – and all rabid historians. Emily’s mother, Elizabeth, also a Hopson by birth, had attended the Amenia Seminary and instilled a love of learning in her daughter. Emily fondly remembered childhood trips in a horse drawn buggy from Kent to Amenia to visit her mother’s friends and relatives (she was a Pratt descendant). The trip took all day, and Emily avidly absorbed the tales her Hopson parents told while they rode along.
Like most passionate students, Miss Hopson like to share her knowledge. She especially loved to teach children, though sometimes her detailed lectures went a little bit over their heads. Her father, grandfather and great-grandfather were iron masters and ran the Kent Iron Manufacturing Company. All the Hopson children learned the history of the industry down to the most minute detail. If Emily had one fault it was that she thought we all ought to be as interested in those details! But she also loved the history of education, and when the opportunity arose for the Kent Historical Society to acquire the pre-Revolutionary one-room schoolhouse on Skiff Mountain, she grabbed it. Putting her considerable energy, enthusiasm and financial wealth into the restoration project, she soon had an impeccably restored gem of a little building. And she finally had a classroom of her own!
Miss Hopson immediately developed a program for the 2nd and 3rd graders at Kent Center School – a program that we still use in part today. She collected old textbooks and composition books, and let the children actually use them. She gathered together graduates of many of Kent’s defunct one room schoolhouses at the Skiff Mountain School one day in order to collect their stories, so that he lessons would be accurate. She included a communal water bucket and dipper, as well as old lunch buckets and baskets, in her program, and generally held the kids spellbound as she told them about life in a one room schoolhouse. While the water dipper grossed out the children used to water fountains and plastic bottles, they were fascinated by the lesson plans, the stories and games that the kids “back in the day” used to play. Arithmetic bees were always a big hit. She continued to teach those classes until well into her 90s, and always had a spellbound audience.
As my teacher, Miss Emily Hopson and her lessons and memories still guide me through the programs that the Kent Historical Society holds for the Kent Center School students each year. I couldn’t do it without her! The best teacher ever.
by Marge Smith,
Kent Historical Society
Monday, November 29, 2010
Stanley H. Benham, Sr.
Stanley H. Benham, Sr. (1902 – 1991) attended the Tower Hill one-room school which was a combination district for Amenia and the Town of Washington. Maude Smith Rundall was his teacher in those years.
Benham writes, “Our farming district was lightly populated and had no village or other activities to attract people. The schoolhouse, I believe, would measure up quite well with the average one-room school in the state….I don’t know when the schoolhouse was built, but I do know that my father went there, and I remember hearing my grandfather speak of the ‘old school house’.”
“The Tower Hill School used wax candles on its Christmas trees.
It was Stanley’s job to stand by with a tin cup and a pail of water in case of fire.”
“About a week before Christmas the teacher and students went to a near-by woods and cut down a Christmas tree. It was taken in and set up in the corner of the classroom.
There were a few strings of tinsel in the cupboard and in the other corner, a half-dozen bright balls. There were also ten or twelve candleholders that would clip on the tree branches. The students were then asked to pop some corn at home, string some on a thread and bring it to school to hang on the tree.
There was a party in the afternoon of the last day before Christmas vacation. The mothers and any younger children came. Each student read or recited a Christmas poem. The teacher had put a small present under the tree for each student and the mothers brought cookies and candy.
The blinds, which were solid wood shutters, were closed and with a small torch on the end of a short pole, the teacher lit all the candles on the tree. The candles were watched while they were burning. We ate part of the goodies and then the shutters were opened and the candles were snuffed out. The coats, hats, boots and mittens were pulled on and all went home to enjoy the two-week vacation. As I think of it now, I have to wonder why we never burned the place down with all those candles among the flammable pine needles. The pail of (drinking) water averaged half-full and there was only a tin cup to dip and throw water.
…The children didn’t have a chance to tell a department store Santa Claus what to bring but anticipated his gifts. In the average family the stocking hung on the mantle probably held an orange or two, very likely the only ones of the year. There might be a small bag of homemade fudge and maybe some ribbon candy and a rubber ball. Under our tree there were small toys, occasionally a sled and always mittens and some other articles of clothing. I do not remember seeing adults exchange gifts at Christmas or birthdays.
…The decorations (for our tree at home) were carefully made for this special time.”
from Rural Life in the Hudson River Valley 1880-1920
Observations of Stanley H. Benham and photographs of Sidney S. Benham*
edited by Virginia Benham Augerson and Stanley H. Benham, Jr., Hudson Books, 2006
The book, a special Christmas gift, is available at Merritt Books in Millbrook and Oblong Books & Records in Millerton.
*note: The Benhams of Amenia are second cousins to the Tower Hill Benhams.
Lana Anguin Cohen, Sue Moody Metcalfe and Suzanne Hoadley O’Hearn got together to reminisce about Christmas in the Wassaic’s schoolhouse. Each “girl” tells a part of the story of the little gingerbread school in the heart of Wassaic and what went on there during the holiday season.
Indian Rock Schoolhouse Historian John Quinn sets the stage:
“Of Amenia’s dozen or so common schools, District 8 in Wassaic was for years the largest building - with three rooms and eight grades serving at times as many as 70 pupils. This is understandable because even before the coming of the State School in the 1930’s, the hamlet between the hills was long the busiest and most populous in the area.
Its commercial life began in the late 18th century with the Steel Works, followed by the Gridley Iron Furnace in 1825 with the influx of colliers (charcoal makers) and miners’ families.
The extension of the Harlem Rail Line through the hamlet and the establishment of the Borden Milk Condensery brought many other business enterprises to Wassaic.
Exactly when the Wassaic school opened is uncertain, but the need for schooling of the growing young population must have required a school after the New York State Education Law of 1812 called for free public education.”
A distinctive feature of the Wassaic common school – besides its three rooms instead of the usual one – was the belfry from which a bell pealed the start of the school day throughout the little hamlet between the hills. Wassaic folks today remember the sound of the morning bell calling them to come to school.” (When the building last got a new roof, the belfry was taken down)
“My recollection is that we sang carols with dear Mrs. Rundall and Mrs. Mahoney as a festive school activity, not with parents or other adults. There was not an evening program. We did have a tree, but I do not recall refreshments or games or gifts to or from teachers. Those were very frugal times by necessity.”
“ Remember Mr. Oakley, the man who used to clean the sidewalks at the little school? I remember that he came and played Santa to us sitting in the music room (the big room between the two classrooms)".
“ He called out : ‘Merry Christmas - HO HO HO!’ Everyone said his Santa suit was on loan from the State School (Taconic DDSO) “
“Mrs. Sutherland, our music instructor, came and we all sang the Christmas carols.
I do remember getting candy. I thought at first it was the boxed hard candy, but as I was talking with my sister in Vermont, she was sure it was a candy cane that Mrs. Rundall and Mrs.Mahoney had purchased for us. After all Mr. Mahoney owned part of the Mahoney & Crossen store in town.”
“Remember the ‘Big Store’ ? (that’s what we called Mahoney & Crossen). Most people charged their groceries and then on payday they would settle up their bill. But Poughkeepsie did call to my Mother. We would go there maybe once every 6-8 weeks to shop.”
“We went to Millerton sometimes to buy clothes. I do recall however in the front of Mahoney and Crossen’s store on the right as you looked in the door, on the very top shelf they still had high button shoes.”
“…and Mr. Crossen (as he was the shortest) had a ladder that rolled the entire length of the front half of the store on both sides. They had merchandise up that high. I also remember the candy counter. It was a large rectangular glass case. Mr. Crossen or Mahoney - when my Dad would pay his bill on Friday - would tell me, ‘Take 10 cents worth of candy. They would hand me a little brown paper bag and I would go into the glass case filled with glass candy dishes and pick out 10 cents worth of candy. Wow - it sure was a lot.”
“I don't remember any selling of Christmas trees or decorations from the Big Store (the Dime Store in Amenia had more of that), but at home we received presents from Santa wrapped and under our tree on Christmas morning. The tree had very large colored electric bulbs with the electric extensions straight out of the movie "A Christmas Story" Dad made the tree stand from wooden boards, really quite clever. And, I loved the special ornaments that came out to visit just once a year."
“I could go on forever. It was a very good time in my life.”
“Things seemed so much slower then…”
"What a sweet innocent time – any wonder we still love Wassaic? "
Best Wishes from all of us at Indian Rock 1858 Schoolhouse
photos courtesy of Susan Brehm and Anne Lango
Saturday, October 23, 2010
At the picnic other teachers were honored, in particular Ginny Armstrong, whose family attended the September festivities, remembering Ginny's life and many friends.
The late Justine Winters, much loved District Superintendent, was honored by the Amenia Lions gift of a bench, installed for the occasion in the new flower garden. Everyone was pleased that Charley Winters, Justine's husband, was able to come for a brief visit that day.
But the Year of the Teacher is not over yet...We take up the story again with the story of Kitty O'Brien written by her student Ginny Kane Eschbach, who was a teacher for many years just like her mentor...Mrs. O'Brien.
I looked forward to school every single day during my year in Seventh Grade. That was my year with Mrs. O’Brien. Those memories evoke warm feelings that remain so vivid after many decades. Her cheerfully decorated classroom at Sharon Center School reflected her nurturing approach to life with a cozy reading corner complete with a rocking chair and lighted lamps. Lovely plants lined the windowsills, and fresh flowers were always graciously accepted.
There was something reassuring about her beautiful smile that greeted us each morning. She genuinely cared that we were there. I have no memories of her ever raising her gentle voice, but I can hear her laughter when we shared our jokes with her.
One of my memories concerns the time a classmate experienced an extraordinary family tragedy. When he returned to school, Mrs. O’Brien gathered the class together and spoke so beautifully to him that her words have remained with me. It was clear that all of us would support him through his ordeal. I understand now how her empathy was a powerful example for her students.
Whether it was a creative writing task, a science project, or a math problem I remember being challenged, but I especially remember being encouraged to do my best. I recall that our work was thoughtfully displayed around the room, and that must have given us a sense of accomplishment. I remember her taking the time to praise us as well as our work. I recall her asking us for our thoughts and being encouraged to explore them. In retrospect, I realize that Mrs. O’Brien understood the importance of creating an environment that allowed each of us to be successful.
Because I shared my mother’s (Kay Kane) passion to teach, I observed what teaching involved outside of the classroom. Although I was aware of how much time and thought went into planning lessons and preparing materials, I understood her enthusiasm for her profession. But as a student, I was mostly influenced by my time with Mrs. OBrien. Imagine how thrilled I was when she arranged for me to spend time helping in the Kindergarten classroom. I still remember being encouraged to actually plan a lesson!
During my early years as a middle school teacher, I would find myself thinking- what would Mrs. O’Brien do or say. When it was appropriate, I actually incorporated some of her projects into my own teaching. I hoped that I was able to create the same environment for my students.
Then many years later, I returned to teach at Sharon Center. The first time I walked back into my old seventh grade classroom, those cherished memories returned. As students, I’m sure none of us realized that our seventh grade year would provide us with lifelong enrichment.
As a young mother, I became involved in the program at our parish’s CCD Office along side Mrs. O’Brien. I remember being a little nervous about our new relationship until she said, “Please call me Kitty”. I wonder if she understood how difficult it was to make the transition. What a privilege to have known such a wonderful person.
Submitted by Ginny Eschbach