Portville's School in the 1870s
|The Portville Historical and Preservation Society
|17 Maple Avenue
Portville, NY 14770
Portville, New York
In the 1870's, when there was very little in the way of transportation and basic household amenities, an
education was a precious gift for the children.
Back in those days, the school was an old 2-story wooden structure, located behind where the Portville
High School was built on N. Main Street (present location of the Manor retirement apts). It was
situated very close to the river about where the Little League field is today, behind the First Presbyterian
This page was last updated on 01-25-10
|1875 - Portville's Union Free School
One of the pupils of the day was Miss Nellie Wright, daughter of C. K. Wright. She and her brother
Frank lived with their parents in the large house on Lillibridge with the mansard style roof when she
was going to the "old school". She addressed the Alumni Association many years ago with her
recollections of the old days and we thought you might enjoy what she had to say about school back
"Once upon a time, oh, a great many years ago, when my brother and I ran races from our home on the
hill to the school house, the street presented then a very different scene from its present day aristocratic
appearance. Only a narrow foot-path led down to the corner, past five or six small houses on one side,
while Mr. Colwell’s residence was the only building on the other side. When we reached the school
house, no flag floated triumphantly from the building, waving us a glad welcome, bidding us be glad
we were indeed in “The land of the free and the home of the brave”. The old school house, as you will
recall, was most modestly plain and unpretentious, compared with the dignified, well equipped structure
which happily takes its place. There were no frills about the old school house, neither within or
without. The words, “Boys” and “Girls” were not carved over their respective portals in the old
regime, but we all tore madly in and out the same door, pell-mell, quite unlike the soldier-like
marching method in vogue today.
"Within the old school house no fresh pure water constantly bubbled up, inviting the ever thirsty youth
to drink at the crystal fountain, but in days of old, a boy’s hand would be persistently waved and the
insistent question asked, “Please may I pass the water?” No pictures of great men and historical
places were placed before our eyes, pleasantly luring us on to learn more about them, or filling us with
a desire to some day visit those pictured places. Among the pictures that hang on memory’s wall there
is none of a delightful kindergarten room. When one visits this department and looks into the eager
faces of these happy children, one cannot but rejoice at the precious memories which are being made
for the little men and women of today; for when the years have rolled by and these dear little blonde
heads are made white by the flight of time, they will have rich memories of their earliest school days
begun so sweetly and merrily in the kindergarten, where they taught self-control, unselfishness and
courtesy, primary lessons which surely are the true foundations of a good and useful life.
"How different now are the methods of teaching. It would seem that the work exacted of the instructors
has greatly increased with the passing years. The extra work of preparing tomorrow’s lesson on the
black-board, which the children copy on pads – on pads you will observe, and pray what has become of
the economical, ever ready slate, with its too often musty smell, and the accompanying scratchy slate-
pencil which sets ones teeth on edge just to think of. Where now is the slate with its wooden frame all
carefully carved with its owners initials and many a cabalistic sign?
"It was one of these slates one learned to play “Tit-tat-toe” when “teacher” wasn’t looking.
Something else has vanished and that is recess. If one happens into the P.H.S. building now about
recess time, one may see the children of the lower grades quite properly marching down the stairs and
properly marching up again, gravely pausing, each in turn, to lean over and drink of the delicious
water which so enticingly bubbles up for their refreshment. But the lost recess; Oh the joy of rushing
out of the close, over-heated rooms, into the blessed out-of-doors, running with all your might to catch
some luckless companion at such entrancing games as “Pom-Pom pull away”, or “Cangaloo”, or
“Sheep my Pen”, or in winter, “Fox and Geese” or snow balling. While I remember that Order is
Heaven’s first law, (This information being firmly impressed on my youthful mind by having to write
and re-write it over and over again in my copy-book.) And while I would not for a moment presume to
question the wisdom of persons more erudite than myself, I never see these children solemnly marching
down the stairs and up again, for a little change and recreation, that I do not inwardly wish they might
enter into the joys of old time recess. Memorial Day with its patriotic lessons was passed unobserved in
our school, Arbor Day was unknown to us, with its fine object lessons of tree planting, which will stamp
its impression upon the growing boys, which time will never quite destroy.
"Portville can’t afford it, I suppose, but I wish we might further equip our high school with an
industrial department or Manual training. It seems such a sane, such a reasonable method of
interesting and preparing the youth for the stern realities of life.
"In thinking over the old school days, one of the most original instructors we had was Mr. Phillips.
“Old Phillips” the “big boys” irreverently called him.
"He was a cripple, with one knee crooked up at a right angle, but he was by no means a subject for
pity. He was so keenly alive to everything that was going on around him, so quick and alert in his
movements and lively in getting around with his crutches, that those same “big boys” never got the
start of him. His hair was inky black, in fact, suspiciously black, so much so that it was sepulcharly
whispered from pupil to pupil “Old Phillips dyes his hair.” Now this dying habit was very
objectionable to two of the “big girls”, for Mr. Phillips had a cozy seat where he dearly loved to sit.
"There was a wood stove in the center of the room, from which a long black stove pipe ran back to the
chimney. In a wooden chair tilted back against the wall, he would sit with his freshly dyed raven locks
pressed against the chimney. Shortly there would appear on the wall a very conspicuous, round, greasy
spot. Now two big girls, (we of the younger class invariably spoke of the older pupils as big boys and
girls), rebelled against this untidy habit and probably said to each other, “Cleanliness is next to
Godliness”, for they could not long endure the sight of the obnoxious spot without taking active
measure to remove it. So that it not unfrequently happened that when we younger children came in
from a lower room to recite, our eyes would instantly be attracted by a very nice clean white paper
carefully pasted over the soiled spot. This performance was repeated, over and over again, for the
transgressor was not to be turned from the error of his way.
"One of these young ladies – well known to you – has followed the bent of her youthful enthusiasm for
cleanliness and order, and is today one of the foremost preserver of all that pertains to the welfare and
beauty of our little village.
"Her companion became subsequently an instructor in the Portville School and was a teacher of most
enviable reputation. One of her daughters is today a sophomore in Smith College; verily “Tempus
"The teachers who inspired me most and whom I remember with real pleasure as making my school
days in Portville interesting, Miss Mary Truesdale, Mrs. Helen Dusenbury’s Sister), and Miss
McClennan, both fine scholarly women, appealing to the best in one’s character.
"One day there came to town, a professor, skilled in the art of chirography, who proposed to hold night
school to instruct the ambitious youth of Portville, how to improve their hand-writing. He almost
guaranteed success in each case. Our parents, anxious to have us proficient in every accomplishment,
looked favorably upon this “Great opportunity”. So bending over our desks, by the light of small
kerosene lamps placed here and there, (I can still smell the lamps as one would be turned too high; and
still feel the close, hot night air), we strove very faithfully, I think, to master that beautiful, clear
writing which our professor, himself, was so skilled in. Whether his stay was of too brief a period or
whether his method was so high, I could not attain unto it, or what the mastery of it is, I know not, but
I find my friends complain sadly of my chirography; perhaps the professor spoiled it. I prefer to think
"Whenever I visit our school, I always come away with a feeling of deep gratitude to the instructors.
What nerve-wracking work it is, what patience it requires day after day, week after week, month after
month of patient, persistent effort, here a little, there a little. Think what it must mean, when one is
tired and out of sorts, perhaps half ill, to control thirty or forty wide-awake restless youngsters all bent
apparently on seeing how little real studying they can do. It is certainly a noble profession and we are
learning, more and more, I believe to appreciate and feel grateful to those who are standing in our
public schools, instructing our youth not only what the text book teaches, but lessons in self-control and
"Are we not all in school, even yet? May we not look upon this life as a kindergarten? May we not
learn to run with patience, yea with cheerfulness, the race that is set before us, looking forward to the
time, when we may enter, joyously into the presence of our loved ones who have gone before, and
continue with them our studies in the University of the Great Hereafter?"
This narrative was written by Nellie Wright Allen (1862-1939) for the Alumni Association of Portville High
|The Wright home on Lillibridge (now R. Mallory), next to the
The Games Children Played
What was Pom Pom Pull Away?
This was a favorite game in the 1800s. One student is "it". The rest of the students make a line
on each side of the student who is "it". The student who is "it" calls anyone from either line by
their name and says, "Pom Pom Pull Away! Come away, or I'll fetch you away!" For example:
if the student who is "it" calls to a student named Bobby Frair, he or she would say, "Bobby Frair,
Pom Pom Pull Away! Come away, or I'll fetch you away!" Then, Bobby Frair must try to cross
to the line of students on the other side of the student who is "it" without being tagged.
Fox and Geese
Fox and Geese was also a popular game. It was played after a snowfall. The students would
trample the snow down to make a path in the snow. The path was in the shape of a circle with
spokes running through it like a wagon wheel. One student is the fox. The other students are the
geese. The fox tries to tag the geese "out" by chasing them around the path. The geese must run
in groups of three or four and have their hands on each other's shoulders. The goose who is
tagged becomes the new fox and the game starts over again.
For more information on the games children used to play in the old days, click here.
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