RIPLEY - Teachers today might feel overwhelmed if expected to cover first- through sixth-grade coursework each day, or think themselves put upon if the duties of caretaker were part of their job description as well.
Yet this was exactly the role of a country school teacher. It's also how 95-year-old Frances Lillie Royce of Ripley began her 38-year career at the tender age of 21 - teaching in a one-room schoolhouse at the corner of U.S. Route 20 and Rogerville Road in Westfield.
"She was the last person to teach at the Rogerville (District 4) School," Westfield Historian Marybelle Beigh said.
This building on the corner of U.S. Route 20 and Rogerville Road in Westfield now houses offices for Chautauqua Energy Inc. Until the early 1940s, it was the Rogerville School, and Frances Lillie Royce of Ripley began her teaching career there.
Photos by Joel Cuthbert
Royce taught at the Rogerville School from 1938 until the early 1940s, when it and many other one-room schoolhouses in the area were closed. She then taught a year at another one-room schoolhouse located off Van Buren Road in Dunkirk, before teaching at Ripley Central School until her retirement.
"It's a pleasure talking about those days," she said, looking back on the unique positions which shaped her future as a teacher.
In 1938, having just earned her three-year provisional certification from Fredonia, Royce stopped in at the Rogerville School looking to secure her first teaching position. In those days, when the girls' college was still open, it was common to find employment at local country schools, she explained.
She was hired on the spot by then-trustee Albert Eggert, despite the school already having a teacher at the time.
"I found out quite a bit later that that day he happened to be mad at the teacher," Royce said, chuckling.
Apparently, Eggert was upset with the previous teacher for reprimanding his son, who attended classes there, and not allowing him out for recess.
Thus began a memorable tenure teaching in one-room schoolhouses, beginning at Rogerville and ending at Van Buren.
Royce, ever nostalgic, has extremely fond memories of those humble beginnings and enjoys sharing stories about her experiences and students - or the district superintendent with an eye for young female educators - with visitors. Doris Dubert, who knows her from the Ripley Methodist Church, where she played the organ for 63 years, visits quite regularly these days and, for her part, just sits back and listens.
"She talks so much about teaching in the vicinity in one-room schoolhouses," Dubert said. "I don't even have to ask her questions, she just starts telling me about it. I told her that she ought to write a book."
For teacher and students alike, the country school was an entirely different experience from today's centralized school system and curriculum.
"In many ways, it's a much richer experience," Beigh, who attended a one-room school herself, said.
As teacher, Royce served as a jack-of-all-subjects, responsible for teaching 18-20 students from first through sixth grade - an entire elementary school condensed into a single room. Royce also filled the role of janitor and maintenance worker, responsible for cleaning and general upkeep at the schoolhouse, including feeding the pipeless furnace in the basement with wood and coal supplied by the trustee.
"(Rogerville) was a very nice school," Royce said. "It had an electric water pump and lavatories, and a sink where (students) could wash It was quite modern, when it comes down to it, compared to other one-room schoolhouses."
"Of course, I didn't know too much about the electric water pump," she added, laughing at a sudden memory.
Royce recalled one day following a terrible cold spell over Thanksgiving break when the water pipe in the boys' lavatory froze and broke, flooding the schoolhouse and halting class. Students scrambled to get their papers and supplies off the schoolroom floor, she said, and one student was sent for the trustee, his father, who lived quite a distance away, to come and turn off the water.
It wasn't uncommon for students to make such daily treks, according to Royce. In fact, she said all students walked to school every day regardless of the weather, often as a family. Some, like the Seavy family, came from as far as Lake Road, crossing train tracks by themselves on their journey each morning.
"They happened to be a big family; there were three or four of them that went to school there," Royce explained, barely stifling laughter. "And they were of Irish descent, so when they got into the schoolhouse everyday, they were either all laughing or all crying."
This sense of family and community, which characterized the country school, is what stands out most for Royce when remembering the early days of her teaching career. With two to three siblings attending the school at various grade levels and students all coming from the same neighborhood, they were fundamental parts of daily school life.
"In the country school, the older ones helped the little ones, and brothers and sisters worked together," Royce explained. "It was entirely different than it is in the town school."
Royce said she shared a close relationship with each of her students - some of whom still live in Westfield and visit her regularly at her home in Ripley - as well as their families. She remembered loading students into her own car for frequent field trips to the Patterson Library, without ever asking for their parents' permission.
"I knew their parents," she explained. "I had been to their homes."
Mothers and fathers of students were interested in all aspects of the school, Royce added. It was their school, too, quite often, she said, and they thought nothing of coming in and sitting down during class. Royce even had one first-grade student who lived nearby and whose sister - not yet old enough for classes - would come and sit next to her during the day.
"It was a family affair, really," she said.
A dwindling few can claim the experience nowadays, and soon, no teachers will be able to say they taught in a one-room schoolhouse like Royce.
"She was a wonderful teacher," Gloria Wakeley said. "It was a wonderful experience; there's nothing to compare to it, really."
Wakeley, then Eggert, attended fifth and sixth grade with her husband of 64 years, Ralph - the final two years the Rogerville School was open.
Following the closing of the schoolhouse, students were split between attending Westfield Central and Ripley Central schools, many traveling as much as an hour by bus to get there. And while the one-room country schoolhouse provided a familiar and comfortable learning environment supported by the community and attended by children with similar backgrounds, Royce said public schools often represented something foreign and hostile for rural students.
She remembers crying as she cleaned out her supplies when the Rogerville School closed.
"It's sad that they closed all the country schools down," Royce said. "They were good for the students."
Although still standing, the Rogerville School was purchased by Chautauqua Energy Inc. around 1979, and has since been converted into offices. Royce was recently able to visit the site of her first teaching position with her niece and said, while no longer a schoolhouse, it continues to bring back fond memories of long ago school days for her.
Joel Cuthbert is a lifestyles correspondent for the OBSERVER in Dunkirk.