One of my delightful cousins recently sent pictures of her Pink Schoolhouse in Upper New York along with pictures of her reunion. I was so enchanted with the schoolhouse that I invited her to write something about its history so I could share it with my genealogy friends. Without further ado, I give you E.G. Child's Pink Schoolhouse. Enjoy.
On a recent beautiful early autumn evening, a hundred smiling people, some from as far away as California, gathered in the Victorian Garden on the grounds of the Jefferson County Historical Society in Watertown, New York, to toast a newly refurbished icon of a bygone era in the north country. Appropriately, there was champagne available for the toast, since the icon had been donated to the Historical Society by David Champagne, and his sister, Diane Champagne VanDorsselaer, but that part of the story comes later.
Jefferson County, in the northwestern corner of New York State, bordering on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River to the northwest, and the Adirondack foothills on the east, is known to the rest of New York as “God’s Country,” or, less politely, “the Back of Beyond.” Probably due to its distance from the more civilized parts of the state and its extreme winters, Jefferson County wasn’t settled until the very late 1700’s. Even the Native Americans tended to use the area for summer hunting and fishing.
The Town of LeRay remained pristine wilderness until the early 1800’s when James LeRay de Chaumont was rewarded for his father’s heavy financial support of the American Revolution, with the opportunity to purchase large tracts of wilderness in Northern New York, for pennies an acre, which he was then able to sell to incoming settlers for dollars an acre. While most of the Towns (or townships) of the county were developed around the considerable water power of the Black, Indian, and Perch rivers, the Town of LeRay, a flatland, in ancient times the bottom of an inland sea, was settled later than much of the county, and Jefferson Valley, the neighborhood of the Pink Schoolhouse did not become populated until well into the first quarter of the 1800’s.
The pattern of the communities in the area was to have a cheese factory, a school and if waterpower was available, a sawmill. The schools were usually used as a church, pastors from larger communities traditionally holding Wednesday evening services at the schoolhouses. According to the custom of the time, and the vivid memories of 96-year-old alumnus, Eldon Schell, the “Pink,” as it was called, had become the social and spiritual center of the district. Mr. Schell tells of box socials, spelling bees and religious services held there, and there were probably singing schools, a popular activity and courtship tradition of the 19th century. There was, in recent memory, an ornate organ with pedals and stops that would have accompanied the hymns and popular ballads of the day.
In those days there would have been horses and buggies or sleighs, depending on the season, tied to the rail fence beside the schoolyard. Later, in the 1940’s and 50’s, there would be bicycles surrounding the softball field after supper and evening chores, and the school would be open for 4-H club functions or school board meetings. By that time, the Valley families drove to Evans Mills, Theresa or even Watertown to attend church services.
Based on the building style and lumber used, the Pink Schoolhouse was probably built in the 1860’s to replace a building that no longer met the needs of the neighborhood. By the 1890’s, according to Haddock’s Growth of a Century in Jefferson County, and Child’s Gazetteer of Jefferson County, there were at least 19 district schools in the Town of LeRay, with salaries ranging from $2.50 a week, plus board for female teachers, and $25.00 to $35.00 per week for male teachers. Over the years, many local families were represented on the school board, most prominently the Van Allen-Drake family and the Schell family.
Dozens of children from those families attended over the life of the Pink, many to go on to become teachers, engineers, librarians and lawyers. One spring, in the early 1930’s, two eighth grade students petitioned the nearby Theresa High School to be permitted to take the New York State Regents’ Examination in calculus. The high school principal agreed despite his better judgments. After all, what district school marm could prepare students in higher mathematics? Miss Iva McLaughlin and Miss Florence Drake (remember her name!) earned the highest grades on that year’s calculus Regents. Miss McLaughlin went on to become valedictorian of her class at Theresa High School.
The size of the student body depended on the number of farm families with children in the district, ranging in its heyday of twenty-five to thirty students, and at its lowest point with only one student, Doris Schell, the youngest of that generation’s Schell clan, for a year. After she had moved on to Evans Mills High School, the school closed until the later 1930’s, when there was a new crop of farm children to be taught their ABC’s and 1, 2, 3’s.
"Why in the world," you ask, "Was it called the Pink Schoolhouse?" Bureaucracy, pure and simple. In its early days, the “Pink” had been painted with durable red barn paint, as many little red schoolhouses were. Sometime in its middle history, the state of New York mandated that all district schools must be painted white. The school board complied, but that year the budget could only manage one coat, and long before they could afford to rectify the situation, the red paint bled through, and the schoolhouse glowed pinkly across the valley for all to see.
Forevermore, even after subsequent coats of white paint triumphed over the red, District School #7 was known to everyone in the county as “the Pink Schoolhouse.”
By the mid 1950’s when it had become part of the Indian River School District, it became difficult for the school board to comply with the New York State Education Department rules and regulations. The two attached one-seater outhouses were specifically frowned upon, as was the necessity for the teacher to tend the big coal stove and pump the water to fill the pottery crock that provided drinking water for thirsty students. Probably there were also insurance concerns to cover liability to the district for 4-H parties, neighborhood soft ball games, and other non-school related functions. By 1957 the neighborhood children were riding the big orange bus to Evans Mills to attend school, and the Pink Schoolhouse became silent and empty. No longer could nearby farmers tell time by the 8:45 a.m. squeak of the big iron pump in front of the school, or the teacher vigorously ringing the hand bell to signal the start of the school day or the end of recess or lunch time.
Spirited bidding took place at the District’s auction, and Florence Drake Champagne won custody of the school. While the Pink Schoolhouse had kept it’s distinctive name, the building had long been pristine white. Mrs. Champagne, whose many relatives had attended and even taught at the school over the years, painted it pink again. Her family maintained it as best they could until the Jefferson County Historical Society accepted the donation of the school by David Champagne, and his sister Diane, to be restored to it’s 1940’s condition as part of the Society’s collection, and once again to be an educational influence to school children of Jefferson County and beyond.
Author Child's note: Some of the historical information included in this essay was provided by Haddock’s Growth of a Century in Jefferson County, and Child’s Gazetteer of Jefferson Countyand some from the unpublished memoir of Mr. Eldon Schell, who attended the Pink Schoolhouse along with his brother and three sisters in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Some of the information is part of my own history, since, along with Mr. Schell’s three children, David and Diane Champagne, and several other Schell and Drake descendants, as well as Iva McLaughlin Walts’ two daughters, I attended the Pink Schoolhouse in the mid-1950’s. My graduating class’ statistics? Eventually 75% of us received masters’ degrees; 50% of us became librarians, 25% an engineer, and 25% a bookkeeper. Yes—“an” engineer and “a” bookkeeper. There were exactly four of us in the class, the largest in the school that year!
 Haddock. Growth of a Century, 1895, p. 622