Mark Simonson

Mark Simonson

During my years as a historian, I can't tell you the number of times I've heard others say, "If only these walls could talk." One of the joys of the job is when the walls don't need to talk, and you can get people to share memories of certain places.

I was pleased to lead such a discussion Saturday, Oct. 30, at an open house at the Calvary Hill Retreat Center, where in the auditorium there was a time to reminisce by former students, teachers and principals of Chestnut Street School, 290 Chestnut St.

The school opened in 1914 and served as an elementary school in the Oneonta City School District until 1966. It later served as district offices until 1996 and was purchased in 2000 by Jerry and Debbie Kabat. Those who came to the open house began their educational journeys here from the 1930s through the '60s.

A principal guides the day-to-day operations of any school, so it made sense that a principal started the memories rolling. Bill Swain was a sixth-grade teacher from 1953 to 1961, and then was principal from 1961 to 1964.

Standing in the refurbished auditorium on the second floor, Swain recalled how the big room was then divided into two classrooms and the stage was a workroom for teachers. Swain was running off some ditto copies early Friday afternoon, Nov. 22, 1963. A teacher, Jean Franklin, came into the room and said, "A terrible thing has happened. President Kennedy has been shot."

Swain then wondered, as principal, what should be done to inform the students? Swain conferred with the teachers and decided they had to tell the students, rather than allow it to be done when they went home or got on the bus. It would lessen the shock, they felt.

School discipline was much more than a "time out" in those years. A few humorous stories were shared between principal and students of "swatted fannies" by those who acted out in class or the lunchroom. John Smallin commented on the excellent aim Mr. Swain had with a blackboard eraser when someone got out of line.

Many stories and memories were shared about a giant boulder in the back of the school. This is "The Rock." It served as a physical and visual boundary for students.

Eva Chamberlain, who taught sixth grade from 1959 to 1966, remembered taking some of her pupils out to "The Rock" for science lessons. She recalled how at that age students were still eager to learn. Likewise, the girls started liking boys, and the boys could've cared less.

Dick Smallin remembered that in the wintertime, you were never to take your sled past the rock. One teacher had a view from her class window and made sure no one went beyond it.

"I did, one day," Smallin recalled. "You heard the knuckles on that window, I swear, that would knock the glass out." Smallin admitted he learned his lesson one day when he went shoulder first into "The Rock" on a sled, which knocked him out for a spell.

Marjorie Seward-Hill recalled the rock as a place for the girls to gather at lunchtime. "We'd act out the songs that were popular at the time on the 'Hit Parade' radio show." The hit "Shrimp Boats are Coming" by Jo Stafford came to mind, and the girls used their imaginations long before music videos became an art form.

Another schoolyard story came from Bill Hymers. On a day there was a huge snow pile from plowing the parking lot, Hymers and some of his fifth-grade pals were determined to overtake the sixth-graders in a game of "King of the Mountain."

"I charged the mountain, only to discover that my buddies weren't behind me, after all," Hymers said. "You have no idea how far some sixth-graders can toss a fifth-grader."

Beverly Baker-Dailey attended the school during the 1930s, when the auditorium was fully open. "Every June at the end of school, a book was given to a pupil who had perfect attendance. I had perfect attendance from grades one through six." She always considered herself an avid reader.

Carol Sage was a kindergarten teacher for many years. In addition to her recollections, Sage got out a quilt to share with the audience. On the blocks were the names of all 837 students she had taught. In the earlier years, the classes were separated by boys and girls, and were later mixed.

Jerry and Debbie Kabat concluded the day by giving tours of the Calvary Hill Retreat Center, showing how restorations to the old school are continuing.

This weekend, we'll go back to Thanksgiving 1930.

City Historian Mark Simonson's column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or e-mail him at simmark@stny.rr.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.

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