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Stories about Westfield’s schools in the pioneer years

September 10, 2015
By Marybelle Beigh - Westfield Historian , Westfield Republican

While searching through some history files at Patterson Library, trying to solve a totally unrelated "history mystery" about some old paintings, a couple of fascinating articles were discovered about our earliest schools.

One was headlined "Westfield Circa 1820 Placed Emphasis On Buildings, Not Teachers" by Anne Johnson (article not dated, and source not noted, although the original appeared to be cut from the newspaper, and Anne Johnson often wrote for the Westfield Republican). Johnson used the original minutes of school meetings starting with the first one recorded Nov. 8, 1814 for Westfield school, and continuing in 1816, 1817, and 1818, in which primarily summarized amounts spent for repairs to the school house, fuel, and lumber for a "much needed new school house boards, boarding, nails, lime, brick, kiln"

"In 1816 the records show that the taxpayers voted to hold a man's school for our month. The next year a man's school for six months." It is unclear whether "man's school" refers to having a male teacher, or teaching only male students. "By 1820, the district voted to have four months of school beginning in December and resolved that the trustees pay the teacher in grain later rescinded and an arrangement for wood decided upon as payment remained a point of contention" even into the following spring when records state "it was unanimously agreed that the trustees agree with the teacher to measure and keep an account of all wood delivered to the schoolhouse and make no use of any until it is corded and measured at the door." When the wood ran out the teacher was instructed to dismiss his school, "until the wood is properly estimated."

Article Photos

Photo courtesy Patterson Library archives
This is a circa-1860s photo of the Westfield Academy, built in 1837.

At an 1822 meeting it was decided "that there be no teacher employed or allowed to begin a school until he or she had a certificate from the Inspectors of Common Schools." Between 1823 and 1825, there were a series of resolutions and rescinding decisions regarding removing a fireplace chimney and purchasing a stove, which was finally resolved in 1825 with the purchase of a stove for $17, plus finishing the west end of the school house with seats and two windows, and building an eight foot square portico across the front of the school house.

The second article found at Patterson Library was titled,"Westfield Schools March Forward" by John Alexander, from the July 3, 1946, Westfield Republican, on the eve of planning the centralization of Westfield's schools. Alexander wrote, "Parents, teachers, and friends - I would like to tell you a little about the history of the education in Westfield." Drawing on information from several histories of Chautauqua County written in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Alexander recounted the early pioneer days as follows:

"In 1803 William Murray was selected to care for the children who lived at the 'Crossroads' and to teach them their letters. Mr. Murray, who was physically handicapped, did this while the strong men went out to clear the land and cut logs. Three or four years later, Miss Ann Eaton, the first real teacher of the county, 'kept school' in a pioneer home. About 1820, a room in the Westfield Mills was set aside to be used for school purposes. There were short terms, for the boys were needed for plowing and the girls could not be spared from the spinning wheels. It was a great step forward when a school, in the form of a log cabin, was built on North Portage Street in 1825... The log cabin was used for about 10 years, and then classes were conducted in the basement of the Presbyterian Church.

"The Westfield Academy, opened in 1837, was a great stride in educational facilities for Westfield."

Alexander describes the location in terms of where the old grade school was located in 1946 - "Its location was near our present grade school building but faced Academy Street. The building had three floors. The girls were taught on the second floor and the boys on the third floor. The subjects studied by the older children were philosophy, English, known as rhetoric, theology, French, harmony, and ancient history.

"By 1840 the Academy had 40 pupils, under the direction of two teachers. Students paid four dollars for a term of 15 weeks, besides furnishing some wood, since each room was heated with a wood-burning stove. We note that one of the members of the first board of education was William Seward, well known as a member of President Lincoln's cabinet during the Civil War."



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