Grindstone Island Schools
The first school district in Jefferson County was formed on Grindstone Island in or around 1840. The location was on the Base Line Road, past the cheese factory, on the east side of the Billy Graham (August & Norma Couch Frazier) home. The school, named District #1, was built on the Cummings property, later the John Black Homestead. Pupils came from as far away as Washington Island, which is located just below the village of Clayton, a distance of four miles as the crow flies. Shortly there after, a second school was built for those pupils on the upper half of the island where the Base Line Road intersects Cross Island Road. This was called District #15 or the Upper School. Some forty years later, in 1880, the District #1 site was abandoned and another District #1 school was built further to the foot of the island where it still stands today. The property and building is now owned by Manley Rusho, a former student. He purchased the Lower Schoolhouse at the request of his wife, the late Mary Lou Nunn Rusho. She was a teacher and her wish was to see the building saved for posterity.
In 1885 the original District #15 school building was moved across the road and used as the “House of Good Temperance”. It also served as the island church until it was destroyed by fire a few years later. A new school building was built on the same site as the original. The floor plan was simple. As you entered the school from the front door, there was an unheated cloak room for boots, hats and coats. Two doors came off this hallway into the large classroom. One at the furthest end by the sink and one to the right as you walked in the front door. This large area was the classroom. In the back right corner was a smaller room which provided lodging for the teacher during the week. The library was a homemade cupboard with four shelves about four feet wide. Slate chalkboards spread across the front wall. Along the top of the chalkboard was the alphabet in capital and small case letters. A roll-up map system was fastened above the alphabet. It contained the world map and the map of the United States which were well worn from decades of use. The teacher’s deck sat a short distance away facing the room. A recitation bench was positioned up front facing the teacher’s desk. It held six children. The desks were double in width and two pupils sat together. The subjects taught were English, Arithmetic, Geography, History, Spelling and Reading. In later years a piano provided entertainment and music lessons for pupils. A round oak woodstove kept the school warm in winter during the coldest weather. Coal was put in for overnight. Four hanging Aladdin lamps furnished the only lighting. There was no electricity. Water was pumped from a well on the school grounds. Bathroom facilities consisted of an outhouse attached to the back of the building. A shed about 50 feet from the schoolhouse was used to store the wood and coal. The boys were assigned the task of replenishing the wood box everyday. Outside recreation consisted of baseball and field trips in the summer and a game of “fox & geese” in winter. Eventually a huge metal swing set was provided for the children.
Most children walked up to 6 miles daily to attend school. Transportation wasn’t provided until the 1970s. The teacher stayed on the island during the week. In good weather they went home on Friday and returned on Sunday.
District #1 & #15 were filled with farm families so when the quarries were bringing the island its peak population, a private school for the worker’s children, was started by Miss Emma Kelly. At one time, ninety pupils attended this private school. Nettie McRae was one of those who helped with the tutoring. The school was located on Cross Island Road near the village of Thurso.
Two summer schools also existed on Grindstone in the early 1900’s. One was below the upper town dock in Aunt Jane’s Bay, just above Wright’s Point and the other on the River or South Shore (Brown) Road at the summer residence of Lolita Pfeiffer. The purpose was preparing pupils for college. The students of both schools were mostly restricted to their prospective camps and did not associate often with the island people.
The lower summer school, “Camp Koenig”, was started by Otto Koenig of New York City. Koenig, who had taught at the Sachs School for boys and the Collegiate Institute on East 59th Street, was principal of the Franklin School in New York City. In 1924 he sold his camp to two of his councilors. The name was changed to Frontenac Lodge in 1925. In the early 1930’s Camp Frontenac was sold to Robert Garnsey who farmed the property for a number of years. In the 1940’s the main house was struck by lightning during the winter and burned to the ground. The property is now home for the Custis Family.
The upper summer school was know as “Camp Tip Top” (Tip Camp) and was established in the early 1930’s by Mr. & Mrs. Walter Crouch from Pennsylvania. Mr. Crouch taught at the Friends Central School in Western Philadelphia. The Crouches attended church regularly and became close friends with the island people. When Mr. Crouch died in the late 1930’s the camp was closed. Mrs. Crouch summered on the island for a few more years. Upon her death in the late 1950’s the camp was sold to Morris Fussell. It was eventually purchased by Raymond Pfeiffer.
District #1 and #15 schools taught grades 1 thru 8. Some pupils stayed in the 8th grade until they were 16. Others went on to high school in Clayton. The families either paid board for their children during the winter months or moved off the island. In 1938 the rural school districts were invited to centralize with the Clayton school. This meant the island pupils had their winter board paid and more children were able to complete their education.
The Lower School, District #1, closed its doors June 16, 1960 with Fannie Slate Hutchinson as the last teacher. Fanny had attended this school as a student in the early 1900’s. The two districts joined and consolidated with Clayton Central School. All of the island pupils, kindergarten thru 6 grades, would attend District #15 (the Upper School). Grades 7 thru 12 would now go to Clayton. This afforded more monies to be spent and new inside bathrooms were built. The wood and coal stove was replaced with a new furnace. The new well drilled for running water replaced the old hand pump and the earthen drinking fountain with its spigot.
Enrollment in the Upper School continued to decline. District #15, the last one room schoolhouse in New York State, closed its doors June 19, 1989. Rather than spend the estimated $48,000 to keep the school operating, the school board decided to seal the building. Records indicate in 1871 it cost $152.25 per year to operate the school. Beth Marshall, the last teacher, would have had only two pupils returning the next September. Any future school age children would now have to be transported to the Sam Guardino Elementary School in Clayton.
On August 23, 1998 the door of District #15 Schoolhouse swung open once again. This event was the accumulation of many years effort by island and area residents to restore the building prior to its closing in 1989. Its mission was to provide summer research internships, develop a resource library and preserve the legacy of the island. Welcome to the Grindstone Island Research & Heritage Center.