story and photos by Rich Finzer
Imagine for a moment that it’s 1861, and you are a first-grade student in the small town of Cato, New York, located northwest of Syracuse in Cayuga County. At the ripe old age of 7, you would attend the District 2 School, a one-room brick schoolhouse that still stands today.
Imagine also that it’s a sub-zero winter morning. You’re getting ready to hike the 2 or 3 miles from your home to the school on Brick Church Road. (In the “good old days” school boards considered it acceptable for a child your age to walk that far.) If school happens to be cancelled today, your teacher can’t call to tell you before you start walking because the telephone wasn’t invented for another 15 years. So off you go.
If you’re lucky, you might catch a ride on a horse-drawn sleigh or a farmer’s wagon. There is no school bus, and neither mom nor dad can drive you – automobiles weren’t invented until 1885. But you’re a tough little guy or girl and you finally arrive at school.
You’ll take your seat along with the other first-through-eighth-grade students. If there’s a good fire in the box, the single room will be warm, thanks to the massive coal stove.
Light enters through the six windows, or is provided by kerosene lamps or candles because there is NO electricity. Heck, Edison won’t even file the patent for the first light bulb until 1879!
Your “tablet” is slate – real slate, and you’ll practice your “longhand” (cursive) writing on it with chalk. If you get thirsty, there’s a ceramic water jug in the corner. You won’t recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the 34-star flag hanging on the wall because the pledge wasn’t written until 1892.
Yep, you’re one lucky first grader because the best parts of your day are still to come.
At some point, you’ll receive an urgent call from nature, so you’ll ask permission to visit one of the unheated outhouses behind the school. First, you’ll get dressed again and trudge your way through the snow. Smart money says you’ll finish your business ASAP and return to the relative warmth of the schoolhouse. Then, when the school day is over, you’ll bundle up once again and walk home where farm chores await. After supper, you’ll crawl into bed. Tomorrow morning you’ll go through the same routine again.
1861 was a momentous year in Cato, thanks to the opening of Cato School Number 2. Elsewhere, Abraham Lincoln was serving his first year as president, and the Civil War had started. That summer, the local telegraph office would have reported the Union Army’s defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run.
The little solid-brick schoolhouse educated Cato’s children until 1939, when about 30 area schools centralized in one new building, known as Cato-Meridian Central School. The old “Brick School,” as it was known, closed for several years before being granted new life as a polling place. But then the polling station closed.
Then What Happend?
It sat unattended, and the structure began to deteriorate. A civic savior was needed to bring it back to life; to give it meaning and purpose. Luckily, in 1981, the nonprofit CIViC Heritage Historical Society (for the communities Cato, Ira, Victory and Conquest) formed. The group restored the school, which today displays period items from the 1920s and ’30s.
To find out more about the building, I wrote to Eva Taylor-Sholes, a CIViC member, and the appointed historian of the Town of Cato. She’s also the coordinator of most events at the school, and she agreed to meet me there for a personal look inside. I was bursting with questions.
Eva, how did this museum come about?
Good question. In 1939, the Cato-Meridian School District formed. And as it did, the Town of Cato sold off most of its wooden one-room schools, which were then converted to private homes. There was one brick schoolhouse left in addition to this one, but it, too, was sold. The private property is located at 10355 Bonta Bridge Road.
Cato District School 2 is the sole remaining brick schoolhouse that retains its original mission: to help educate the public. And believe it or not, there are still two living Cato residents who received at least a portion of their primary education here.
The Cato-Meridian School District provides neither financial nor logistic support to the CIViC Heritage or to the Town of Cato, which owns the building. The town contributes the most to its care and feeding, but receives none of the donations. I use a tiny portion of them to purchase cleaning supplies so I can get the building ready for tours during the summer.
This building is fairly small. How much is involved with maintaining it?
More than you think. The town mows our grass and pays the electric bill. When the roof of the schoolhouse needed replacement, the local Rotary chapter furnished the labor, and the town purchased the materials. The town owns the building and while it contributes the most to its care and feeding, the Town of Cato receives none of the donations.”
Every June, local schoolchildren visit and experience what school was like in the 1860s. It’s a genuine shocker when they realize kids their age still received a very thorough education in the days before electric lights and the internet.
Is the original school bell still in the tower on the roof?
The bell disappeared long before the CIViC Heritage formed or I became town historian. The bell, likely made of bronze, would have summoned children to the school during the early years.
The arrival of modern conveniences was a blessing for the old schoolhouse. Power has been run to the building, electric lighting has been installed and the old wooden outhouses have been rebuilt using modern materials. But a word of caution is in order: the outhouses were rebuilt strictly for the sake of authenticity, not for use by the visiting public. The building has no running water and no septic system.
Its original desks suffered the ravages of time and were replaced with similar models marketed by Sears Roebuck, but the folks from Cato and the surrounding area highly value the schoolhouse because it’s unique. Brick one-room schools are scarce, some 156 years after this one was built for the sum total of $75. It needs and deserves to be preserved. Should it ever fall into a state of complete disrepair, it will be lost forever. Forever is a very long time.
I’d like to thank Ira Town Historian Ray Derby, Cato Town Historian Eva Taylor-Scholes and the Cato Town Clerk’s office for their assistance in preparing this article.