From Portville New York
What It Was Like Then 1935-1954
by Richard Allen Rice
31 December 1988
Fifth grade was a disaster - at least the first time around. Mrs. Helen Frost, my teacher, did everything possible to motivate me, but to no avail. The "Not Promoted" written on my report card at the end of that year was about the most devastating event of my young life up to that time.
My second year in fifth grade, also under Mrs. Frost, started out in a room on the first floor at the front of the Masonic Temple building. About mid-year we moved to a room directly over the Post Office. It seemed kind of nice to be away from the hustle-bustle of the school building and to be just a little closer to home. Somehow that year was much easier and I never seemed to have academic difficulties after that, except when I purposely got lower grades so that my friends would not disown me for outdoing them. Mrs. Frost had made a good decision to retain me.
Sixth grade brought about a unique situation. The school system had purchased the Kayes' farm on the upper end of Elm Street, just across the
railroad tracks, with plans to build a new school. Initially they built a bus garage which due to a critical need for classrooms' was partitioned off for the needed space I seem to recall that grades four through six were housed in the garage. Today the building contains bus repair and parking facilities.
Youngsters and newer residents of Portville would have difficulty envisioning that facility as it was then. The only entry/exit road started on Brooklyn Street next to the railroad tracks, ran through the G.L.F. Feed Store area (now Agway) and the milk plant (now Fibercell), along the railroad to the closed off crossing at Elm Street. From there a semblance of a road or a wide path led to a rock-strewn field in front of the garage. Cars and buses had to negotiate this trail with a certain degree of caution.
The main school building did not yet exist, nor did Goss Avenue, School Street, or any of the houses now located on those streets. What is now the football field was then a swampy wooded area. In other words, we went to school in a remote, not too accessible area. For those of us who walked, one route was over a wooden bridge located behind a house at 76 Brooklyn Street. There was a house or two on the school side of the creek and the path to the garage was just that, a path, without any gravel or other paving. Occasionally I would cut across fields and fences going to or from school as a sort of pace change.
I recall a disastrous fire that school year which we could see from the school garage. Spring Hill Dairy Farm was located on the upper end of Whitehouse Road. The barn caught fire one day and we were permitted to go out front and watch it for a short while. Since there was no school building to obstruct our view, we could see this large, well-built barn engulfed in smoke and flames. A day or so later I went up there after school and observed all those beautiful Jersey cows badly burned and still in what was left of their stalls. The Spring Hill Farm was a real asset to the community and unfortunately the barn was never rebuilt. They continued to deliver and sell milk and dairy products around Portville, but I do not think it was "home grown."
An incident that stayed with me for many years occurred that year. There was a small wet weather stream which crossed the pathway to the garage. Joe Schifley, a classmate, and I happened (on purpose) to jump into the stream splashing slush and water all over two of our female class members. Our teacher called all four of us in the next morning, advised us of the complaint from the girls’ mothers, and told us emphatically that it would not happen again. To make sure, she instructed the girls to travel the road while Joe and I were to continue using the path.
Several weeks later the teacher answered a knock at the door. Turning around I saw the mother of one of the girls, thought nothing of it and returned to my work. Suddenly she came back into the room, grabbed Joe by the hair, and slapped his face hard six or more times. Joe never knew what hit him since it happened so fast and he had done nothing to warrant such punishment.
Next she came over to me, grabbed my hair and attempted to do the same. I was quite large for my age and put my hands up to ward off her blows. She ordered me to put my arms down, which I refused to do, so she stopped. Keeping us after school, she explained that the girls told their mothers that we were still splashing them. It did absolutely no good then to tell her that we had not even seen the girls outside of school, much less commit the acts we were punished for. I had a feeling sometime later that she did believe us because she never said anything again. It was easy to have ill feelings toward the girls for the next few years.
Along about this era Joe and I got interested in telegraphy since we each had a sending and receiving unit. To get information from an expert we journeyed to Whitehouse Tower a number of times. It was located at the junction of the Pennsylvania and Shawmut railroads, between Spring Hill Dairy and Anderson Pattern Works. You could see up and down both tracks from the telegraphers position on the second floor.
Mr. John Wagner was the telegrapher and was very helpful, even to the extent of helping us repair our sets. It was fascinating listening to incoming and outgoing messages which meant nothing to us, but Mr. Wagner
understood and sent with ease. Also, in the tower was a set of levers which, when pulled, could derail the Shawmut. When the Shawmut was torn up the need for Whitehouse Tower diminished. Also, some of the signals operated from there could be controlled remotely from a distant place. I believe Miss Alma Anderson also worked there as a telegrapher, although never when I was present.
Money was scarce in those days. Grandpa Nagel would say, "Scarce as hen's teeth." We were always looking for ways to make money and aside from occasionally finding a two cent pop bottle, and delivering papers, Jim and I worked for Mrs. America L. Hackett, wife of Dr. G. Clifford Hackett, who lived at 45 Temple Street. Dr. Hackett had his office in the back of his house but spent a lot of time making house calls and at the hospitals in Olean.
Mrs. Hackett was a small meticulous woman of Hispanic origin who thought
a lot of us. The house was large, beautifully furnished, and about all we did there was remove and replace storm windows and screens in the spring and fall. The yard was a different matter. In the back there were many, many apple trees which produced what seemed like tons and tons of apples. We experimented with a multitude of ways to pick up or otherwise remove the apples only to conclude that there was no simple or easy way.
Ultimately Jim outgrew the job and I did all the mowing, leaf removal, and of course the apple patrol. A few times the power mower broke down and I had to mow that huge lawn by hand. A hand mower in those days was a reel type and a 100% people-powered device. We also did other work for the same rate of forty cents per hour. By 1988 standards that is pitifully low, however, then it was a fair wage. Mrs. Hackett was very good to us and we often reminisce about our good memories of her. In her Spanish accent she called us "Jeem" and "Deek".
Junior high school back at the school on Main Street was a fairly blasé period in my memory. We thought we were important now since we went to different classes each period. Also, a few of those classes were on the third floor which was generally high school territory. Instead of having one teacher we now had a different one each period. Occasionally we had fire drills and if one happened to be on the third floor of the older section, the exit was via an outside fire escape. At that height it was scary but when you stepped out, the fire escape was loosely attached and moved underfoot. I always felt that it would fall.
The teacher I remember most vividly those years, as well as on through high school, was Mr. Harold (Red) Miner. He was strict, fair, dynamic, and demanding. My math grade improved considerably due to his teaching methods and ability. He demanded that one pay attention and then proceeded to force-feed the opened mind with well-presented subject matter. I cannot envision anyone not learning under his tutelage.
Mr. Miner also had a little leverage with us since he had graduated with
our mother from then Portville High School in 1922. We realized that since he knew her that any questionable behavior on our part might get back to her. In those days trouble at school meant double trouble at home. Mr. Miner was such a strong, good teacher that I expect he rarely had to contact parents. Later we would ask him to be our senior class sponsor and help chaperone us on the trip to Washington, D.C. His sense of humor was evident on that trip where he appears at each end of our class picture in front of the capitol. The photographer used a swiveling time-exposure camera and after his end of the picture had been taken, Mr. Miner ducked down and ran behind the group with time enough to be standing tall at the other end when the camera got there. It was a sad day in the hearts and minds of all who knew him when he passed away in December of 1986.
In eighth grade all girls had to take a semester of shop, while all boys
took a semester of homemaking. That year the boys were in shop during the Spring and were asked to help the high school agriculture classes plant trees. Mr. Lee Frair, our shop teacher as well as the high school agriculture teacher, took us to the site of the new school where we planted hundreds of trees. The area was a steeply-sloped old field just behind where the new school was being built. That was the spring of ]950 and the trees, now referred to as "Frair's Forest", are quite large.
Ninth grade was fairly uneventful, although I did learn a good lesson that year. My brother, Jim, and I were not known for our sterling behavior. Jim, being three years older, tended to establish a negative rapport with the teachers I'd have later. In this particular situation, I walked into a classroom (at the first of the year) rather innocently and was asked by the teacher what my name was. "Are you Jim Rice’s brother?" the teacher asked. Stating that I was, the teacher shouted "Sit down and shut up then!" That negative greeting set the stage for me to act up more than I would have normally. Years later when I became a teacher, it reminded me to never pre-judge a student on the actions of an older brother or sister.
My sophomore year was kind of a turning point. Several of the football players talked me into coming out for the team and I finally did. Although I thought I would die after the first few days, my body eventually got into shape and it wasn't too bad. I never became a football hero, or for that matter, even a first string player, however, I did learn some good lessons. Football is said to build character. For me, I learned teamwork, physical conditioning, perseverance, and other things that helped me out later, especially in the armed forces. Coach "Bud" Fenton demanded lots of hard work, but most of all that we play the game cleanly and by the rules.
Several events took place the following year that I remember. First and
foremost was our move to the new school building. We were all very excited about the move even though a few things were not completed, e.g. landscaping, football field, etc.
Also about this time I acquired a ]941 Hudson 4 door sedan from my brother, Jim. It had been wrecked and I repaired it over a period of several months. Later generations would get considerable publicity for stuffing students into Volkswagens, although if records were kept we would rank pretty high on the Hudson-stuffing list. Unless my memory has failed, we could "stuff"1 14 students into that old Hudson and transport them to the old school for football practice. Since the old car didn1t have much power it also was quite a feat to get it rolling and keep it moving. The biggest obstacle was the railroad grade on Brooklyn Street which I had to prepare for by applying full throttle after exiting from Goss Avenue. If something caused me to slow down on that stretch it was hard to make it up that relatively mild slope.
When we moved to the new building the lunch hour was changed from one long period to two shorter sessions. I had been accustomed to going home for lunch all those years and continued doing so. I arranged my schedule to have a study hall next to a lunch period and never reported. Somehow I was never caught and got away with it all of my junior year and part of my senior year. Miss Genevieve Growney, our vice principal, did question me once and tell me to go to the study hall but I didn't and wasn't caught.
I had a bad habit of occasionally arriving at school a minute or two late, causing Mr. John Benz, our principal, a lot of concern. In fact he was so convinced that I would never make it at anything, in or out of school, that he bet my English teacher, Miss Teresa Lennon, a soda that I would fail to adequately perform the major part she had assigned me in the junior play. Had I known about the bet then, I would have been inclined to side with Mr. Benz.
Miss Lennon pulled out all the stops. She insisted that I take the long part, convinced me that I could do it, and proceeded to win the bet. Her
confidence in me improved my self-confidence and we had a successful "Cheaper By The Dozen" junior play.
As I completed my junior year, the Korean War was winding down and the members of my class hoped that it would be over before we graduated. At that time all males had to register with selective service at age 18 and were subject to induction into the armed forces through age 26. We were all well aware of this eight year obligation to our country, but hoped that if drafted (after high school) there would be no war for us to fight.
The fall of 1953 was the beginning of the end of my trek through Portville Central School. I viewed it mostly with the desire of going out into the world, getting a good job, making money, and living happily ever after. On the other hand, it was going to be hard to see the old gang splitting up and the radical changes that take place in the transition from school to the world of work. By then I had graduated from lawn work to working in a gas station for Al Hadley and other part time (grown-up) work. School was sort of secondary to my work and other plans and activities.
About mid-year I got a job offer from Campbell's 7th Street Esso Station
in Olean which required some work in the afternoon hours. Mr. Benz and Miss Growney finally agreed to excuse me about noon each day so that I could take the job. What they did was similar to what educators now do routinely and call it distributive or cooperative education. Although I lost out on some late-in-the-day school activities, I gained some valuable work experience.
That year Miss Lennon stuck her neck out again and offered me a majorpart in the senior play,"Our Miss Brooks". Again, I did fairly well and the play was a success. I don't think Mr. Benz got into the act that time due to his heavy loss the previous year. Mr. Benz left Portville a few years later and died several years after that. On the surface he was tough and stern as principals must be with students whose behavior is not the best. Underneath he was a caring and capable administrator as I look back from the vantage points of time and experience.
Students today at Portville Central would probably have a hard time envisioning a passenger train, much less one that actually stopped in Portville. Back in the olden days of A.D. 1954, one actually stopped to pick up the seniors for our class trip to Washington, D.C. Ten hours later, we were deposited in Union Station after an all night ride. We had worked four years with all sorts of fundraising activities to earn money for the trip. The passenger trains that routinely went through Portville several times each day did not normally stop. In order to catch a train one had to do so in Olean at the station on North Union Street. The older people referred to the passenger train as the "Flyer".
One of our fund raisers was collecting and selling scrap paper. We bought a press about our sophomore year and compressed all the paper we could find into bales which were sold. Occasionally we would ask the citizens of Portville to save their old newspapers and magazines and we would periodically collect them. I don't know how much money we raised in this manner, but it was a lot of work, and fun, for us. I don't remember what happened to the press, perhaps it was sold to the junior class.
The trip to Washington was an eye-opening experience to some of us who had never been very far from Portville. The city was jammed with people, cars, buses, taxis, buildings, monuments, etc., of a magnitude beyond our limited experiences. We gaped in awe at the national shrines, sites, and museums. During the White House tour we had hoped to see President Eisenhower but were told that he was out of town. Years later I learned that my mother and her classmates shook hands with President Warren G. Harding on their senior class trip in 1922.
The school year closed out rather uneventfully in June when we graduated. As far as I know all 49 of us are alive and well. We voted, while still in school, to have a reunion every five years after the Alumni Banquet and have done just that. Although many of us are scattered far from our roots in Portville, most of us try to get back for the reunions. As time marches on and the infirmities of advancing age slow us down, no doubt fewer and fewer of us will be able to attend the reunions. Whatever our physical conditions are, we can never forget Portville.
P.S. By 2000 two class members
have passed on.
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