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200-year-old, 8-sided schoolhouse sees archaeological dig

Brant Venables, of SUNY Binghamton, screens soil during an archaeological dig Saturday outside the octagonal schoolhouse in the town of Dryden. The school was in operation from 1827 until the 1940s.

Bob Ellis/staff photographer

Brant Venables, of SUNY Binghamton, screens soil during an archaeological dig Saturday outside the octagonal schoolhouse in the town of Dryden. The school was in operation from 1827 until the 1940s.

DRYDEN — Brant Venables and Loren Sparling looked into the hole they dug Saturday and the nugget they discovered.
It was a chip of brick. A chip with a mystery.

Standing behind the two archaeologists was the Eight Square Schoolhouse. Today, it’s an operation of The History Center in Tompkins County, but in 1827, it was as grand a schoolhouse as upstate New York could envision.

And it sits in the middle of nowhere — on Hanshaw Road halfway between the cultural center of Dryden, with fewer than 5,000 people in 1827, and Ithaca with perhaps as many.

The brick isn’t the only thing the hole has yielded, said Sparling during an open house of the school.

Diggers have found nails; animal teeth; ceramic, hand-painted pottery shards; a marble; children’s buckles and even mother-of-pearl buttons.

That, said Wendy Bacon, a teacher and archaeologist herself, paints an interesting picture of a very rural community: “They were going high end,” Bacon said. “Nothing was too good for their kids.”

The Eight Square Schoolhouse isn’t in the middle of a village, and it never was. Yet its supporters had the wealth to build a brick schoolhouse instead of wood, designed in a Quaker-inspired fashion meant to improve the learning environment (and make heating easier). Its teachers had expensive mother of pearl; its students brass they could afford to lose.

Remnants of fires showed the school burned expensive anthracite coal, said Venables, a Ph.D. candidate at Binghamton University. And the octagon design was revolutionary — it wouldn’t gain regional popularity for another two decades.

In the middle of nowhere — five miles from the nearest population centers that could support something that lavish. Definitely not a moderate morning walk for 8-year-olds.

“It was a pretty classy operation,” Bacon said.

That’s what makes it so cool, said Laura Johnson-Kelly, manager of the Cornell University Collection, an archaeo-botanist and mother of a daughter who helped with the dig this summer.

“Nobody thinks to write down what kinds of pencils kids used,” Johnson-Kelly said. “They don’t write about the toys.”

The hole is being re-examined, Venables said, because a side collapsed in August, suggesting the summer’s dig had hit on a previous excavation. It’s a bit small for an outhouse hole, and the well is on the other side of the school. So what is it?
“Was it a hole you might dig for a plant? Or was it something more substantial?” he asked. It’s speculation this point. It may even have been a hole left over from clearing the trees from the property 200 years ago.

One of its students in 1827 was Mary Ann Wood, said Carol West, the school’s director. Wood came from a prominent family and four years after the school opened, she married Ezra Cornell, co-founder of Cornell University.

The Woods and other families recruited trained educators from colleges in Pennsylvania, too.

“They weren’t farmers, who built this school,” West said. “They were bankers and builders.”

The two women standing next to her could have told her that. Lois Fox and Shirley Dickens are sisters, and the great-great-granddaughters of Jeremiah Snyder. Snyder’s brickyard provided the bricks for the school.

“He was quite an entrepreneur,” said Dickens, who was visiting her sister in Dryden from Florida when they decided a picnic was a good way to spend a Saturday. “He had a few bucks and I imagine he chipped in a little.”

A little chip of brick.