January 1827: 15 children, from first grade to eighth grade, sit in scattered desks on opposite sides of the room. Between them, in the center of the room, a wood stove radiates heat as snow piles up on the ground outside. Their teacher stands at the front of the room explaining the difference between a noun and a verb.
Fast forward 190 years: Carole West, the Eight Square Schoolhouse and Youth Education Director at the History Center in Tompkins County, stands on the steps of a unusual building, an eight-sided schoolhouse. For the past 15 years, the History Center has been having an annual open house at the building at 1748 Hanshaw Road, Dryden, to showcase its unusual attraction.
More than 1,000 kids have passed through the schoolhouse, West said.
Inside the building, Wendy Bacon, the school’s marm, talked about artifacts within the building. Bacon is the teacher for the assorted fourth graders. “We learn geography, nature study, reading and writing,” she said.
Outside, Loren Sparling, an archeologist with the History Center, sifted through the soil looking for artifacts. Since starting to dig four years ago, many have been found, Sparling said. Among those are hundreds of nails from across history, glass and even an old wood stove door.
The one artifact that sticks out to Sparling — the nails. “Truth be told, I like the nails,” he said. “We’ve found a variety of them.”
Sparling said square-headed nails and wire nails have been found. “Artifacts address the question of what the area was used for,” he said.
The schoolhouse is one of many with octagon sides throughout the northeast, said Rhonda Gilmore, a senior lecturer at the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis with the School of Human Ecology at Cornell University in Ithaca.
The building pre-dates by two decades a national movement, started by Orson Fowler in the 1850s to build octagon buildings.
Gilmore said having windows on seven of the eight sides of the school house lets in more natural light and reduces the number of lanterns and candles it used.
Beth Wilcox of Lansing watched a few of the children she baby-sits as they played with historic musical instruments and games. “It’s an exposure to the history of a non-hectic life,” Wilcox said. The event Saturday showcased a simpler lifestyle.
Wilcox said she could remember in school having substitute teachers who once taught at one-room schoolhouses. Wilcox’s daughter, Morgan Wilcox, is a history buff and volunteered at the event. Morgan Wilcox attended a summer camp at the schoolhouse and soon became a camp counselor.
The schoolhouse closed as a regular school in 1941 after 114 years of use. It now acts as a place of learning for fourth-graders between April and mid-October, West said. “This is local history,” she said. “This type of site is important to keep alive.”
Playing the part of a school marm, Wendy Bacon talks on Saturday about the history of the Eight Square Schoolhouse during a 190th birthday celebration in Ithaca.