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School Days

Wheelerville school a late holdout against mergers

April 12, 2009
By RICHARD NILSEN, The Leader-Herald

Recent talks of possible consolidation of the Wheelerville Union Free School District with either Gloversville Enlarged School District or the Greater Johnstown School District bring to light the history of Wheelerville schools as a microcosm of education growth in the state.

"Bigger isn't necessarily better," former Wheelerville Superintendent Jim Izzo of Johnstown said.

In his 30 years working with Wheelerville Union Free School District from 1964 to 1994, Izzo said he did a bit of everything - teaching high school English, history, math and business as well as serving as both interim and permanent superintendent.

Article Photos

The Leader-Herald/Richard Nilsen
Retired Wheelerville Union Free School Superintendent Jim Izzo looks at the 1969 Wheelerville yearbook — the last year the school had a senior graduating class.

Izzo said he has fond memories of his time at Wheelerville. He said the students were mostly well-behaved although many had few resources. He said the cook, Kay Schmutz, would save leftovers for children in ways that wouldn't be allowed with present-day rules.

"Kay would put leftovers in school lockers," Izzo said. "She knew which lockers belonged to children who needed the extra food."

He said he remembered seeing Schmutz put a boy's chilled feet in the oven in the kitchen on an especially cold morning. and give him breakfast.

"No one went hungry even before free lunches were given out," Izzo said. "If they needed it, they got it."

Schmutz is a resident at Pine View Commons Nursing Home in Johnstown and also has fond memories of her 40 years working at the school.

"I came to Caroga Lake in 1942," she said. "I ran the kitchen at Wheelerville school in the old building."

Schmutz said the kitchen looked out on the golf course and sometimes golfers would come in the kitchen and have coffee there with her staff.

She said the golfers would sometimes lob a ball onto the flat roof of the school addition and ask to go up to find it. They weren't allowed, but students knew how to get up on the roof and would make extra money by shagging balls there and selling them back to golfers.

"The kitchen wasn't very big," Schmutz said. "At first we had an ice box-no refrigerator. I remember Quality Dairy brought milk."

At first, she said she cooked for 30 to 40 children. But when free lunches came along, she cooked for as many as 200.

Izzo said "union free" was a bit misleading, as it had nothing to do with teachers unions. He said the term described two things - the unification of one-room schools or "common schools" and the education offered without cost to those attending.

"A common school could have first through sixth grades all in one room, under one roof," he said. "Basically, all the schools in the country started as common. Edinburg still is."

Edinburg Common School Superintendent Randy W. Teetz said the school is one of only five common schools left in the state.

"There were 11 when I started teaching 24 years ago," he said. "Edinburg had four or five neighborhood or numbered schools that came together. I believe Piseco and Glens Falls also have common schools."

Teetz also agreed with Izzo that merging into larger school districts didn't always make sense - economically or as to quality of education.

Izzo said about 1868, the state lawmakers saw a need for a more sophisticated education and schools united into common districts to provide education up to grade 12.

"Wheelerville could still be K through 12," Izzo said. "There were 99 union free schools in the state in 1989."

"Wheelerville was comparatively late in instituting kindergarten [about 1948]," former School Board President and former Town Supervisor Stephen Barker said.

He said the town's schools consisted of four districts:

District 1: Wheelerville starting 1856

District 2: Newkirks starting 1838

District 3: Shaw in 1824 which became North Bush in 1916

District 4: Fern Dale (also know as Durey School) about 1830 and annexed by North Bush in 1916

He said the Canada Lake School was absorbed into Wheelerville in 1927

"It had no district number," Barker said. "We can reasonably impute that the town's schools moved from direct town control to that of an independent school board after 1927 and before 1948."

But about 1968, the state pushed for consolidation as part of the "economy of scale" research by James Conant, Izzo said.

The professor of chemistry and president of Harvard University put forth "the illusion that economies of scale would rescue education," according to the Web site, and Izzo said more recent education theory showed the opposite - more individual attention and smaller education environments produced better education results.

Barker said Wheelerville resisted efforts to consolidate, sometimes by simply ignoring state pressure.

Teetz said Edinburg hadn't been pressured recently to merge, but back about 1992 there was a serious study about a merger with Northville Central School.

"We contract with Northville for grades seven through 12," he said. "We have 175 students in the district with 81 pre-k through sixth grade. The contract runs for three years and we have a joint school board with Northville once a year."

Teetz said instead of a school board, Edinburg had a three-member board of trustees.

Schmutz talked about her memories of Wheelerville.

"The high school [students] started going to Johnstown when some parents thought Wheelerville wasn't enough up to date," Schmutz said. "I remember Minnie Luff Sargent who was principal when I was there. She was a great lady. She taught school when my husband went there."

Barker also mentioned the history of the school wouldn't be complete without mention of Sargent.

"[She] was the sole teacher at the Canada Lake School for 17 years," Barker said. "[She] was arguably the greatest asset Wheelerville acquired in the merger."

Barker said Sargent taught an additional 33 years after the merger, including every subject and every grade level.

"In a record I found from 1930, she is listed as the school's principal," he said. "Even after her retirement in 1960, she continued as a substitute."

Barker said students who needed additional tutoring in a subject - her specialties being math, Latin and Spanish - simply had to show up at her house in the evening and she would tutor them at no charge.

"Her ghost is commonly thought to haunt the old building," he said.

According to F.W. Beers & Co. History of Montgomery & Fulton Counties, 1878:

"Newkirks Mills on Garoga creek, contains a store, a saw-mill, a hotel, a Protestant Reformed Dutch Church, a school-house and about 20 dwellings. It took its name from Garret A. Newkirk, who erected a sawmill at this point about 1840.

"Wheelerville, near the center of the town, contains a store, an M. E. Church, a sawmill and a large tannery, one hotel and a very fine school house. It has a population of 125."

Izzo said the bell from the Dutch Reformed Church was transferred to Wheelerville school. The reference in Beers also seems to take into account the four districts and Canada Lake School.

"The first school house was erected at North Bush," according to Beers. "The town now contains five school houses."

The school Web site states: "In 1856, four one-room schools served this area. The schools were Wheelerville, Newkirks Mills, North Bush and Durey. By the late 1800s, a decline in the local lumbering industry brought mergers that resulted in what is now the Wheelerville School District. From this time until the 1940s, the district experienced severe fluctuations in the school population.

"At one time Wheelerville was the smallest union free school in the state. During the 1940s and '50s, the population began to increase, which led to an expansion of the school facilities. In 1968, a merger was threatened with a larger school district. The merger did not occur. However, Wheelerville lost some students in the process. This made it impractical to operate a high school program and resulted in grades 9-12 being sent to Johnstown High School. The Wheelerville Union Free School District survives today with new facilities constructed in 1991 which serve 158 students in grades kindergarten through eighth grade."

Richard Nilsen is a general assignment reporter and can be reached at



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