Museum exhibit shows the history of education in the community
By Tim Rowland
In the middle of World War II, Newcomb’s graduating class was reduced by two-thirds, its boys having been sent to fight overseas. Since the town in the heart of the Adirondacks had three seniors, that meant only one girl, Anna Mary LaCasse, walked across the stage to accept her diploma.
No matter. In a scene somewhat reminiscent of Dr. Suess’s Whos celebrating a giftless Christmas, the school district’s joyful ceremony went on as usual, with music, speeches and all the associated pageantry.
It demonstrates, said Joan Burke, director of the Newcomb Historical Museum, the esteem in which education is held in the small central-Adirondack town, but also the value of schools as a community unifier and source of pride. “We have our share of PhDs,” she said.
Education is the focus of a new exhibit at the museum, next door to Town Hall on Route 28N, which traces schooling back to its foundation in 1816, when Joseph Chandler rounded up what children there were and taught them in his home.
Through the remainder of the century, the township was carved into school districts, each served by a classic one-room schoolhouse — purposefully located two miles from each other to limit walking distance for the kids. Photos and records of some still exist, although Burke noted that some districts were more meticulous record keepers than others.
The districts were consolidated in 1909 with the construction of the Union Free School, a shoebox of a building whose importance (including free high school) was nevertheless reflected by a grand architectural flourish in the form of Second Empire tower announcing the entrance to a special place.
A who’s-who of the community
Class pictures from the turn of the 20th century show the faces of boys and girls who are still well-known today, having left their mark in both deeds and descendants, some of whom are still around.
There is, as a child, Art Tummins, a Great Camp Santanoni caretaker for 51 years, who rattled down the road to Albany in a Larabee truck delivering farm products to the Robert C. Pruyn family’s permanent residence. There is George Shaughnessy — “the rascal of the group; everyone loved him,” Burke said — who went on to become a logger. Everyone had a good laugh when he volunteered to post the Santanoni property, failing to realize that its perimeter extended for 46 miles. There are kids who stayed local to become teachers and miners, and kids who left to make their mark on the world. In a small town their stories are known; no one is forgotten.
“There is a certain pride that comes with growing up in a small, isolated community,” Burke said. “We don’t have a lot of kids, but we are producing quality students.”
If there is one person who set the tone for successful education in this forested outpost, it would be Lyle Roberts, who was named principal of the Union Free School just shy of a century ago as the state was in the process of creating central school districts. In one year, Newcomb had met all requirements and became one of the first 15 to be awarded centralization.
This opened an era of unparalleled advancement, as Roberts took advantage of every funding and programming opportunity that the state was now providing, including school lunch, medicine, music and art. “Every (program) out of Albany that was possible, he applied for and got,” Burke said. He understood the role of physical activity in education and built a combination gymnasium and auditorium. He organized the school’s first basketball team and then coached it to an undefeated season.
The stories are told with photos — enhanced and melded into seamless storylines by photo archivist and graphic designer Laurinda Minke — and archives, including an old wooden desk into which a young boy carved his name (probably to the horror of his contemporary teacher, but to the delight of modern-day historians).
One of the greatest stories, tragic but inspiring, was the fire that consumed the central school in 1947. Roberts raced into the burning building to retrieve its records, and no one was surprised when, two days later, he had made alternate educational arrangements.
The wartime graduation ceremony had its own bittersweet and ironic end: both graduating boys returned safely from the war, while the girl was killed in an automobile accident.
The school exhibit will be on display through mid-October.
Explore More activity book for kids
If you are out exploring the Adirondack mountains of upstate New York, this is a great activity book for kids and families! The Tri-Lakes Explore More book is 68 pages and encourages kids to get to know their Adirondack surroundings. Made by Jenna Audlin, a Saranac Lake teen. Read about her here.