The First Day of School

No matter how long it’s been since I was a student, there’s still something about the end of summer and the beginning of autumn that makes me think of school. It doesn’t have anything to do with back-to-school sales or remembering to watch out for school buses on busy streets. It’s about knowing that the start of a new school year could bring an important change to your life.

I’m not alone in that thought. As I learned from working with the Fulton Public Library on their Memoir Project, lots of us have vivid memories of our school days. In the five years since the library has been asking people to share their recollections of life in our city, many have focused on their first day of school. To honor the start of this school year, I’m revisiting some of those memories in this column.

I’ll start with Julia (Judy) Smith, whose introduction to education took place in a one-room schoolhouse. Judy grew up on the Silk Road in Fulton, and she and her siblings attended the nearby Ludding School. Here’s some of what Judy saw on her first day at Ludding:

“The school bell was on the roof and our teacher, Mrs. Downing, used a long rope to ring the start of our morning. As we walked in the door, we hung our coats on hooks and put our boots on the floor. Before class started, Mrs. Downing took roll call and led us in the Pledge of Allegiance. We sat in desks like the ones on Little House on the Prairie.  They were fastened to the seat in front of us and had inkwells in them. I didn’t have pigtails, so I didn’t ever get my hair put into an inkwell.

“The school had a potbelly stove, which burned wood for heat. There was no inside plumbing, so we had to use the outhouse—and, boy, it was cold in the winter! There was also a well for water, and in order to wash our hands or get a drink, we had to pump the well’s handle.”

Not all of us had the unique experience of a one-room rural schoolhouse, but we all had our first day as a kindergartener. For those of a tender age, our neighborhood schools could look pretty intimidating. Here’s Fultonian Paul McKinney describing what he saw on his first day of school:

“Of all my memories of Erie Street School, my first day of kindergarten was the most exciting.  Back in the early 1950s, preschools were rare and many school districts didn’t even offer kindergarten as an option.  So, for a five-year-old, going to kindergarten was a big deal.  After all, we were going inside that imposing yellow brick building that sat majestically on the corner of Sixth and Erie Street.  And, to boot, we would be there for half the day, away from home, with a bunch of other kids we might not even know.  Yikes!  Some kids even cried!

“We were finally going to see the inside of this place the older neighborhood kids talked about all the time. Walking in a straight line through those huge double doors facing Sixth Street and seeing those imposing oak steps ahead was overwhelming to a five-year-old’s eyes. Those worn oak stairs seemed to go straight up in the air forever. There had to be a hundred – maybe a million – of them.  Then there was the smell of fresh paint on the walls and the sparkle from the glistening oak floors.  All of these fused together with a faint scent of chalk dust in the air to form my first impression of Erie Street School.”

After graduating from kindergarten, the start of each school year became almost routine. We learned what to expect: sharpened pencils and a full ream of paper, new clothes and sneakers. But there were times when one person made the first day of school something special. For Sue Martin, who had a long career as a Fulton educator, meeting her second grade teacher made all the difference. Sue attended Phillips Street School, which had an end-of-the-year ritual called “Moving Up Day,” where students would meet their teacher for the next school year.

“I was completely swept away by my teacher for second grade, Mrs. Mary Robarge,” Sue wrote. “First glance told me she was a kind woman because she didn’t just smile at her pupils, she ‘smized,’ – that is, she smiled with her eyes.  Just the way she looked at us let me know that here was a teacher who was going to give me the keys to the kingdom of knowledge.  It was as if the world was now seen in Technicolor, instead of mere pale shades.  

“I must admit it was Mrs. Robarge’s jewelry that hooked me.  She wore earrings with seed pearls, rhinestones, and aurora borealis crystals.  What seven-year-old girl could resist such beautiful accessories?  Paying attention to the earrings, pins, and necklaces she wore became a daily assignment for me, one I took to heart quite seriously.”

It was more than Mrs. Robarge’s jewelry that made such an impression on Sue. She was also influenced by how her teacher taught:

“Mrs. Robarge’s class was always a safe haven, where never a cross word was spoken by her.  I don’t recall anyone being reprimanded for ill behavior, as she brought out the best in each of us.  Along with our assigned classwork, we received encouragement and respect on a daily basis.”

This week, in every classroom of our Fulton schools, teachers are making impressions on their students. Like our Memoir Project writers Judy Smith, Paul McKinney, and Sue Martin, every boy and girl will be wondering what the new school year will be like for them. With the right teacher, and with the right attitude, this could be the greatest school year ever.

 Erie Street School, once one of Fulton's neighborhood schools, where each September children learned what the year had in store for them.

Erie Street School, once one of Fulton's neighborhood schools, where each September children learned what the year had in store for them.

When Trolleys Came to Fulton

I’ve always been interested in how people got from one place to another back in the days before every household had a car. From what I’ve learned, it seems that early methods of transportation weren’t only about getting people where they needed to go; they were also an exciting experience, something to talk about around the dinner table. In the early 1900s, suppertime conversation in Fulton might have been about trolleys.

Recently, Dick Drosse, one of the stewards of our Great Bear Trail System, shared some information about the trolleys that once came through Fulton. “As I understand it,” Dick told me, “there were regular official stops the trolleys made between Syracuse and Oswego, but you could also get off at alternate locations. I’ve heard that people would get off at Great Bear and hike down to the Spring House or Gazebo to enjoy views of the Oswego River.”

Evidence that trolleys once came through the Great Bear Trails include a raised and graded rail bed with concrete footings. Finding them on the property prompted Dick to research the unique transportation system. I visited some of the websites Dick found that covered the history of Central New York trolleys and here’s what I learned:

Trolleys were an electric rail system, developed primarily to transport passengers. In the early 1900s it was common to see these streetcar-like railcars throughout New York (and other states). Electricity to power the trolleys was sent through a single cable called a catenary wire. Atop each trolley’s roof, a whip-like apparatus known as a pantograph collected power by making contact with the overhead wire.  

According to one website, the electricity to drive trolleys was created at a plant in Lyons, New York, and was then distributed to substations by way of catenary wires. Alternating Current (AC) from the plant ran through the substations’ transformers and was sent to the trolleys as Direct Current (DC). Since DC power can only be sustained for about five miles, the substations were built intermittently along routes. A few old timers in Fulton told me that once the trolley system stopped operating, those substations were turned into storage space by farmers and landowners.

Since trolleys were designed to travel ten, twenty, or more miles, catenary wires had to span great distances. To accommodate this, steel-framed catenary “bridges” were constructed, each 30 feet long and extending over the width of trolley beds. The bridges were placed every 200 feet on a trolley’s route and Dick confirmed that the measurements he’s taken of Great Bear’s trolley remnants match those dimensions.

I asked some lifelong Fultonians if they were aware of the trolleys and I heard stories about childhood afternoons spent playing in farm fields or overgrown meadows, where abandoned trolley beds lay waiting to be discovered. They described those areas where tracks once went through as cinder-filled, and the websites about local trolleys confirmed that cinders would have been available in large amounts from the Solvay Process Company.

One of the farms that trolleys went through was the Taylor dairy farm, located on Route 57 between Fulton and Phoenix. Fran Sullivan is a member of the Taylor family and she has some memories associated with the trolleys:

“Our farm was in the area where the new State Troopers barracks are on old Route 57. By the time I came along, the trolley system was long gone, but our family owned the land that trolley tracks were on from Fulton to Phoenix. The tracks ran behind my grandparents Irvin and Rose Taylor’s house and barn.

“Grandma Taylor played in a band and I heard stories that when she was younger she rode the trolley into Syracuse for their performances.  As I was growing up, my brother and I used the abandoned trolley track bed to drive our farm vehicles. For fun, he and I rode our bikes on the bed, sometimes using it for a quick path into town.”

A little more from my research on trolleys: The various rail systems in our area eventually created a company known as the Syracuse, Lake Shore and Northern Railroad, founded in 1905.  Originally the line ran from Syracuse to Baldwinsville, with a single stop at the New York State Fairgrounds. Six years later, the company had 13 trolleys leaving Syracuse daily for various points around Central New York.

The Syracuse trolley company changed its name to the Empire State Railroad and it thrived until 1931, when automobiles gained mass popularity. A map of the areas Empire served shows one set of tracks moving through the towns of Savannah, Sodus and Weedsport, heading for Rochester; another set heading toward Central Square; and then a third line to Oswego, with stops at Phoenix, Fulton and Minetto.

With a trolley’s average speed of nine miles per hour, nobody was getting anywhere fast, but I imagine the slower pace added to the enjoyment of those traveling for pleasure.  Along with destinations like Great Bear, our area’s trolley lines also traveled right through Fulton, making stops at Recreation Park’s Lake Neatahwanta and downtown Fulton’s popular Dizzy Block.

While I thought that the trolleys’ main function was to move people back and forth between Syracuse and smaller Central New York towns, I found out they were also an important way to get around our town. Fultonian Bob Green remembers as a young child waiting for the trolley to take him into downtown Fulton from his home on Route 48 near where Brennan’s Vegetable Stand is today.

One more fact I learned about the trolley’s service to our community: They weren’t always powered by electricity. Newspapers from Fulton’s late 1800s and early 1900s show horse-drawn trolley cars making their way from West Broadway to Hannibal Street by way of the busy downtown area. Maybe that’s a topic for a future column, where we can further explore how people used to get around in the city of Fulton.

  Trolley cars from Syracuse were once a primary method of transportation for people in Central New York.

Trolley cars from Syracuse were once a primary method of transportation for people in Central New York.

Let's Give For a Kid

I’ve always believed that in order for a program or project to succeed, it needs a strong leader. I first realized this when I watched my second grade teacher inspire our entire class to learn. I saw it while working for the Oswego City-County Youth Bureau, which partnered with many social service programs to help the less fortunate. And I see it today in the volunteer programs I participate in. With the right person leading the way, great things can happen. That was the case when Clarissa Owens offered her charismatic leadership to the city of Fulton.

If you remember Clarissa’s contributions to our city it’s probably because of the program she founded: “Let’s Give For a Kid.” Clarissa started “Let’s Give” in 1958 with a simple goal: To collect used toys, then repair and distribute them at Christmastime to needy children in Fulton. Today, this sort of charitable act may seem commonplace, but 60 years ago the idea of gathering and giving toys a second life to make children happy was rare. But that didn’t stop Owens.

A native of St. Lawrence County, Clarissa moved to Fulton in 1927. Thirty years later, when she got the idea to help Fulton youth, she had already raised her own children and was a widow living on a modest income. Those who got to know her soon realized that she knew the value of a dollar.

“When I first met Clarissa, in the late 1970s, she still did her wash by hand and hung her clothes on the line year round,” said Monica MacKenzie, who helped Owens carry out her “Let’s Give For a Kid” program. “Even without appliances like a washing machine, Clarissa’s house was always spic and span.”

Perhaps it was Clarissa’s humble lifestyle that led her to create her gift-giving program. In the years Monica assisted Owens, she observed the deep concern her friend had for Fulton’s needy. “Clarissa got to know many of our city’s poor families. If they needed something—and not just at Christmas—they went to her house. She gave people groceries. She helped them find a place to live.”

According to newspaper articles about Clarissa’s success, she got the idea to help others after speaking with her pastor, Reverend Harold McGilvray of Fulton’s Congregational Church. Clarissa discussed her ambition to help children with Reverend McGilvray, confiding in him that she had no training and feared she would not know how to properly assist them. McGilvray’s reply was all Clarissa needed to hear.

“You have something worth far more than training,” the Reverend said. “You have a love of children.” He suggested that Clarissa approach the Salvation Army to offer her service.

Once the Salvation Army welcomed her, Clarissa started a Boys’ Club, where she provided youngsters healthy and fun activities. Five boys came the first week. It was a humble beginning, but within a year up to 125 participants were enjoying Clarissa’s projects. As the program grew and she met more families in Fulton, she realized there were many ways she could be of help.

The families of migrant workers who’d settled in the Fulton area benefited from Clarissa’s willingness to help. Along with tutoring them in English, she also found unique activities to offer those new to our city. One year, she organized a trick-or-treat outing for migrant children who had never heard of Halloween. When a Fulton resident learned that the children would be trick-or-treating for the first time, she decided to include a toothbrush along with a treat.

After the group of first-time trick-or-treaters returned to Clarissa’s house, she thought she was missing one little boy, "Where's Joey?" she asked the other children. The group found young Joey in the bathroom, cleaning his teeth. The toothbrush had excited the boy more than all the candy he’d received.

Clarissa’s advocacy for others went beyond fun activities and gift-giving. She sometimes served as a witness in court, speaking on behalf of young people who were in trouble or had been abandoned. But it was through “Let’s Give For a Kid” that she helped the most people. In her 25 years leading the program, from 1958 until her death in 1993, “Lady Santa,” as Clarissa was known, provided hundreds of families some joy during the holidays. Adults and parents received a food basket, and for the children there were reconditioned (and sometimes brand new) toys.

Clarissa made sure “Let’s Give” would continue after her death. After serving several years as her assistant, Monica MacKenzie agreed to lead it. Clarissa also gathered a group of concerned Fultonians to carry on her work. Included in that group was Harold Dowd, who served as the program’s treasurer, and the many volunteers who gathered toys, repaired and distributed them. Some of those dedicated workers were Jean LaClair, Ruby Shoults, Penny Abrams, Billy Kimball, and Naomi Vincent.

Businesses also offered their support for Clarissa’s work.  Major sponsors during the program’s two and a half decades included Millers and Nestlé, and several service organizations, clubs, churches, and individuals. Among those was the Fulton Lions Club. “The Lions supported her program every step of the way,” Monica commented. “She even became a Lady Lion long before they installed women members.”

 In 1993, shortly before her death, Fulton’s mayor, George Valette, declared January 7 as “Clarissa Owens Day.” The city erected a stone bench outside its Municipal Building. A plaque affixed to the bench informed pedestrians who paused there of Clarissa’s mission. For many years, the bench was a solid reminder of her work.

 A quarter-century since that proclamation, with all the changes Fulton and the world have gone through, many may have forgotten Clarissa Owens. But rereading newspaper articles about “Let’s Give For a Kid” keep her legacy strong. A 1979 interview quoted Clarissa’s explanation of her simple philosophy: “Kids are my business and I stick with my business.” During all her years serving Fulton, because of Clarissa Owen’s compassionate leadership, she made our city a better place for children.

  Fulton firefighters contribute to Clarissa Owens’ “Let’s Give For a Kid” program during the 1971 Christmas season.

Fulton firefighters contribute to Clarissa Owens’ “Let’s Give For a Kid” program during the 1971 Christmas season.