Austerlitz History Center Remembers Education in Austerlitz
New Exhibit open July 1
The Austerlitz History Center in Spencertown opens on July 1, 9 am to noon, a new exhibit “Education in Austerlitz,” which reviews the town’s schools from the first one-room schools opened in the early 1800s to the closing in 1970 of the last local school in Spencertown. The exhibit will remain on display for the remainder of 2023.
The state’s Common School Act of 1812 marked the true start of public education in New York. Every town was divided into neighborhood school districts, each with its own one-room school. The Town of Austerlitz, formed in 1818, started with 18 districts schoolhouses, their student populations ranging from 10 to 45.
The Spencertown Academy, opened in 1847, brought high school education to the town. It was a private school which charged tuition. The Academy’s full catalogue from 1856 is displayed, as well as eighth grade Regents exams given at the Academy in 1867. After the state established free public high schools the Academy closed in 1870. Its building became the public Spencertown Union Free School in 1871, housing grades 1 through 12.
The school centralization movement of the mid-20th century, which followed a long period of decline in rural populations, brought about the end of local schooling in Austerlitz. The one-room schools were all gone by 1955. The Spencertown school kept going as a branch school of the Chatham Central school district, serving only grades one through four after 1960. And then it closed in 1970, all local students attending school in Chatham thereafter. The History Center exhibit includes many photographs, including pictures of 10 of the one-room schools, and many class photos of the village of Austerlitz and Spencertown schools ranging from the 1890s to 1969. There are also written memories of school life by a former teacher and former students. Life was “much simpler” then, as one graduate noted, remembering how three Austerlitz boys, in the days before school buses, often rode the family pig to and from the schoolhouse.
Also on display are school artifacts, including a desk from the Morehouse Corners school, a bell used in the last year of the Austerlitz school, and a bewildering array of scientific apparatus – some identified and some a mystery – used in the Spencertown school many decades ago. These items were found in the attic of the school when it closed in 1970 by Marion Ulmer, who taught in that last year.
The Austerlitz History Center, 812 Route 203, Spencertown, is generally open on Saturdays from 9 to 11 am, and at other times as arranged with Town Historian Tom Moreland (tmoreland@Austerlitzny.com). The Center’s permanent exhibits cover the history of the Austerlitz area from its settlement in the 1750s to the 21st century.