Early Suffolk School Days

Footnotes to Long Island History

Early Suffolk School Days


Thomas R. Bayles


The first schools on Long Island were similar to those of New England in nearly every respect, and most of the teachers came from there. The first attempt to give instruction to the children was made very soon after the first settlements.

        Southampton had the first school, which was established two years after the landing of the first white settlers in 1640. Richard Mills, the inn keeper was the first teacher.

     In East Hampton one of the first settlers by the name of Charles Barnes was the first schoolmaster. He received for his services 40 pounds a year, to be paid in “oil, pork, hides, tallow and whalebone.”

    The first record of a school in Huntington was in 1657 when James Houldsworth was employed to teach the school. His salary of 25 pounds, was paid in “trading wampum,” butter, corn, wheat and cattle.  Money was very scarce in those early days and produce was used as a medium of exchange.

In Setauket, Robert Rider was engaged as the first teacher in Brookhaven town at a town meeting held on August 19, 1678, and in 1687 Francis Williams was employed as schoolmaster. His salary was 30 pounds, or about $150 a year. One third was to be paid by a tax on the people, and the rest by the parents of the children attending school, according to the number of children attending.

         The school was first held in the home of the teacher, but in 1704 he was given the privilege of using the meeting house, providing he had it cleaned every Saturday, and made good any damage done by the scholars. It was not until 1718 that the voters at a town meeting appropriated 38 pounds for building a school house

       Illiteracy ran very high in those early days, and it was considered no disgrace not to be able to read and write.  Many of the early wills and deeds were signed with an “X,” “his mark,” by the person who executed the documents.

      The education of girls was thought unnecessary beyond the three “R’s,” and the Quakers were the first to believe that girls should be as well educated a boys.

In 1790 Mrs. Lyman Beecher mother of Harriet Beecher Stowe had a boarding school for young ladies in her home at East Hampton.  Many young ladies from various parts of the Island attended this school and were instructed in the arts of painting and embroidery.  One of the prized possessions of the mother of the writer, Mrs. Richard M. Bayles of Middle Island, is a beautiful picture of a Biblical scene embroidered with colored silk floss as taught in those early times. This work was done by her grandmother, Eliza Helmes in 1806, while attending this school.  She afterward became the wife of the Rev. Ezra King, who was pastor of the Middle Island and South Haven Presbyterian churches for many years.

       In 1813, school districts were formed throughout the state by law and commissioners and inspectors were elected in every town. Their pay was very small at first, being only about 50 cents a day.

      The first schools built after school districts were formed were plain box-like affairs about 20 by 24 feet in size.

     A high slanting desk was attached to the wall and extended around the sides and end of the room. The pupils had to stand in order to use the desk. Seats for the scholars were sawed slabs from the local mills with two legs stuck in each end.  These, of course, had no backs. Heat was furnished in the first years by a fireplace at one end of the room, and in later years by a stove with a long fire-box that took in large sticks of wood and threw out lots of heat. Plenty of heat was needed to off­set the fresh air coming in the cracks around the sides of the building.

        School was usually held eight or nine months of the year, and the monthly pay of the teacher in those days was $8 to $9, which also probably included board, as the custom of “boarding around” prevailed at that time. All the pupils did not attend school at one time, as it was the custom for the older ones to attend during the winter months when the farm work was slack, and the smaller children during the spring and fall when the weather was good.

     The writer has a contract made in 1877 by his father, Richard M. Bayles, which reads, “Said Bayles is to teach the school in said district No. 17, Middle Island, during the pleasure of the trustees, and to be paid for his services eight dollars per week, payment to be made monthly.” This was signed by J. H. Randall, D. E. Petty and Dr. A. O. Van Horn, as trustees.

One of the early text books used was the New England Primer, published around 1800. The American Reader was published in 1818 by the Rev. Herman Daggett of Brookhaven, who was pastor of the Middle Island and South Haven Presbyterian churches from 1801 to 1807. A copy of this book, published in the third edition in 1841 is in the hands of the writer

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