By JOSHUA THOMAS
For The Recorder
ST. JOHNSVILLE -- Marie Suits, a 93-year-old Palatine Bridge resident, is only one of an estimated six or seven living alumni of Fort Klock Dist. School No. 3, the one room school house still existing on Fort Klock Historic Restoration grounds.
While it's been eight decades -- and closing in on a century -- since Suits attended school there, the memories of the small, accepting community of country students remains fresh, and fond, in her mind.
Suits, born in 1920, recalled of the Fort Klock school, "That was a good school. We had good teachers, and everybody was the same."
She started attending school on the Fort Klock grounds when she was seven years old, and continued there until she was a young teenager. "There was no kindergarten," she explained. "And one teacher taught everything."
On a recent, uncharacteristically hot for the beginning of fall, day, Suits returned to the one room school house at Fort Klock -- the first time she'd been back specifically to visit the school since the last alumni reunion was held there in 1986, hosted by the then and current president of Fort Klock Historic Restoration Eugene Wagner.
While Suits said the inside of the school house looks very different today, the period pieces that fill it, sometimes acquisitions from other, similar local country school houses, fit her memory perfectly.
Lining the walls are what appear to be simple buckets, yet Suits explained that they had a greater purpose then than just decoration. The "lard pails" were used to transport daily lunches, which Suits said would consist of, for instance, peanut butter and jelly or meats on homemade bread.
On certain days -- like when it was especially cold outside -- the one room school house teacher, Mrs. Mayer, might let the kids heat up cans of soup in the water tray of the stove. She also recalls special days when her teacher would cook scalloped potatoes on the stove for the kids.
Suits points out that outside, on the front of the building, which faces in the direction of Nelliston, there used to be two coat rooms and bathrooms. There were two doors on that wall, while now there's only one. The built-over second door is where kids would keep their winter boots.
At one time, said Dave Klock, Fort Klock site interpreter, the two doors would be used separately by male and female students, although both genders entered and exited through the same, still existing door, by the time Suits attended school there.
At the entrance, there was a pail of water with a dipper in it for drinking. "Everybody used the same dipper," said Suits, adding that there was also a pail used as a wash basin, the current examples of which were repurposed from a one-room school that was torn down in Stone Arabia.
Soon after entering the school, Suits was drawn to the wall at her left, which she said used to be lined with shelves upon shelves of books -- the school's library.
In the back of the class, on the right wall, existed a sandbox. The sandbox though, was not like a modern version. The sandbox "was like a card table with ridges, and it was full of sand," she explained, pointing out that it had a glass bottom. The sand would be moved and formed into shapes and valleys to teach students various subjects. "When there was a holiday, or if we were studying a certain thing, we'd use it," said Suits, noting that the students would, for instance, create landscapes with mountains, rivers and lakes. They'd paste photos of animals to pieces of cardboard, often from cereal boxes, and put them in the display.
"Sometimes, some kids would have little toys, maybe like a toy animal," that became part of the sandbox scenery, Suits explained, continuing of the box, "that was in use all the time. We used it during different subjects, and everybody would work on it."
While the students weren't separated by age, everybody had assigned seats, and if you were bad, "you went right up to the front."
While Suits' assigned seat already existed at the front of the room, she recalled one unpleasant experience that took place there. Sitting in the same spot she sat in for years, Suits recalled, "This is where I got my knuckles cracked," as she was caught drawing while she was supposed to be studying arithmetic.
Klock said that a knock on the knuckles was usually the second order of punishment after putting a student in a special seat at the front of the room, an unsightly, embarrassing, pointy dunce hat on their head -- a practice that Suits said must've been abolished by her time there.
After Suits took the Regents tests in eighth grade, she was moved to the St. Johnsville Central School District, an experience she described as much less pleasant than her time at the Fort Klock school house.
While the ten one-room school students of varying ages got along and worked very well together, moving to a bigger district was a culture shock, with the country kids suddenly becoming small fish in a big pond.
The country kids, she said, were regarded as bumpkins by those who lived in the village. "It was wicked," said Suits of the change. "You talk about bullying now? That was the worst part for me."
"Here," said Suits of the Fort Klock school, "we were all just people. we were all treated the same."
Even after being moved, she'd come back by the one-room school house and visit with its last teacher -- Mrs. Elizabeth MacWethy -- frequently. The two would sit and chat on the same stone slab that still exists at the structure's entrance. Suits would take off her socks and cool her feet, which were hot from walking.
Also outside the schoolhouse, Suits pointed out an area where she and her father planted lilac trees in the early 1930's. While nobody can confirm that they're the exact bushes she and her father planted, lilacs still bloom in that spot today. "We brought them from home," Suits said of the plants, also pointing out a patch where she and other students created a flower garden.
Just this year, Fort Klock Historic Restoration decided to replace the flag pole outside the entrance of the school house. The pole fell down in 1945 and remained absent until 2013, when Dave and his wife, Darla, stumbled upon a fragment of it located in a hole when trying to find an appropriate place for the new one.
The new pole, which was dedicated on July 4 by Adam Klock, the last person born on the property, exists in the exact same spot now as the previous one.
Suits said that her return to the school house, for all its differences, brought back a lot of fond memories. And though the school day back then was long -- beginning at 9 a.m., with two fifteen minute recesses (where kids played games like "Huckle-Buckle-Beanstalk") and a one hour lunch, finally concluding at 4 p.m. or later -- the Fort Klock School was an institution not only of learning, but of friendship, camaraderie and lifelong memory making activities.