Historical Society president highlights old school tales

By Frances Wychorski
Citizen Chronicle Writer

STURBRIDGE — Harken back to the days of elementary school for a moment. Along the road to adulthood, memories of teachers and events made an impression on each person. The classmates we shared our days with may have moved, died or drifted away. A few people can look around and see them still a part of their daily life. On a cool winter evening in March, Bob Briere reflected on his school days of seventy-nine years ago. It all began in 1939, first grade at Center School in Sturbridge.

The Publick House Inn on Sturbridge Common was the venue for the monthly meeting of the Sturbridge Historical Society.  A complimentary coffee and dessert table filled with scrumptious blondies, brownies and cannoli greeted members and visitors to Paige Hall. A crowd of 80 people gathered to hear a talk by Mr. Briere, founder and President of the Society for 20 years. The significance of the “History and Memories of Snellville School” was shared with the audience. Along with the history, Briere delighted the audience with his-story, personal memories of “Things Learned” in elementary school.

The Fiskdale section of Sturbridge was the focal point of this lecture. When manufacturing came to Sturbridge, it began in the area of Cedar Street and extended to Holland and Brookfield Road. The Quinebaug River flows through Sturbridge providing power to machinery during the industrial age. The notes for tonight’s lecture came from Brian Burns, “Sturbridge, A Pictorial History” with Briere mentioned in the acknowledgements.

Snell Manufacturing opened in 1850 along the banks of the Quinebaug River near Cedar Street. The Snell brothers manufactured augers and drill bits for industry. The mill workers brought their families and created the need for a public school. The Snellville School opened on Arnold Road in 1852. The building still stands today and is now the Sturbridge Senior Center. The school closed in 1958. Vivian Beeman, secretary for the Historical Society, was one of several hands that went up identifying former students who attended Snellville School.

The talk began with a ringing of a school bell and all stand to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

First grade — 1939 Center School, Sturbridge

Students learned how to grow beans by planting seeds in an eggshell filled with soil placed on a sunny windowsill. A shy girl named Leonie swallowed a baby tooth during recess causing quite a scene in the schoolyard. One day during recess, Briere was caught up in a scuffle and ended up at the bottom of a pig pile. He tried to rise with all the kids on his back and fell again. When he was finally freed of the other boy’s arms and legs, he fell when his leg would not support him. His leg was broken. The most notable incident from first grade was being caught whispering to Andra Shepherd during class and asked to stand behind the piano as penance.

Second grade — Miss Maude Callahan

Briere had an eye for history as a lad. He said, “the nicest thing I can remember in all eight elementary grades was Memorial Day. First and second grade school children visited the local cemetery and put a potted geranium on the grave of a Revolutionary War soldier.” The tradition has been revived and currently 30 graves receive this honor now from school children annually.

A photo of the second grade class was shown to the audience. Briere was able to comment on a majority of the 26 children from the photograph taken in 1940. Members of the class include Robert Miner, Nat Curboy, Richard Schmidt, Charles Price, Holly Estabrook, Eunice Miner, Susan Parker, Andra Shepherd, Olivo Garceau, Robert Briere, Paul Biran, Arthur Biran, Jane Dickenson, Robert Crocker, and Arnold Simpson among the photos.

Third grade — Miss Nelson

The events of the day intruded into daily life in the quiet village. Air raid drills were practiced in Miss Nelson’s class, as World War II was raging overseas. Briere recalled when President Franklin Roosevelt died and school was closed for the day. Ms. Nelson is best remembered for her’39 light green Ford Coupe. Briere said, “Not many families at the time owned a car let alone a swanky one like that.”

Fourth grade — Miss Kelly

Vivian Beeman spoke of the longevity of several public school teachers. Not only did she have class with Miss Kelly, but also so did her mother. Doris (Lacasse) Malowski knew Miss Kelly as the Principal of the school. Vivian’s children also had Miss Kelly as a substitute teacher. She taught three generations of one family.

Fifth grade — Miss Anastasia Zolosky was nicknamed the mad Russian

Sixth grade — Miss Irene Calahan

Briere lit up when he read her name, “she was the nicest teacher in the elementary school. Always had a smile and listened to her children.”

Seventh grade — Mrs. Shepherd

Andra’s stepmother and the toughest teacher of all.

Eighth grade — Miss Elizabeth P. Richardson

With the mention of her name, a stir went through the crowd. Miss Richardson said she taught at a Girls Reformatory School prior to her tenure at Snellville. She was known for her purple hair that flies loved to nest in it.  In those days, the windows had no screens and a mild day brought them into the classroom attracted to the scent of her hairspray. Voices of the audience shared a nickname or two and even an old joke about her visit with St. Peter at heaven’s gate.

One of the children lost their home to a fire during the school day. The smell of smoke blew into the classrooms drawing all eyes to the windows to see the activity.

A music teacher from Charlton playing the piano. The boys in the back row figured out that if they moved their legs in unison, thumping lightly on the floorboards while the piano was playing, they could move a flower vase on the piano top. The kids would watch the vase move on the surface to the tipping point of falling off the piano. The teacher would move it back. The boys would get it moving again. She never knew it was them.

Audience members joined the conversation sharing nicknames and anecdotes of the days. Briere said, “Arthur was Archie; Leodore Menard was Chick; Richard Sheldon was Toot (rhymes with foot) because once at Boy Scout camp someone asked him a question and his answer was quite muffled. The person asked what he said and his answer was cookie crumbs however, it came out as tootie cwumbs. Forever after he was called toot. My nickname, for which I have no idea where it came from, was Boo. In the Air Force, I guess my friends had trouble with Briere so it was Breezy, a name which 62 years later, correspondence is still addressed as to Breezy.”

The habit of nicknames continued into the neighborhood. Briere said, “In Fiskdale tradesmen were called by their vocation as part of their name: A house painter was called, Vic the Dauber. The barber was Bill the Barber. Quite possible no one knew their family name.”

One of the most charming moments of the evening came with the description of day-to-day activities in the elementary school. After a study break, children where tasked with washing their cups at the hand pump faucet. If a girl and boy were sweet on each other, an exchange of cups was a sign of affection.

Andra Shepherd has since moved to Australia with her family. Despite the distance, Andra and Bob continue their friendship begun in first grade. Briere said, “We have been good friends all through the years and she has always had a love for Sturbridge. She keeps up with happenings through our e-mails. I have not seen her in possibly 40 years. Good friendships are like that.”

The meeting was recorded for broadcast on Channel 192 Sturbridge Community Public Access TV.

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