GENESEO – Sometime in 1932, a teacher finished up his or her classes for the day, neat notes left on the chalkboard walls of the District #5 Union School and left to start school at a new building soon thereafter.
And 86 years later, volunteers were stunned to discover those notes – lists of students’ names, spelling words, Roman mythology — left neatly on the walls tucked behind showcases full of china at the Livingston County Historical Museum.
“We had no idea that was behind there, not even an inkling,” said Anna Kowalchuk, museum director.
While preparing for a new display on Geneseo’s famous Big Tree at the museum, volunteers moving showcases this week found those bits of school history left behind on the old school building’s walls. Unlike the museum’s restored slate chalk board, these boards were a thinner layer of material left untouched during the 1932 transition from school to museum.
The careful, chalked cursive offers a window to a different era, and brings up many questions: Are any of the students or their descendants still in the area? Kowalchuk is already pursuing census records to find out. Are the tally marks behind the students’ names good or bad? What was the difference between E Spelling and D Spelling? Why write the story of Ceres and her daughter, Proserpina (better known in Greek mythology as Demeter and Persephone) on the board and then paint over half the story?
And it wasn’t just words behind the showcase – there were also plenty of tiny items likely lost over the years including chalk nubs, an 1883 penny and marbles, from antique clay ones to turn-of-the-century glass ones. Even a paper airplane survived time, nibbled down on one edge, but otherwise, in perfect condition from when it was likely, Kowalchuk surmised, taken from a rambunctious student and left on the ledge above the chalkboard.
The museum used to be a school, built by the pioneer members of the Wadsworth family in 1838. For nearly 100 years, it was the education hub of the community. In 1932, the school moved to the Welles Building, and the members of the Livingston County Museum were thrilled to relocate from their cabin in the Village Park on Main Street to the comparatively spacious school building.
“I don’t think they thought about preserving the story of the school,” Kowalchuk said of the early museum volunteers. “They were excited to move from the cabin, and to them, it was not a school house, it was their museum.”
Showcasing history is pretty much the bread and butter of museums, and there is no way an old school house, even one turned into a museum, can ignore its own history, Kowalchuk said. The chalkboards will be preserved.
“The building is our story, too,” she said. “Obviously, we can’t remove it. The building is our largest artifact. The new exhibits are just going to have to work around the building.”
The chalkboards were discovered as a portion of the museum is being prepped to tell the story of the Big Tree, which had been preserved in a small house outside the museum. However, the leftover portion of the tree is undergoing preservation in Pennsylvania and will be returned to its new home in the museum sometime Spring 2019 as part of a $30,000 exhibit renovation.
The museum is also prepping for a $350,000 overhaul to upgrade its entrance and restroom to be handicap accessible as well as upgrade the HVAC systems. The museum has raised about $200,000 of what it needs for the upgrades.
For more information on the museum, go to www.livingstoncountyhistoricalsociety.com