A Visit to Middlebury Academy

The Middlebury Academy is in Wyoming, New York. The builder of the Academy was Silas Newell he was also the village founder and a cemetery donor. The Middlebury academy opened in 1817. It was the first academy of Higher learning built on the Holland land purchase and the only Academy at the time west of Canandaigua. Silas Newell who came to Wyoming in 1809 raised $4,000 to help build the academy. When others had to back out of the pledge he mortgaged his farm. The building plans were copied from Middlebury, Vermont. At that time there were only three frame houses and about a dozen log cabins in Newell’s settlement. Newell manufactured the bricks on a lot next to his wool and carding factory. The school housed 200 students in its prime, the average being 150. Students came from all over Western New York, taking rooms and board with village students for about $1.50 a week. The school became chartered as a teacher training institution. And graduates were much in demand. The courses included Latin, Greek, Astronomy, Calculus, etc. Graduates often went west to establish other schools. Notable graduates became statesmen, judges, college presidents etc.

In 1912, Union Free Schools came into existence and the doors were closed. The building fell into disrepair, Mrs. Coonely Ward paying the taxes, kept it from being sold off privately. Later she offered the renowned Cornell architect Bryant Fleming, who used it as a drafting office and to train other architects. The Middlebury Historical Society was heir to this landmark when Mr. Fleming died. His nephews Eugene and Harris McCarthy of Buffalo, New York turned the legacy over to us. The monumental task of repair to the collapsed back wall and the inferior doors was tackled by the society. In 1951 a formal dedication ceremony opened the building for use as a museum for the general public. Artifacts and furnishings were donated by private citizens. The academy is the oldest standing public building in Wyoming County.

In the museum there are many different and unique artifacts. You can find anything from very old pottery jugs to any old record player. In order for the record player to play you hand to crank the handle. I have never seen a record player in my life. Next to the record player there was a instrument that I found out was a cello. The cello is bigger than a violin and the strings are much longer. The longer strings result in a deeper and richer sound. You can also find beautiful and hand crafted pieces of china. Another thing in the museum that fascinated me was an old wood furnace. All over the furnace there is a very intricate design that must have taken months to complete.

In the academy there is also the old iron bell that used to be the school bell. It is huge, It must have taken many men to have moved the bell to a safe and secure place. Here is some history about the bell. The bell was given to the academy by Mrs. Newell, who was the wife of Silas newel who was the academy founder. It has sung out its tunes to many pupils, among them being many who became prominent in various walks of life. During the height of the propriety of the academy (1852-1867) under professor Monroe Weed the bell was also a curfew bell announcing the time when some 200 students must be at home in their rooms. The Academy bell also proclaimed the hour of noon, thus establishing the local time for the entire region where its notes could be heard. In 1889 professor David was recalled as principle of the newly organized Middlebury Academy and Union Free School. The bell continued to call for school time and classes. When the old academy was abandoned in 1911, the bell was transferred to the new brick school building on Main Street. As time went on the old former Main Street school was torn down and 19 strong men loaded the bell, yoke, and wheel on a truck and it has been at the academy where it started, ever since. It is presumed that in the earliest years, the bell was hung from a tower built over the front door. There are many initials carved by students who have made the climb for this purpose, and one date can clearly be seen 1830.

On the bottom floor of the academy is where all of the old and unique instruments are. When you walk down the hallway of the academy you see many different pictures. Some of the pictures were of students that attended the academy; most of the pictures were in black and white. I thought that it was neat that you could see what the students would wear to school back then. What they wore is much different than what we wear today. There were also pictures of houses in Wyoming that had some sort of significance. One of the pictures that I found fascinating was a picture of the Hillside Inn. The Hillside in used to be a huge attraction for the wealthy and rich. The main reason why the wealthy went to the Hillside was because of the natural hot-springs.

On the top floor of the academy there are artifacts from Indians and other old appliances. An example of the old appliances would be an early model of the sewing machine. In order for the sewing machine to work you had to pump your foot on a pedal. The faster you moved your foot, the faster the sewing machine would go. There is also a very old manual typewriter. With the type writer after every line you had to manually move the piece to the other side so you could start a line of words. On the top floor there is some old washing boards. With the old washing boards you had to scrub your clothes on the metal to get them clean. One of the things that I really liked on the second floor was a very old stove. It was unlike any other stove that I have ever seen. It is huge, and it has a very different design to it. It has the bottom of an old tub; you know the one that has the four paw looking pegs. It is truly unusual. Across from the old stove there are other objects that would have been used in the kitchen. There are some pots and pans, weird looking silverware. The silverware that the people used would not be acceptable in today’s society. The forks look like a small version of an actual pitchfork that would be used for moving hay today. All of the tools that were used in previous years look very simple to the complex tools that we have in today’s age. One part on the second floor is dedicated to what women in the pioneer age did. They cooked, cleaned, took care of the kids while the husband would provide for the family. Women weren’t expected to do anything else at that point. If clothes got ripped or worn the mom would make clothes or repair them. Also on the second floor there are some old hats that the people in the military would have worn.

Most of the cool artifacts are on the second floor. When you look at them it feels like you are transported back in time to when the items were used. I really like going to museums that can tell a story and it feels like you are a part of it. The academy does this. After I was done with the second floor I walked back down to the first floor. As I was walking by all of the pictures on the wall I noticed that there was a room that I had not yet been in. I walked into the room and saw that there was uniforms from the army that were very old and worn out. For me it was pretty cool to see the differences between the uniforms they had to wear back then and the uniforms that they wear now.

I would have to say after walking through the academy I found out many things about my town’s history that I did not know. It was cool for me to go through and look at pieces of history that are a lot older than I am. Behind every town there is a story. I am glad that I was able to find out the history behind my town and the academy. It is well worth going to.

By Jenna Winspear. Jenna is a student in Prof. Maxfield’s U.S. History II class and completed her Service Learning requirement writing about her visit to Middlebury Academy.

 

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About Derek Maxfield

Associate Professor of History Genesee Community College
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