THE PORT I REMEMBER
by Charlotte E. Merriman
I have been asked to write of my memories of early Port during the years I spent there as a member of the school system. Since I kept no diaries of my personal activities, I shall have to rely upon my memory of impressions of what life was like as I lived and worked there.
Needless to say, most incidents are definitely related to my experiences as a teacher in the schools beginning with my introduction to Port Washington as a very inexperienced young woman in her early twenties.
One noon during the early spring of 1915, I returned to home where I roomed during my studies at Cortland Normal School at Cortland, New York. The year would soon be over, I knew, and thoughts of securing my first teaching position were ever with me. As I came into my room, I saw a yellow envelope which I immediately recognized as a telegram.
Tearing it open, fearful of bad news, I was startled to read, "Will you accept position Port Washington? Salary $700 per year. Signed Palmer Jones."
Would I? Seven hundred dollars a year! What a fortune! With little delay I wired my acceptance, scarcely believing my good fortune.
Only then did I open an atlas to learn where Port Washington could be. As I look back to that day, I am surprised that I felt no dismay when I found that the place where I was to teach was far from my home in upstate New York.
I was eager to start my new work and immediately began plans for my teaching in September. The summer flew by and soon I found myself, suitcase in hand, ready to take off. Having been cautioned not to speak to strangers while on the train, I sat bolt upright, clutching my pocketbook and eagerly awaiting the beginning of my new life, which lay ahead.
When I arrived in New York, I was treated to the sight of what seemed like an endless stream of men and women coming up the stairs from the trains and subways. I shall never forget the sight of their bobbing hats as they seemed to come at me in waves!
My journey to Port Washington seemed endless and I worried because there seemed to be no apparent division between the towns. The conductor shouted out the stations but I had no idea when my time to get off would come. Had I known that mine was to be the last stop on the line, I could have relaxed and enjoyed looking at the sights along the way.
I still remember the smell of the Flushing meadows. Was it there that I saw several shacks surrounded by old bedspring fences? Somewhere along the way I saw them and wondered how anyone could live in such desolation.
I arrived at the station in Port early in the morning, planning that way in order to have plenty of time to arrange for a place to lay my head before night fell. Searching out the home of my future Principal, I was embarrassed to find that I was interrupting a late family breakfast. I shall never forget the friendly attention given me by Mr. Palmer Jones and his gracious wife — all of this when they were entertaining week-end guests.
Mr. and Mrs. Jones lived on Adams Street near the Main Street School. After serving me a delicious breakfast featuring juicy homegrown peaches, Mr. Jones took me for a sightseeing tour and then to several homes where rooms were available.
My first rented room was at the home of a Mrs. Lothian on Madison Street. She impressed me immensely because she had been a well-known actress. The entrance hall was literally covered with pictures of her in her various successes. She had now retired but her husband was trying out roles in possible plays.
I remember so well how astonished I was one morning to hear a man's voice saying over and over, "My God! I wouldn't do that!' Then, in a different pitch and with changed emphasis, "My God! I wouldn't do that!"
This went on and on until I scurried down the hall to the room of another teacher, Martha Perry, who soon set me straight by explaining that the man of the house was readying himself for another try-out with a road company.
After that I became accustomed to the theatrical atmosphere. Time after time, I was to see him set forth in high hopes only to hear him tread slowly up the porch steps when the ventured had failed. She, herself, never lost her dramatic air. How amused we would be to hear her summon her dog from his outdoor playtime with, "Come now, you brown-eyed luxurious mutt!"
During the years of 1915 and 1916 when I lived in their room, I made arrangements to take my meals at the home of Mrs. Anna Wetmore, a widow who lived on Adams Street. Here we teachers gathered three times daily to enjoy the delicious meals, which she prepared. We were not supposed to talk "shop" as I remember; but frequently heated discussions took place around the long table, which seated about fifteen. Sometimes a smaller table had to be set up in the next room to accommodate the overflow.
I could scarcely wait to begin my teaching, which was to be in the old Sands Point School on the hill by Sandy Hollow Road. Here I worked under the supervision of Mr. George Stilwell, teaching fourth grade. I shall never forget the friendliness of the older teachers with whom I worked. How could they have accepted me so kindly and without rancor when I, a green, uncertain new-comer, received the very same salary as they? In those days, all were paid the same regardless of experience and ability. No married teachers were hired then.
My first paycheck seemed like a fortune to me. The very next Saturday I set forth for New York and "did" Macy's from basement to the top floors. Most of my hard earned cash went very quickly but I was happy and felt independent.
Life was simple, indeed, for the teachers. Of course, we had no cars. It was considered in doubtful taste to live alone in an apartment until several years later so we rented rooms and went out for our meals. Our chief relaxation and amusement were in taking long walks after dinner, always making a call at the local post-office on Main Street where we hopefully asked a young fellow named Web Walker for any chance letters which might have come.
There were times when we walked down to the village dock and watched the beautiful sunsets while we listened to the water softly lapping against the piles of the dock. This was frowned upon finally and we were advised that teachers should not frequent that part of the village.
Sometimes we went for picnics over by the sand banks at Hempstead Harbor or on O'Gorman's Island. Lunches prepared good-naturedly by Mrs. Wetmore were consumed with zest and appreciation.
Another custom enjoyed by me and Eudora Benedict was going down to Bayles's drug store after receiving our checks and treating ourselves to ice cream sodas as we sat around the little glass-topped tables in the so-called ice-cream chairs. George Varney's store on Main Street, almost across from the school, was always good for delicious ice cream, too.
We made good use of the trolley cars, which would come clanging down the street and around the curve near the Methodist Church. The trolley almost caused my un-doing on a certain week-end when I had been in Port Washington only a few weeks.
I had been invited to visit a friend who taught in Freeport and went by trolley to Mineola where I changed to another car, which took me to Freeport. We had a glorious time and just at dusk on Sunday night I set forth for home with only a little cash in my pocketbook.
When I arrived at Mineola, I got off the trolley and went to another, which awaited among several others at the exchange station. I saw the word "Hicksville" on the front of a car and promptly boarded.
I had several school pupils who said they lived in Hicksville so assumed I was on the right car. In those days, a part of the section served by the Sands Point School was commonly referred to as "Hicksville".
Soon a man who was much the worse for his week-end holiday came in and sat down beside me while I looked out of the window at the darkness and tried to ignore his comments. The car jounced off.
Soon the conductor came to collect fares and said to the man, "Where are you going?" He managed to mumble, "Port Washington."
"You’re drunk!" the disgusted conductor shouted. "This car goes to Hicksville. You'll have to get off and wait for the return trolley!"
Then he looked at me and I stammered, "I guess I've made the same mistake. "
After unloading the other passenger along the tracks somewhere, the conductor considered me and, probably sensing my dismay and terror, let me ride to the next village and told me to wait for the return trip. What a long wait it was on a lonely dark corner! He didn't make me pay another fare on the return trip thus saving me from having to admit that I didn't have enough money to pay again. Was I glad to see my little room on Madison Street that night after my round-about journey back to Port!
At that time, there were four elementary schools, Sands Point, Flower Hill, Main Street, and Hempstead Harbor over near the sand banks. Here Mrs. Winifred Davis took charge.
We, who taught in the out-lying schools, usually walked all the way. I can remember going across the Baxter property beyond the pond near the shore one windy, snowy day. The cold was so severe that my chest pained and I could scarcely see where I was going. I covered my mouth with my scarf and stumbled along. Suddenly I heard a woman's voice shout, "My God! Miss Merriman, are you crazy? You shouldn't be out in this weather!"
Neither should the woman who advised me but she was taking it in her stride and may have been somewhat hardened to such weather. I fought my way on and reached the long steps, which led to the school-house on the hill. Once there, I learned that there would be no school because of the storm. In some way, I had not been notified.
As I said before, we usually walked; but sometimes a good-natured friend or taxi-driver would give us a welcomed ride to the foot of the steps of the school. We all valued the help of one good friend whom we grew to depend upon. A Mr. Sullivan, a taxi-driver, was to be relied upon to look out for us whenever we called upon him for help. On days before vacation, he could be trusted to be on hand at the back door of the school to drive us to the railroad station in time to board the train, which would take us to our destination for a long-looked-for vacation. He never failed us!
It was at about this time that a young man came to Port Washington as Principal of the High School — Paul D. Schreiber. He immediately became a popular addition to the system and showed early promise, which was to be fulfilled in the years later on.
I spent three happy years at the old Sands Point School. Then I decided that I should move on because it was then considered a good plan to make a change after three years. (There was no tenure then so nothing compelled one to stay in a place longer than to earn a good letter of recommendation.)
Early in the spring of 1918, war had come and there was much restlessness. Many left the teaching profession for other more lucrative fields and who could blame them.
I applied for a position in New Jersey and taught in that state for two years as head-teacher in two small schools. The salary was good — the first year $900 and the following a raise to $1200. This, after the $800 dollars was most welcome.
However, when I was asked to return to Port Washington to act as head-teacher in my old Sands Point School, I was delighted to return to the place where I had been so happy. It had been decided by the Board of Education to re-place the men in the outlying schools with women who would act as helpers while they taught a regular grade. Salaries now began to rise rather rapidly and in 1920 I was receiving $1850.
About this time, I spent a part of my summer vacation in upper New York attending Syracuse University. One of my courses dealt with the education of adults who were now eligible to attend classes in the evening devoted to what was called "Americanization." This I found to be most challenging and, when I returned in the fall, I was asked to be one of the teachers of this delightful group of people. Many who had lived for years in Port were now able to satisfy their desire to learn to read and write English not only for their own satisfaction but also to qualify for citizenship and the right to vote.
I shall always remember the few years I taught these ambitious people. We studied together evenings at the Main Street School and had a few parties at which the strong men joined whole-heartedly in the fun. There were mild flirtations carried on among the younger unmarried students in spite of the difficulty in bridging the language barriers. It was astonishing to see how quickly the new arrivals from foreign countries became proficient in the tricky phrases of our language.
One man in particular caused all manner of confusion and amusement. He worked at the Hempstead Harbor Sand Banks. His only desire was to learn to write his name. So, on his first evening, he presented a crumpled piece of paper on which a name was written. Forthwith, we embarked upon the task of learning to write the name, which meant so much to him. He wanted to be able to endorse his checks he said. Since he had never learned to write in his own language, the task was unbelievably difficult for him.
I sometimes guided his hand over the curves and lines while he labored with perspiration standing in drops on his forehead. At last, he could write the name very legibly and, after bowing deeply and shaking my hand, he departed.
The next day my telephone rang and Mr. Bert Thompson, who all should remember as one of the superintendents at the sand bank, said, "What kind of teaching do you do at that evening school? I have a man here who says he can write his name but he isn't writing his name at all. It's the name of another fellow who works here."
So back he came, this time with his proper identification and we went all through the performance again. Mr. Thompson never tired of twitting me about our poor teaching.
I enjoyed every minute of my work with these people and treasure the memories of the amusing things that happened.
Work at the day school went on happily. The parents were friendly and helpful. One delightful mother was most co-operative. Mrs. Jacob Cocks, who mothered a large family, did her best to spread some of that mothering to the school. At one time she donated a quantity of tulip bulbs to be set near the schoolhouse to encourage the children to care for them and to respect the property of the school. Dire prophesies were made by doubtful neighbors about possible vandalism; but, to my knowledge, not one blossom was "snitched" by children during the time school was not in session.
Mr. Schreiber will undoubtedly write in more detail about this period of time. I know that the rooms were crowded and children were moved from one school to another to care for the overflow. When the Flower Hill School burned just after the close of school in June of 1924, it was necessary to house the children on a part-time basis for several months. With the building of the new Flower Hill School nearer the center of the village, conditions improved. When the new High School was voted and built, Mr. Schreiber and his staff moved out and left the Junior High and grades in the old building.We
In the fall of 1925, after the sudden death of Eudora Benedict, I was asked to come to the Main Street building as Principal of the elementary department. At that time, Mr. William Rumens acted as custodian and with his helpers did his best to keep the building in spic and span condition.
It was about this time that I became concerned about the fact that there was so little material in suitable form to be used by our children in their study of local history. We were asked to devote considerable time to this study; but the facts we were able to assemble were not in the form to be interesting to children in spite of the fact that there had been several articles written about old times.
As a student in my early days, history had always been a dry and rather meaningless recital of dates. So, I decided to gather such material as I could and write a series of junior historical stories, which might make the story of Port Washington's growth a more human story. These stories were to be based upon actual happenings in this area.
It seemed to me that, no sooner had I made known my desire to write a short account, which might be mimeographed, than people from all parts of the village came to my assistance. It was amazing to me that so many people could and would give of their time to share their treasures of the past — the old documents, letters, maps and articles. At once, I saw that my former idea of a short paper was not to be adequate to show the valuable information, which my friends had shared with me. And
Over a period of five years, materials of all sorts came my way. Information was assorted according to chronological significance and finally divided into periods of time. Into each period, I set an imaginary character who saw people doing the things which our records said that they did.
Mrs. A. Valentine Fraser of Middleneck Road told me tales of her Mott ancestors as she graciously served tea in her beautiful home rich in local atmosphere. She showed a picture of the old Mott Homestead as it had appeared when Adam Mott first took up his acres soon after 1600. We imagined that we could look across at the far shore where Ann, the girl he would someday marry, lived. A book, "Adam and Ann Mott" was the source of rich and delightful material written about this early couple by one of their descendants.
Mr. Lyman Langdon, Principal of the Junior High School, consented to illustrate the stories I planned to write. In order to gain personal atmosphere, he went to the Fraser home and also to the Tibbits residence at 75 Sands Point Road, which was one of the original Sands's homes.
Mr. Hall Tibbits proved to be a great help and showed us the home as well as its museum-like contents. He should have been the one to write the story, I thought, as he shared with us his memories and stories inherited from his grandparents.
Mr. Allison Wysong and his brother, Charles, both ardent students of local history, shared their time and treasures with us. The Gates Rights map owned by Charles Wysong is a real treasure.
Charles Dodge, living in the original house, which was built in 1700, showed us where the Hessians were quartered during the Revolution. When I visited the home of W. P. L. Davis, descendant of the Joel Davis who, according to records had been the carpenter who helped Tristam Dodge raise his barn on a certain day, he showed me a bedspread woven locally with the names of Joel and one of the Dodge daughters worked into the border — real evidence of a local romance.
The Mitchells and Cornwalls, among the earliest families, had left records which were eagerly studied and noted. Mr. George Cocks told of his boyhood days as he worked at the old Cocks's Mill. Old town records and newspapers were carefully studied and countless notes made to be added to the colorful stories told me by interested residents.
Finally the writing and illustrating began. The Board of Education, prompted by the urging of Paul D. Schreiber, Superintendent of Schools, generously volunteered to finance the printing of the book which we decided to call, "Tales of Sint Sink". The type was set in Utica and then, after proof-reading, Carlton Pierce, teacher in our school print shop, directed the printing of the pages. It has always been most gratifying that our boys should be the ones to feed the press for the 600 copies decided upon. Young Malcolm Lowry was one of the many willing boys who gave of their time.
Finally, in the fall of 1935, the book was completed. Although originally intended for children below the teen-age, it proved to be interesting to all ages. Three hundred copies were sold to defray the cost of printing and the remainder of the copies was set aside to be used for study in the grades of our elementary schools.
Copies were requested from outside sources and we were pleased to read the comments of those who wrote reviews. I understand that, at present, there are few copies left.
This book was written for Port Washington, alone, and it is my hope that it will always be a source of help and interest to those who have lived here for many years and to those who choose to make their new homes in this area. One who took up residence near Mill Pond Road wrote a delightful note to me saying that she had read the book and felt that she already "belonged".
The years slipped by — more and more children, more and more problems in meeting the needs of those children. All too soon, the year of 1949 came to a close and I had reached the time when it seemed best for me to retire.
Had I kept diaries, I could perhaps write a more accurate and colorful picture of the times and happenings during the years I spent in Port. However, I have my memories of many children of all sizes, shapes and dispositions. Their faces flash before me as names are mentioned — always childish faces — not the ones I frequently see on the pages announcing their marriages, etc. To me, they will always be round-cheeked and plump-legged, gaps where teeth had been, freckles not covered with make-up.
My days in Port Washington were full of happiness, fun and excitement.
Truly for me, as for many others, Port Washington proved to be "The Place to Live."