Reminiscences of Grafton NY Schooldays and 4-H Club in the late 1930's
by Jean Bierwirth Bornt
I was twelve years old when my parents, Otto and Esther Bierwirth, rented Art Crandall's house in West Grafton in 1938. I am the oldest of their five children, two girls and three boys.
Except for my sister Patty, who was a year old at the time, we children walked to the West Grafton school where Mrs. Ethel Simmons was our teacher. This one-room schoolhouse was about two miles from our home which was quite a trek in the winter months.
Mrs. Simmons was the most humanitarian person that I ever knew, in her love and assistance and equal treatment to children from all walks of life; especially during those hard times of the depression era in which the isolated rural area of Grafton was deeply affected.
Every morning on the oil stove in the little room off the main classroom, she would start a kettle of vegetable soup bubbling, and by noon each student would have a steaming hot bowl of her delicious soup at their desk along with a slice of bread and butter.
Some time during the afternoon Mrs. Simmons would sit down at the upright piano adjacent to her desk and lead the class in a singing session from a green hard-cover song book. My favorite songs out of the many great selections were "Barcarolle" and "Bendemeer's Stream." I would love to find that book, but alas, it is 60 years gone by now.
At the end of the school year Mrs. Simmons would hold a school picnic in her front yard for the all the students and their parents, which was only a short distance from where we lived on the back road. My first introduction to chili con carne was at that picnic. It was a taste treat beyond compare. I can still savor that new-found recipe.
Mrs. Simmons was also the "Cheerful Workers" 4-H Club leader. She had several sewing machines in her house, and taught all of the girls to sew. We made clothes from flour sacks that were bleached, dyed and cut into dress patterns. The dresses were trimmed with rick-rack trimming and were suprisingly attractive. She helped me make a pleated red dress that won a blue ribbon at the Schaghticoke Fair! (Click on the 4-H symbol to link to the national 4-H site.)
And with her help and instruction I built a dressing table out of egg crates with a mirror to match. That earned my photo (above) being taken at the dressing table which appeared in the Troy (NY) Record. Was I ever proud!
My three brothers, Jimmy, Tommy, and Johnny, were also 4-H members
and raised chickens and gardens under her watchful leadership. She also
provided the means for my brothers and I to attend the 4-H camp for a
week. The days were filled with fun activities: We learned to swim, we
made crafts, and in the evenings the campfire circles featured singing
and storytelling. We chowed down in a huge dining hall with 4-H members
from all over New York State, where we'd sing the following song before
we sat down to eat - which is still stuck in my memory after all these
(While at the camp I met two sisters from Ghent NY, Olivia and Astrid Remmler, with whom I remained "pen-pals" for many years. Perhaps either of these ladies, if they should happen to come upon this site, will remember our 4-H days and then corresponding with me and would contact me to say hello.)
<<<(When I graduated from the 8th grade I was ready to go to Berlin Central School for my first year of high school. The 1940 8th grade graduates of the Grafton rural schools - all seven of us! - had a group picture taken in front of the Grafton Methodist Church. (Boys, l. to r.: Billy O'Dell, Chuck White, Art Gavitt; Girls, l. to r.: Grace(?) Clancy, Sylvia Saulkin, Sheila Looney, Jean Bierwirth.)
Our teacher, Mrs. Simmons, was a "one of a kind" person. As I look back, I am amazed at how in addition to single-handedly teaching all of those eight grades, she also taught the 4-H Club, the Methodist Church Sunday School and the Home Bureau, besides attending to all her other family tasks in what must have been a very demanding schedule. But credit too must be given to her husband Charlie and their daughter Betty who assisted her at every turn.
Mrs. Ethel Simmons certainly deserves her place as one of Grafton's most memorable and beloved citizens. - JCB, 2/28/2002
Ed. Note: Mrs. Jean Bierwirth Bornt is a member of the National Society of the Daughters of the Revolution, Reference Number 820016.
of Grafton, NY
"The Church Family
of Petersburgh, NY featuring descendants of Frank and Myrtle Church"