- Associated Press - Sunday, October 26, 2014

STAMFORD, Conn. (AP) - After years of sitting in silence in a storage room, the old Elm Street School bell rang loud and clear again calling people to come and learn.

Ron Marcus, the society’s librarian rang the bell last week, almost on a dare, after he was asked if it still worked.

“We can’t ring that one, though,” said with a trace of disappointment as he pointed to the even older and larger 1911 Rogers School Bell on display in one of the first floor rooms of the Stamford Historical Society.

The society recently scheduled the grand opening of its exhibit, “Stamford School Days: 1641-1971.”

A week before the kickoff, Marcus and society volunteer Dan Burke provided a peek at what they and the rest of the city’s volunteer history squad have been building over the last month.

One room is dedicated to the history of private schools in the city and another to public education. Walls in the central hallway provide a time line of interesting facts.

Marcus points to the time line on private schools and a picture of a young George Clemenceau, in 1867 or so. The future prime minister of France taught French and horseback riding at the Catherine Aiken School on Clarks Hill.

One of his students, Mary Plummer, fell in love with the Frenchman and they married in 1869. The newlyweds moved to Paris and had three children together. But life was quite sad for the Stamford girl.

Marcus said Clemenceau had multiple mistresses and, while he paid to house and feed her, he was absent from their lives.

There came a day when Mary found a relationship with another man and, Clemenceau made use of the newly established law allowing divorce, leaving her on her own.

Burke, walking in on the telling of the story, bluntly called Clemenceau a word roughly meaning less than a gentlemen.

The two historians are themselves gentlemen and not prone to blue language, but when it comes to Clemenceau, they felt it warranted.

Burke and Marcus are excited about this exhibited and the discoveries they’ve made and the ones they hope others will make as they tour it.

“You see the community evolve,” Marcus said.

The photos and class rolls Burke agrees show how the demographics change, how people from different parts of the world came in waves.

It’s all very White Anglo Saxon and protestant in the beginning, then you start to see Irish, German and other European names. Blacks fleeing the south start to appear in photos as the decades pass, then Hispanic and onward the people of the world march into the classrooms.

Education was something that the immigrants valued highly, the two men said and they could get it in Stamford.

Heck from the founding of the colony, providing children with education was a requirement here, though it was largely seen as a religious duty.

Marcus noted the early schools were run by the church, adding everything here was run by the church at first. While that would change, the dedication to education didn’t. Public schools grew and required new buildings.

Teachers had to be hired. One of the duties of teachers in the early days was to get to the school early and start the pot bellied stove that heated the school during the winter.

And yes, the kids and teacher, walked through the snow to get to school back then.

“There were no custodians back then,” Marcus said.

The schools also detail important events in very intimate ways. Burke says they found an old teachers ledger from 1865.

The teacher wrote about not getting paid on one day in April because lessons were canceled so the students could discuss the Assassination of President Lincoln.

Women’s history and role in society can also be traced through the history of the schools.

Marcus said originally, women were educated to learn to read and write and manage the household but not much beyond that.

Over time, the city saw the need to provide further education to its young women. But how the schools did that was quite different than today. The historical society has a good collection of “samples” the school work girls were subjected to for decades.

The girls would have to sew their letters onto patches of cloth along with a saying. It’s particularly time consuming work, but the art of sewing was considered a necessary life skill back then.

Thomas Zoubek, the society’s executive director and chair of King’s modern languages department, is the one who decided on the theme of the exhibit. He said it was an easy decision, the society is housed in the old Willard School, which was opened a hundred years ago. So they thought it was time to celebrate that.

But Zoubek said the group also felt the stories really do tell the story of Stamford and the nation in a very poignant way.

You see it in the photos and in the teacher’s diaries.

“It’s the idea that, while things have changed in terms of method and instruction, we’re still dealing with the same content,” Zoubek said.

“And the relationship between student and teacher is a relationship at the core of it… the relationships between students.”

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