The first evidence of an organized school, in a building other than private homes is an old district school building, which ceased to be used in 1842 when the Chester Academy was built. This district building was located on the east side of the Florida-Chester Road, Route 94, near the Otterkill River. This small building was moved across the road and back among farm buildings by Hudson B. Green and still stands there. The building was filled with grout between the inner walls and the siding, and must be considerably over 250 years old.
In the early years, a village school existed in a two-story frame house about Midway between Durland's Store and the East Chester Station on Lehigh and Hudson River Railroad. To some extent the school maintained an academic course and became known as the "Academy". Around 1841-42, the downtown section of the present village of Chester bean to grow in the vicinity of the Erie Railroad, which was now in operation. Sometime between 1850-1860, the brick schoolhouse was erected for the new school district. Rev. Otis, who built the house, was the first teacher. The four districts, East Chester, Chester at the Erie Depot section, and the Banker district, later formed Union Free School District #1.
The Chester Academy was built in 1842 replacing the old district buildings and came under the jurisdiction of the Board of Regents in 1845, sharing in the distribution of the Literary Fund. It had a highly successful existence for many years and students from miles around came here to take Regents Examination. Although many early records are now lost or destroyed, it is known that William Bross was one of the early instructors. He graduated from Williams College in 1838, taught in Chester, then in 1848 moved to Chicago, later becoming President of the Chicago
Tribune company. He served as Lieutenant Governor of the state of Illinois from 1865 - 1869. Edward Orton, another instructor, became a professor at Ohio State University.
Chester Union Free School District #1 was organized in the fall of 1869. The Academy, located on the corner of what is now Academy Avenue and 17M, served as the academic department. It was from this site the first class, the class of 1885, received their diplomas. Graduates A.J. Saxe, Henry W. Wood, and Effie Quakenbush were awarded their honors by Principal, Mr. J.D. Brownell. The Primary Department was the old brick school on High Street, and was under the change of Miss Carmilla S. Thompson. The Board of Education for the term May 1905-1906 was C.W. Kerner, W. S. Board, Dr. C.P. Smith, Frank Durland, and E.T. Jackson.
The district took in Chester, West Chester, East Chester, Chester at the Erie Depot, and Greycourt. In 1906 the total student population at the Chester Academy High School was 52 and the total expenditures for school operations for the district was $19,549.67.
The Chester Academy served the district needs until April 1906 when it burned. The following account of the fire was written by Donald M. Barrell and appeared in the Orange County Post on April 19, 1956, on the 50 th anniversary of the event.
Chester Academy Burns - 1906
Fifty years ago, April 9, 1906, at about 2 o'clock on a Monday morning, a young man was returning from a previous evening call in Goshen. It was in the old horse and buggy days and the young man was fortunate to have a good "night hoss" that is, one that would bring him safely home as he caught up with much needed sleep.
This horse stopped suddenly at about the point in the Chester to Goshen road where the Rendering Company's office now stands in West Chester. The young man woke up with a start, for in front of him was a building in a mass of flames. It was the old Chester Academy built in 1842 at a cost of $2,800. It stood on land donated by the heirs of Charles B. Durland. It was famous in the county for its high academic standing and for the prowess of its students in the field of sports.
Oakland Avenue (University Heights)
The historic old frame school was doomed for destruction for the "fire demon" had too firm a grasp and he soon claimed everything, including its library and school records.
It was fitting that it should have such an ending, with a big celebration, a spectacular night blaze, with a big crowd around, with excitement and exclamations. Its old bell rang out its last call to its students this time for help, as it fell in the ruins.
Dick Miller was the young man who made the discovery. He quickly turned around and raced for the W.A. Lawrence Creamery, near the present Talmadge Farm, had the watchman sound the whistle and soon the church bells pealed out the tragic warning. The sky was lit up for miles around; the firemen converged on the scene dragging their hose carriages, from Greycourt, from Railroad Avenue and Durland's Lane. Dick hitched his horse to the hose carriage stationed at the Creamery and hurried to the blaze.
The turnout was magnificent and the firemen attacked the fire from all sides, with plenty of water and wonderful hydrant pressure, for the water system was still new and it was said a stream of water could easily be thrown over the Catholic Church steeple.
Many students turned out and made heroic efforts to save books and records, some boys and men getting severely scorched and singed. Charles S. Murray and William Van Etten were among these. Clifford Miller and Harry Murray saved some books from the seventh grade. A resident of Warwick, had to jump for his life as the stairs gave way beneath him.
*** The school building with its contents was totally destroyed by the fire. The origin of the fire was unknown. The estimated loss was $10,614.15. The Insurance coverage was for $7,000.
With the matter of a new school building, the question of choosing a new site was agitated and finally, by a vote of the district at a special meeting held on June 28, 1906, it was decided to purchase, at a cost of $4,000, a new site containing about 3½ acres of land on the C.B. Wood's hill overlooking the village and surrounding country, on which now stands Chester Cable Corporation on Oakland Avenue.
In accordance with the appropriation voted by the district under the direction of the Board of Education, D.H. Canfield, an architect from Middletown, prepared plans for a building.
The contract for the construction of the building, excluding the heating and plumbing, was awarded to D.D. Stever of Middletown for a cost of $29,647. The contract signed on October 24, 1906 stipulated that the building should be completed by August 15, 1907.
When completed, the building contained twelve classrooms, a library, woodworking room, lavatories, a teachers' lounge, and a principal's office. In the attic was a gymnasium used for "physical training" classes. One large room was used as a study hall and assembly room.
"The New School" -1907
The following is a reprint of a story in condensed form, written at the time of the dedication of the school on the hill in May 1907 and appeared in the Middletown Times Press, now known as the Times Herald Record.
Saturday, May 11 th was the date selected for the ceremony of laying down the corner stone of the new high school building in Chester, and before the time appointed, two o'clock in the afternoon, a crowd of 600 had assembled at the new school house grounds, although the weather was very unfavorable, owing to a heavy wind blowing from the north, evidently fresh from the ice fields. The Chester Military Band was early at the grounds and their discoursed music enlivened things somewhat. The following note appeared in a local paper and was repeated under the feature "Retrospect/December 23, 1937":
"Retrospect… A brief items of bygone days"
Much to the delight of teachers, pupils, and parents, all departments of the Chester School have occupied the fine new school building during the past two weeks. Unless it is personally inspected, no one can fully appreciate the up-to-date accommodations and excellent facilities of the building. Although a few of the equipments have not yet been received, they will be in place in the near future, when no better or more commodious school building than this can be found in this part of the state.
Students attending this school remember well the say-to-day activities beginning with their trip from home in the morning by various methods of transportation. Some were fortunate enough to be transported by parents, while others walked and a few had the luxury of a bicycle. Still others drove their own horses and had to allow time to tend the horse at the barns near the Presbyterian or Methodist church before going into school.
Entrance was strictly monitored with girls entering and leaving through the door at the north end, and boys through the door at the south end. The student purchased books and supplies and for many years, Durland's Store (now the Antique Shop at the corner of Main and Academy Avenue) carried the much-valued textbooks and notebooks.
During World War I, many activities centered around the war effort and Chester students pitched into Red Cross activities with enthusiasm and dedication. Appropriately, upon the declaration of peace, Chester High School students enjoyed a holiday from classes. It was also during this period that economic disaster hit the country, and like young people across the nation, students at Chester felt the hardships of the times, still vivid in many memories.
During the thirty years occupancy of the building, a number of changes took place in the academic and extra-curricular activities at Chester. Commercial subjects were added, music and dramatic activities came into being and sports teams formed. With no athletic facility to accommodate them, the baseball team of the early 1920's built their own field behind the school. Basketball teams, drama productions, and social functions found accommodations at the Produce building and the Knights of Pythias Hall in the business district.
Maple Avenue (Guy Miller's Pasture)
As the population of the area grew, so did the school. In the early 1930's, talk began around town of the need for expanding the facilities. Lively discussions prevailed over whether to add to the present building or to construct a new building. The following article taken from the Chester News outlined the preliminary work leading to the beginning of the Maple Avenue High School building. In an article published on Friday, April 9, 1935, Chesterites read about a succession of events that led to the application for a federal grant. On June 19, 1934, a committee of 12 citizens met with the Board of Education and decided to engage Robert R. Graham, an architect from Middletown, to study the plans for an annex to the existing building or the necessity of a newer and more spacious building. On December 27, 1934, a committee of 12 citizens met with the Board of Education and decided that a new building on a new site was in Chester's best interest. On February 6, 1935, "a motion was made and carried that the community Club go on record as favoring a new school building on the ground known as the Miller Site. The secretary notified the Board of Education and Mr. J.H. Hizon of the State Education Department of their action. On March 14, 1935, J.H. Hadley, President of the Board of Education, received a letter from Mr. Hixon, which stated the formal approval of preliminary plans for the proposed new school. The Board of Education then engaged Philip A. Rorty as consulting and advising attorney. On March 22, 1935, the following headline and article appeared on page 1 of the Chester News:
"Albany Okays School Project"
Special: Thursday, March 21, 1935… At a special session of the School Board held tonight in the school Robert R. Graham, architect, formally notified the Board that Albany had placed its mark of approval on the Chester School Building Project.
In June of 1937, the building saw its first graduation exercises. Although they had completed their studies at the Oakland Avenue School: eighteen proud and accomplished students received their diplomas at the new facility.
A dedication ceremony took place in August of 1937. Official occupancy with classes held on a daily basis began in September of 1937.
No longer monitoring students entrance and exit by boys and girls, there grew a tradition, which was to remain for many years. The door located at the front of the building beneath the clock was for faculty and senior students entrance only. Many a reprimand and punishment was handed down to an underclassman daring to tread these steps of honor.
High School Wing Added (Maple Avenue)
With only minor interior changes, this building served the district's needs until the growth of the area; the student population exceeded the available space. Various church halls were rented and kindergartens were housed in the American Legion Hall (site of the 1842 Academy). These temporary measures did not provide a solution, and so a study and eventual proposal to add to the Maple Avenue site was approved in March of 1964.
Designed by a Middletown architect, the addition contained a gym, industrial arts room, home economics room, library, science lab and ten classrooms. Offices were built in the connecting portion. The total cost of the addition, $758,709.74 was financed by bonds at 3½% interest and was ready for occupancy in the fall of 1965. With a few minor renovations, the old portion of the building (dedicated in 1937) housed the elementary grades, and the new wing, the high school classes. A formal dedication was held October 30, 1965.
Prior to the addition of the High School wing Chester School had been involved in an annexation controversy. Under a plan developed by State Education Department the Chester District would merge with the Goshen Central School District. Two votes were held in June of 1963 with both resulting in defeat of the proposition. It was a time of concern, conflict, and confrontation when emotions ran high. The issue was at last put to rest with a third vote early in 1972, again defeating the annexation of Chester to the Goshen District.
Elementary School Built
In 1966, the largest housing development ever to be built within the school district was begun. Surrey Meadows, on the former Price Farm, off Rte. 94 northwest of the village drew many families from New York City with ads in city real estate sections. Many drove the miles, never having seen Chester before, and some purchased homes immediately. In September of 1967, the first of what was to be approximately 240 homes was occupied, and with the new families came new students for the Chester Union Free School District. Once again the building felt the strain of additional students and in the fall of 1969, two small buildings, each containing two classrooms were erected on the Maple Avenue sight. It was soon evident that even more space would be needed when another large development, Arcadia Hills, unveiled plans for over 200 more homes in the district.
A decision to build a new elementary school was reached and eleven acres of the old Tuthill property was purchased at a cost of $113,051.51. After considerable discussion, the design of the building was decided and groundbreaking ceremonies were held in October 1972.
Built on the "open classroom" concept, the school has a capacity of 750 students and 42,000 square feet of interior space. It was constructed with a bond issue of $3,480,000 at 5½% interest and construction costs totaled $3,081,649.08. The building contains 29 classrooms, a health suite, science room, music rooms, library, two gymnasiums, a cafeteria and offices and was furnished at a cost of $171,945.49. The first occupants, moved from temporary housing at Broadlea in April 1974 and the entire elementary population joined these kindergarten and second grade students following Spring Recess. The building was formally dedicated on June 9, 1974.
With step completed, the Maple Avenue site was taken over by grades 7-12 and became the Junior-Senior High School and K-6 made their home at the new facility.
The "New" Chester Academy
In 2000 the need for a new Middle-High school was easily seen. Once again the ever-increasing population of Chester forced the Board of Education to find solutions to this problem. Some solutions were to either build a separate middle or high school, add a new wing to the existing facilities, or to build a new school at a new location. A few months later the district decided to put forward a $33 million proposition to build a new Middle/High school. This includes a $5.9 million renovation and addition to the current elementary school. The school would be located along Hambletonian Avenue sharing some of the elementary schools land.
In June of 2000 voters turned out to approve the new building and plans begun right away. Although the residents knew there taxes would rise they felt a new building was needed and is well worth the cost.
The plans were ready by the end of 2001. The 3-story L-shaped layout of the new school would have a middle school wing separated from the high school wing. A shared library, auditorium, gymnasium, and cafeteria were placed in the middle to connect the two wings. Modern laboratories allowed the district to enhance technology in curriculums. As a security feature all visitors would have to enter through the main office. CannonDesign was hired as the architectural firm to construct the building.
In September of 2002 ground breaking ceremonies took place and construction began on the new $28 million Middle/High school. During this time the district decided to name the new school "Chester Academy" in respect to the first 1842 Chester Academy which burnt to the ground in 1906.
Finally in April 2004 the new Chester Academy opened its doors. Over Spring Break a large moving operation from the old Jr./Sr. High School to the new Academy took place. After Spring Break students from grades 7-12 entered the new modern facilities. On May 12, 2004 the dedication ceremony took place where the school bell of the old Chester Academy was presented and a time capsule was buried in the lobby.
The Chester Academy now houses grades 6-12 with the Middle School (6-8) separated from the High School (9-12). The Elementary School has undergone major renovations with an extended parking lot, new carpeting, and a wider lobby. It is now the home of grades K-5.
Students of Chester Schools have enjoyed the benefits of the small school atmosphere and have taken advantage of the opportunities to participate in a variety of activities including sports, drama, and student government. Countless students have gone from the Chester School experience to enjoy career and personal pursuits in a variety of places throughout the world.
A majority of the Historical Text Above came directly from "1892 - 1992 Village of Chester Centennial Journal" This along with the photos are provided by The Chester Historical Society. Please visit their website at http://homepage.mac.com/chester_historical/