April 1, 2009
The Earliest Years At Potsdam
On a fall day in September of 1816, forty-two students assembled in downtown Potsdam at a frame building to initiate their studies. These intrepid students represented the hopes and aspirations not just of their individual families but of the North Country community. At that moment a dream that had been growing for four years finally became a reality. St. Lawrence Academy, a comprehensive educational institution, began to serve the students and families of our region. Our college, SUNY Potsdam, is the direct heir of that academy; you, are students, are the heirs of those students.
Although the academy opened its doors on September 30, the planning for the school had begun years before. While the Village of Potsdam was incorporated in 1806, the residents had no place to educate their children, except in their own homes, or in the home of someone willing to teach the children. A few of the village residents had taken on the obligation of teaching students, in return for cash or goods. As early as 1787, the State of New York had offered support for local schools for two curricula. The state would help to pay for the education of students taking a college preparatory curriculum, known then as the “Classics,” and for teacher preparation. Benjamin F. Raymond, the land agent contracted by the landlords of this part of St. Lawrence County realized that to increase the population of the region, he had to see that new residents had all of the services they might need. High on this list of services was a place to educate their children, and to prepare more teachers for the local and surrounding community. With the offer of the state to help support the educational institution, he sought to organize local interest in founding a school.
In 1812, when the young United States found itself in a war with England, local residents, under the leadership of Raymond, began to petition the state for a charter for a school, pledging to contribute land and money to its support. What the founders proposed was rather complex. On the face of it, they offered $5,000 in a lump sum for the support of the school. This was based on the “sale” of 500 shares, each worth $100. Benjamin Raymond pledged to buy 100 of the shares himself. In spite of these high aspirations, only $2,280 was ever raised through this subscription. Also included for the support of the school were two lots of 640 acres each (one square mile) in the Potsdam Township, as well as a village lot on which Raymond and the others had already constructed a multi-purpose building, either as a school or a church. To further strengthen their request for a charter, the founders asked that the two large properties be permanently dedicated to the support of the school. In this way the rent charged for the use of these two properties would go to support education. Consequently, on December 1, 1812, the Potsdam residents began their quest for State support for a school.
Because of war and the aftermath of war, in 1812 the State government was simply not equipped to deal with many other matters, and so the petition of the Potsdam residents languished in the state bureaucracy. Finally in 1815, Raymond clarified the exact nature of the request to the state, noting that a building had already been pledged to the school. Shortly thereafter, the Board of Regents of the State of New York on March 25, 1816 issued a charter for the creation of the publicly supported St. Lawrence Academy. The school would received both local funds from the local Board of Trustees, based on the subscription effort, as well as rents from the lands pledged to its support, and per-pupil funding from the State for students in the college preparatory program. Lastly, then, as now, students helped to support the school through tuition.
St. Lawrence Academy began by offering two different programs of study. One was the Classical program, or college preparatory, which included Greek and Latin, Mathematics, Logic, Rhetoric, Moral and Natural philosophy, and Geography. The other, far more popular program, was called the “English program” and included Reading, writing, English grammar, Ciphering (that is, applied mathematics), Bookkeeping, French, and Composition. Most parents and young people preferred the English program since they could see its concrete benefit to their everyday lives. It did not, however, prepare students for higher education. In those days, students paid tuition by the quarter. For writing and reading it was $2.50; for Grammar, ciphering, math, and bookkeeping, $3.00; for Greek and Latin, $3.50; and for the rest (such as Philosophy, logic, French), $4.00. Shortly after the Academy began its work, an informal program of teacher training was also instituted. There were no hard and fast rules for teacher training in the early days. Consequently advanced students from the Classical program, continued their studies and frequently served under a master teacher to learn the educational process. Importantly for the finances of the school, in 1827 the State authorized financial support for the cost of teacher training. In 1831, the academy provided 80 teachers to surrounding districts, and the demand far outstripped the supply.
We stand here today to remember and salute those persons who nearly 200 years ago had the foresight and inspiration to found St. Lawrence Academy. That school became the State Normal School at Potsdam, then Potsdam State Teachers College, then the State University College at Potsdam, and now SUNY Potsdam. We are heirs of a legacy of nearly two hundred years of concern over the educational opportunities for students of the North Country and the State as a whole.
In short, Happy Birthday, SUNY Potsdam.