History of Cambridge Schools Part One
( Ken has published the website,
Cambridge Historical Society)
I started this research project
because I was curious about the suspicious fire that
destroyed the Cambridge Union School in 1947. The fire
occurred shortly after a hotly contested vote defeated
the creation of a new centralized school district.
When you investigate the history of
anything related to Cambridge, you must first understand
how the towns and villages were formed, reformed, and
finally consolidated. This is especially true when
researching the history of the Cambridge schools.
In this segment of my report I
describe how the East End and West End of the village
maintained two school systems for 100 years. Next time
Ill get into the fire and the formation of one
centralized school district.
Towns and Villages
The Cambridge Patent was granted in
1761. In 1772 Cambridge became a District and in 1788, a
Town in the county of Albany. It was annexed to
Washington County in 1791 and separated into the Towns
of Cambridge, White Creek, and Jackson in 1816.
The East end of the present village
was the village of North White Creek and the West end of
the present village was the village of Cambridge, often
called Cambridge Corners. These two villages were
separated by ¾ mile of mostly swamp.
They Agree, sort of, to Build an Academy
In the late 1780s NYS Legislature
passed laws creating the Regents of the University and
allowing for the formation of town school districts.
Salem created the first academy in Washington County in
1791. Cambridge and North White Creek werent far
behind, voting to form an academy in 1799.
Unfortunately, Cambridge and North
White Creek often had trouble agreeing. After deciding
to form an academy, a vote was held to determine its
location. Cambridge voters dominated the turnout and
they decided to build the Cambridge Washington Academy
where Academy Street and Pleasant Street now intersect.
This was the most distant location from North White
Creek that could have been chosen.
Residents of North White Creek
refused to help finance the academy. By 1810 they had
raised enough money to start their own, the Union
Academy of White Creek. I have a sketch of the building
but Ive yet to discover its location. I wouldnt be
surprised to learn that it was near Dorrs Corners, the
intersection of East Main and Maple Ave, the most
distant location from Cambridge.
Coila Enters the Picture
About 1800 William Stevenson moved
westward and opened a store at Stevensons Corners, now
known as Coila, The congregation of the Coila Church
became involved in the church-inspired and
church-supervised Cambridge Washington Academy. The
curriculum required attending church twice a week with
But, before you think Cambridge and
Coila cooperated any better than Cambridge and North
White Creek, let me point out that in 1842 the other
congregation at the Coila Church bought the Old Boarding
House (now the Farrell home on West Main), which had
been used by the academy. They opened the Missionary
Institute in direct competition with the academy.
1799 to 1814
The original academy opened in
1799. In 1812 the NYS Legislature passed a law providing
state funds for the formation of town school districts.
In 1814 the highly controversial Rate Bill required
residents to support the funding of the private,
In 1814 Cambridge petitioned the
NYS Regents and on August 16, 1815 the newly
incorporated Cambridge Washington Academy opened its
doors. A new 40 x 60 building was constructed with 11
ceilings on the first story, 16.5 ceilings on the
second story, and 10 ceilings in the attic. The cost of
the structure was $2,300.
1815 to 1850
The first year the academy had 51
scholars: 14 in the Classical department (college-prep)
and 37 in the English department. The academy was open
year-round with 4 terms of 12 weeks, each followed by a
In the mid 1800s the Union Academy
of White Creek closed. From 1824 to 1827 the Cambridge
Washington Academy had financial troubles and was
In 1836 Greenwich opened its Union
Village Academy. In 1841 the Cambridge academy had 128
scholars, of whom 55 were female. The student body came
from all over the US, Cuba, and Spain. In 1844 a 24 x
48 brick addition was built at a cost of $4,000.
1851 to 1873 Union Schools
In 1853 the NYS Legislature passed
the Union Free School act intended to provide affordable
public education. However, the 1814 Rate Bill was still
in effect and complicated things until its repeal in
On April 16, 1866 the Village of
Cambridge was incorporated with the communities of North
White Creek and Cambridge becoming the East and West
Districts. Coila voted not to be included in the
In 1869 the Greenwich Union Free
School was formed. Following the depression of 1870, the
Cambridge Washington Academy closed due to financial
troubles. The newly formed Village of Cambridge decided
to follow Greenwichs lead and create a single Union
School, but they couldnt agree on the details.
So, in 1872 the old Cambridge
Washington Academy became the Union Free School of the
West District. The East-enders converted the former home
of John Pope Putnam into the Putnam Institute, which
became the Union Free School of the East District. This
was located on South Park Street where Whipple City
Pizza is today.
The Town of White Creek and the
Town of Cambridge were separated at the Turnpike, but
the East and West school districts were separated at
Blairs Brook, now known as the Owl Kill.
During its 58 years of
incorporation from 1814 to 1872, the Cambridge
Washington Academy graduated two governors, one senator,
and dozens of judges
1890 to 1926
In May 1890 the two districts voted
to form a single school district and in 1891 the
Cambridge Union Free School opened. This is the building
located on West Main next to the bank that many of us
now called the old school.
Notice that the Union Free School
was conveniently built halfway between the East and West
Districts. Perhaps this was a political compromise or
perhaps it was because the area between the two ends of
Cambridge was being built up. In 1852 the railroad was
completed, in 1878 Hubbard Opera House was built, and by
1883 the Rice Seed Company had appeared.
Although the school districts
combined, the East and West Districts survived until the
Charter of the Village was changed in 1924. Until then
each District had its own fire department and its own
Since Coila hadnt incorporated
with the Village of Cambridge, it also didnt join the
Union School. Instead it stuck with its one-room
schoolhouse for another 50 years. Perhaps Coila was
unhappy that the new Union School was located far away
rather than on the site of the Cambridge Washington
In June 1890 the last classes
graduated from the Union Free Schools of the East and
In 1893 Rev John G Smart bought the
academy grounds and buildings. He renovated Academy
Place, the large white house on the southwest corner of
the intersection of Academy and West Main. This building
had been a boarding facility and a residence for the
Principal of the academy.
In 1922 the Cambridge Washington
Academy was demolished by Rev Robbins. He took the
bricks to Schroon Lake where they were used to build
vacation cottages. A model of the academy, approximately
3 x 4 x 5, was built and placed at the intersection
of Academy and West Main to commemorate the school.
Unfortunately, the model deteriorated and was later
destroyed. The Cambridge Historical Society still has
the marble nameplate that hung over the main entrance to
As for the Putnam Institute, my
great-grandfather William L Hitchcock bought the
building in 1894. In 1899, after having tried to restore
the building, he tore it down. Instead he built the
Hitchcock Building where Two-Top Styling is located
As I said, I started this research
project because I was curious about the suspicious
fire that destroyed the Cambridge Union School in 1947.
Here I am at the end of Part One and Im only up to
Next time Ill discuss the Central
School Act of 1927 and explain why it took Cambridge
until the late 1950s to incorporate all the surrounding
rural one-room schoolhouses into the Cambridge Central
I had hoped to also include a
discussion of the numerous one-room schoolhouses in the
towns of Cambridge, White Creek, and Jackson, but I
think that may be a research project unto itself and so
will have to wait.
My dad was town and village
historian for many years. He never wrote or quoted a
historical fact until he had double and triple checked
it. Im more of a raconteur. I read, I research, and
then I knit the facts into a story. But, as my wife
says, I never let facts get in the way of a good story.
So, please contact me if you question or disagree with
anything I have reported.
Sidebar - The Rices Seed Box Houses
While doing my research I
discovered that after it closed, the Academy building
was used by the Rice Seed Company and wooden crates were
made there. During the Great Depression, the boards from
these crates were used to build houses. Two Seed Box
houses still exist in Cambridge today. Next time Ill
tell you which ones.