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Voices Spring-Summer, 2003:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the Upstate column, “An Evening at Cooks Corners” by Varick A. Chittenden here.
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Volume 29

Headline -An Evening at Cooks Corners

Upstate For a local shortcut going south into the Adirondack foothills, I have taken Orebed Road in the town of Pierrepont scores of times in the last few years. It’s a lovely drive, in all seasons, winding and rolling through maples and oaks, pines and tamaracks, some much older than the road itself. Along the way is a scattering of modest farmhouses and rustic bungalows, tucked into the woods for privacy from neighbors and protection from the weather. Most of them have been there a long time, too.

A few miles off the state highway, I come to Wilson Road, where I usually turn left and continue toward what the old-timers called the Great South Woods. But it’s the sight of a small white building on the opposite corner that regularly catches my eye. A simple wooden sign in front declares "Cooks Corners Community Center," yet I’ve always recognized it by form and size to be a one-room schoolhouse. The North Country is still home to many such buildings. If they are used at all today, they have been converted to family homes (some beautifully restored and adapted to modern use), antiques shops, animal pens, or in one instance, a manure shed for a dairy farmer.
Desserts at Cooks Corner Community Center
Homemade desserts were offered at the end of the evening at the schoolhouse.
Photo: Martha Cooper.

But the Cooks Corners schoolhouse is different. I know this because of my good friend Bill Smith, who grew up and today lives a couple of miles away as the crow flies. Though Bill didn’t attend that school, he knows plenty of people who did. This schoolhouse, like many others in the area, was closed in the late 1940s, as children from rural roads were transported to nearby villages for centralized education. Unlike many other districts, the people of Cooks Corners decided soon thereafter that they needed a gathering place where they could vote, conduct neighborhood business, and socialize. Since that time, the schoolhouse has been their community center.

For years, Bill has told me that Cooks Corners is a special place, and that Cooks Corners people are special, too. He’s described them with great admiration and respect, calling them hard-working, family-oriented people who’ve known poverty and how to survive, and who are content with their simple tastes and basic values, learned from ancestors in the neighborhood and passed to children whom they raise there.

Ashley Bonno demonstrates recess game
Ashley Bonno demonstrated a favorite recess game of "crawling the wall" at the former Cooks Corners schoolhouse. Photo: Martha Cooper.
So I was pleased that he arranged an invitation for "TAUNY folks"—Jeanmarie Fallon, Jill Breit, our summer intern Cris Muia, friend and photographer Marty Cooper (who was visiting us at the time), and me—to a summer social event this past July. Because the gathering was announced by word-of-mouth and telephone tree only a few days before, organizer Brenda Bonno worried that there would be small attendance. So she had added the incentive of a night of music and stories to the invitation: Bill Smith, Don Woodcock, and neighbor Dawn Atkinson would be the entertainment, with old-time fiddling, songs, and stories.

When we arrived an hour before the announced start time of seven o’clock, several cars were already there. I should have known. Country people always arrive early. Some were unpacking lawn chairs and blankets; others were carrying baskets or foil-covered plates of cookies or cakes or other desserts for ritual refreshments later in the evening. Everybody, it seemed, had brought something.

There were cheery hellos, concerned-but-friendly inquiries about crops or personal health, warm introductions of us to them and vice versa. Much to organizer Brenda’s delight and surprise, the cars and people kept coming. By the time the music began, a hundred people were arranging themselves on the grassy schoolhouse lawn under the hundred-year-old maples.

What followed was a folklorist’s dream. From toddlers to octogenarians—four generations there at one time, someone pointed out—nearly everyone knew each other, where they lived, and what they had in common. Between such old musical favorites as "Red Wing" and "Listen to the Mockingbird" and "Silver Threads among the Gold," people stood up to recall schooldays and past gatherings. There were stories about Mrs. Ella Corcoran, a favorite teacher, about playing ball in the adjacent pasture at noon recess, and Everett Waite (whose mother taught there years ago) remembered one morning after Halloween, when Maurice Roach’s wagon was found perched on the schoolhouse roof. There were stories of square dances, birthday celebrations, bridal and baby showers, anniversary parties, even a funeral for a poor family’s child who had been killed by lightning. Rena Davis got up and talked about box socials and courtship games; Fay Van Brocklin and his sister Norma June Casolara recalled favorite movies—cowboys-and-Indians and Laurel and Hardy—shown at the schoolhouse for 25 cents for a double feature; and Lynn Hewitt described wintertime fun at pedro parties, a popular card game still played at the center.

Cooks Corner Community Center
Cooks Corners native Paul Norman shared a story about his family living in the old schoolhouse for a few months after their nearby home and grocery store burned in the 1980s. Photo: Martha Cooper.

There was joking and gentle ribbing and occasional gales of laughter. There were some tears when someone remembered Bernice Hewitt, who truly loved such gatherings as these and had died recently. There were also very special Kodak moments—one when someone realized that nearly a dozen elderly men and women, most in their eighties, were sitting in a row enjoying this time together, another when Ashley Bonno, Brenda’s twelve-year-old-daughter, demonstrated the generations-old game of walking the schoolhouse foundation wall without falling. Everybody there understood what was happening.

The stories and music stopped about nine, but only because it was dark. All those desserts were still waiting on long tables set up on the lawn, so there was more talk and laughter to come.

The ride home was memorable, too. I can hardly think of a time when I have seen more sense of community and mutual respect than I did then. We talked about it all the way home and for days afterward. If I ever want to be reminded of what we do and why we do it, Cooks Corners is one of those places I hope I can always go back to for reassurance.


Varick A. Chittenden is professor emeritus of English, SUNY Canton College of Technology, and executive director of Traditional Arts in Upstate New York (TAUNY).Photo of Varick Chittenden
Photo: Martha Cooper

For years, Bill has told me that Cooks Corners is a special place, and that Cooks Corners people are special, too ... hard-working, family-oriented people who’ve known poverty and how to survive, and who are content with their simple tastes and basic values, learned from ancestors in the neighborhood and passed to children whom they raise there.

This column appeared in Voices Vol. 29, Spring-Summer 2003. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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