Friday, March 9, 2012

I Am To Blame For the Destruction of the Warwick Academy, or Life on the Wawayanda Circa 1973

Warwick Institute,the "High Street School", was originally known as Warwick Academy. The structure itself, before the later red brick structure, was sheathed in wood clapboard and dated to the mid nineteenth century. This building actually survived until the early 1970s more than 20 years after its replacement, the red brick Warwick Institute building, had burned and been dismantled in 1951 ( see the photos in the right column ). The wooden structure had once stood close to the street until the growing number of students necessitated that it be lifted, turned and moved back towards the Wawayanda Creek to make way for a modern structure in 1893. The clapboard building stood about half way between High Street itself and the creek behind some of the old Miller and Stockton Lumber yard buildings.

According to some the building became known as the "White Elephant" after its move, and it was converted to apartments at some time around the time of the 1893 construction of the red brick Institute. When I came to know the building it could only be accessed through dense grass and a Maginot Line of blackcap bushes and other wild growth. It was something I passed countless times on my way to the banks of the creek; it was there, under a canopy of thirty year or more tree growth, where I explored foundations from long gone buildings and debris that one wouldn't think today could have existed right in the middle of the Village.

The foundations I speak of were known to have once been a "Chinese laundry" and a knife factory; I never found anything more exciting than some clay marbles and a sulphide marble with an undetermined figure inside sifting through the dirt of those buildings' one time cellar floors. It is here that my first archaeological work began as a ten year old in 1973 when we moved to 22 High Street across from the Old School Baptist Church.

As one of the oldest of the neighborhood kids, and there were many in those days that infused streets like Church and High and South with screams, bike riding, and just about anything else you can think a 10 year old capable of 40 years ago ( that's a more finite list than what is true for 2012). One of the many activities at that time, a time when TV and videos were not the end all of every waking hour, was to lead expeditions down to the creek and to various points of interest on the way.

There was a lot of debris in this off the grid area from a period supposedly when someone named Pee Wee Jenkins lived in the old wooden building that I now know to have been the Warwick Academy. The building in the summer of 1973 was partially collapsed and missing most of its windows. The idea of climbing into this abandoned house hadn't entered my mind initially, as I remember the vegetation was so dense in front of the building during that first summer I spent on High Street.

Abandoned buildings weren't rare during this period of Warwick's history. I remember the old Holley Mansion before it was razed to make way for the Warwick Savings Bank; a bunch of kids from South Street including Marvin Gove, Tommy Henderson, Billy Roome and I explored the outside perimeter of that "haunted" mansion on Oakland Avenue a few times, but I think we were likely all too chicken to actually try to enter it. There was also a house way out by the Kings Elementary School and another across from Seely Everett's Store in Edenville that my cousin Paul and I once climbed through to find an old kitchen sink with a water pump attached to it that seemed particularly ancient in 1975 or so.

The debris down by the Wawayanda Creek I mentioned included a dump that largely consisted of early black phone receivers from the Warwick Valley Telephone Company that owned some of that netherland. The recievers were made of an early plastic material that had the fragility of ceramic after decades of being exposed to the elements. These lay atop a dump that had been used for many decades, and there was also one or two mortarless fieldstone foundations that had also been used as places for dumping. These may have been residential dwellings at one time.

Upon discoverying this particular site I set to the task of digging and found dozens of identifiable objects including 1920s and 1930s toys made of hard rubber, cast iron, and tin; these were so encrusted with rust or fragile from deterioration that they were worthless to anybody but me (to this day). I would carry them back to my bedroom where they would be on display until I was usually pressured into finding "another place for them." Additionally the old foundations and other old dumping sites along the creek between Forester Avenue and the then derelict Miller and Stockton Lumber yard were the focus of my digs and my collecting of artifacts that became known among a small band of budding archaeologists like myself as "good junk."

The days were not spent solely laboring at sifting through the tons of potash and clinkers from decades of coal fires from Warwick furnaces that characterized the banks of this portion of the creek and finds of the occasional intact blue Ponds cream jar (sometimes with residuals of the cream inside)or intact porcelain doll arms, there was also lots of screaming,, shouting and running.

Another attraction to the site was the remains of a 1941 Buick and a Model T. The Ford was really only the cab of a hardtop sedan with the back window frame still in place, a bumber and a signal light that for the life of me I tried for a whole summer to remove but never managed to loosen the severely rusted screws. The spare tire mount also existed providing enough for a fantasy about living in the 1920s. Next to that car fragment was a large bank safe with its door missing. Across from these was the Buick which made for, in combination with the other relics, many a cops and robbers scenario.

"Gangsters", as we called it, was a daily routine of role playing fueled by an enthusiasm for reruns of the TV show the "Untouchables" with Robert Stack as "Elliot Ness." The Buick was integral to this play with its steering wheel and a crate that served as a seat; the interior of this car had almost been entirely stripped, the doors were missing, the hood, and important parts of the engine had also long ago disappeared; in fact, as time went on I was responsible for the removal of any parts that remained and were removable. A windshield wiper motor from that Buick long sat on my dresser as a prized possession.

The "White Elephant" alluded us until the fall of that year when vines and thorns receded and all of us became a little more daring. I was the first to cross the threshhold to find a first floor room to the right that had a large furnace in it. There was a pile of old Singer sewing machines that had long ago seized with rust. There were jumbles of other things that seemingly were the currency of junkmen like Pee Wee Jenkins. What I recall as a central staircase had collapsed with only a few intact treads near to the second floor. These were unreachable.

From the vantage point of the wrecked stairs I saw a wall telephone, arm rest and the magneto box seemingly intact. I tried several times to climb to the second story but the telephone was always out of my reach. The interior of the building was fragile and really this may have been the height of my risk taking by this point in my life. Eventually, I gave up at the urgings of one of the younger kids, as his mother called and called for him. It was supper.

The father showed up in proximity to the building after ten minutes of this. He came near to the building discovering our whereabouts as we likely were making a lot more noise than we realized. When his six year old finally gave in and emerged the father was livid about the fact that we had risked life and limb in this derelict building; I had no such supervision and the reprimand that partially fell on me really fell on deaf ears.

On my way home from the bus stop at the corner of High and Forester the next day I witnessed the last passes of a backhoe and other heavy equipment that had accomplished the task of digging a hole and burying the entire structure while we all were in school that day. The brown dirt patch that remained remained for quite some time until the wild brambles began to reappear the following summer. I have always suspected that the irate father had called the local police or whomever one calls in these situations, and that Mike Myrow, who supposedly owned the property, was contacted to raze the building "before one of the local kids gets hurt climbing through there."

As if the destruction that day wasn't enough for us, a local "scrap-er" showed up with an oxy-acetylene torch and cut up all the props of our fun-filled summer days. Two prodigious tanks some nine feet in length and 6 or 7 feet tall were the first to be cut up for scrap metal; these had often been rolled uncontrollably by me and others from one place to the other in the woods. It was only the many maple saplings that prohibited these hulks from getting away from us and maybe even rolling down the hill into the creek where they would have been spotted by adults and likely brought us some undesired attention and consequences. The Buick, the safe, and the Model T all went that day. And things were never the same...

There were piles of red bricks remaining which we knew came from the old "High Street School". I had filed them away in my memory for another day. They remained near the creek until a few years later when my father was building a fireplace in an 18th century farmhouse once belonging to Marie Ferguson on Route 94 in the summer of 1976. Wanting to feel a sense of importance I shared the whereabouts of the needed bricks for the project. The owner of the house called Mike Myrow who gave permission for their removal, and all of them were gotten and used.

The fireplace is perhaps one of the only remnants of that one time High Street School. Until the area where the Warwick Academy first stood and later the Institute was built was paved over remains of the latter's sheared off foundation was visible. This was a parking area for Warwick Valley Telephone Company trucks. In back of what is now Hayes' Barber Shop I recall spotting on one of my childhood adventures a large slab step that I always presumed to be the entrance to the old High Street School. That too has likely disappeared like those summer days on the Wawayanda.


  1. Marvelous memoir, Bob-- thanks for posting! --Sue Gardner

    1. Dear Sue, Thanks. I went back and tweaked the piece a bit. I want to see some stories about Wickam Village. I have a few, as a lot of the kids I grew up with lived there.

  2. Nice piece Robert!! II used to dig around the place a lot too...

    Greg Humes