This Month’s Featured Article

An Idle Monument

By Published On: May 28th, 2019

By Griffin Cooper |

Twenty years have passed since the Roe Jan building held its final classes and closed its doors for the last time. Twenty years since anyone disembarked the early morning bus and, with puffy eyes, strolled through the big double doors of this titan of a local landmark. Two decades have crept by since students, teachers, and staff flooded the halls of Roe Jan, but the memories remain.

The smell of freshly cut grass on a Friday evening sitting beneath the spotting tower with friends and watching the Titans football team down another opponent on their way to a perfect 8-0 record during the 1988 season. Memories of folded down school lunch tables and the urgency one felt to grab a tray and stand in line in anticipation for the most delicious piece of rectangular pizza which could have ever been conceived. The hot June sun beating down on the backs of those unlucky enough to be assigned the black shirts during field day or the orchestral sound of thirty recorders rehearsing with a distinct harmony in anticipation for an upcoming holiday concert in the “gymatorium.”

For twenty years the provincial school building has sat idle, vacant, the spring air pushes its way through broken windows, sweeps below the pock-marked ceilings, and brushes by endless bits of loosely hanging peels of forlorn wallpaper causing them to stir a bit, like the maple leaves of autumn. Its courtyards and tennis court are moored in prehistoric weeds, chalkboard graffiti shows evidence of some of Roe Jan’s only visitors in twenty years.

Yet Roe Jan endures, though much of its structure has been harrassed by an unimpeded Mother Nature, a spirit of sentimentality lingers around each corner. Each year the beloved school stands with modest dignity just off State Route 22 between Hillsdale and Copake, NY. like a grandparent silently watching its children, grandchildren, and the generations that have come after its time go about their daily lives, waiting patiently for its chance to be needed again.

Roe Jan endures because it is a symbol of the community in which it is nestled, it represents the honest heart of small town life and the timeless ideals of neighborly trust. Twenty years is but a moment when compared to the sixty-six years and three generations of people that have passed through the familiar halls of this now idle monument. For six decades Roe Jan breathed life into a rural community, bringing towns, friends, and families together. Perhaps after twenty years, it is time for Roe Jan to get its second wind.

Roeliff and his kill

Like any great historical landmark, its origins are tied to a local folktale. Roe Jan draws its namesake from the kill that flows along its perimeter, a body of water named after a fairly mysterious character in the area’s history. By all present day accounts Roeliff Jansen himself is perceived to be a well-regarded, pioneering explorer whose influence spread throughout the entire colony of New Netherlands during the early part of the seventeenth century. It is also somewhat of a widely accepted fact that Jansen was the first European to settle the area.

The truth about the man is as equally nebulous as the myth his name has cultivated, it is more likely Roeliff was something of a wayfarer, once a farmer, sailor, and even government official. Sometime during his twenties, Roeliff and his family emigrated to the New World via the Dutch West India fleet in search of farm land to plot around the present day capital of Albany. Like most of his career ventures, Roeliff was contracted to farm this particular plot by none other than Killian Van Rensselaer. After struggling to manage through the hard upstate New York winters, Jansen was released from his contract and moved his family all the way downstate to lower Manhattan and took a job as a land purveyor of sorts.

Despite his numerous travels up and down the Hudson River, one fact becomes apparent when studying Jansen’s modest life, the man never lived in the area. Still, the legend of his adventure up the Hudson, where both he and his crew became marooned by freezing ice for a full three weeks before eventually wrestling their krag from its frozen anchor, and his crew subsequently choosing to name a nearby creek after the only government official on board, persists. No doubt the natural beauty of the kill and its pervasiveness in the area are worthy of such a story.

Thus the well-traveled Roeliff grew into something more akin to a folk hero when it came time to dedicate the school building in 1933. In June of that year “One of the greatest crowds in the history of Columbia County” assembled (1000 according to the Hudson Evening Register Star) to see Roeliff’s Dream, an operetta composed in honor of the opening of the school.
In Act 1, Roeliff himself is set in an old-fashioned school room, where children are punished for smiling and tasked with menial assignments like memorizing dates conducive to an “atmosphere of gloom.” Roeliff sings of fishing in the nearby kill, when he is punished for his daydreaming he sings again for the experiences he longs for,

“I dream of a large and beautiful place
Where children will be free
To learn about all the wonderful things
That interest a boy like me.
A school where the teachers are all
Our friends

And will help us do our best,
And no one will ever say that children
Are a pest.”

A Great lift from Depression

During one of the most uncertain times in American history, one year after the great stock market crash and on the verge of yet another impossible financial downturn, representatives of the community gathered at the Hillsdale library in December of 1930 for one purpose, to bring a community together under one school district. The area had previously been divided into twenty-nine smaller districts before the State Education Department approved the umbrella merger in 1931.

In the years before the merger, high school students from seven different townships were relegated to a two story building in Hillsdale aptly named Hillsdale High School, back then most students were able to commute to school via train along the New York Central Line. Thanks to the tireless efforts of community members like John D. Ackley and Theophilus Johnson, the integration of all districts was approved and the next step involved choosing the most effective site for the new school’s construction. Initially six sites had been considered, three south of Hillsdale, one in Copake, one in Craryville, and another in Copake Falls.

In the spring of 1932, three meetings were held in order to explain the proposed building program. The vote was held in April on a bond issue of between $290,000 and $390,000 to cover all building costs. Voters for the proposed land site located just south of the Hillsdale town line were required to possess certain qualifications, interestingly enough, one provision listed included, “Women possessing such required qualifications are entitled to vote.”

Home of the Titans

Following the construction and dedication of the building in December of 1933, Roe Jan cemented its status as the central hub for community activities for the next three decades. What had previously been a series of isolated rural townships was transformed into an estuary of families and backgrounds including farmers, doctors, lawyers, community leaders and politicians. Roe Jan and its staff would consistently flex their medal and adaptability in the intervening years, through crisis at home and conflicts abroad including perhaps the greatest global conflict of the twentieth century, World War ll.

Roe Jan would accelerate its academic program during wartime in order to meet the enlistment emergency. Members of the senior class in 1942 took the regents at the half year mark because they would be 18 years of age before the end of June and thus would be eligible to serve before the end of the school year. With an unconquerable sense of defiance in the face of hardship, composer L. Osborn wrote his then famous marching piece in honor of those students leaving home to fight for their country in Europe and around the world.

To the tune of “Our Director” march theme,

So here’s to Roeliff Jansen
Guardian of the light,
Here’s to our banner
Of maroon and white,
And here’s to all our graduates
On land and sea,
Fighting the battle
For our liberty.

With the end of the war in 1945 and the young men and women of the community returning home, the spirit of Roe Jan began to flourish and cultivate memories that would root themselves in the lineage of the area, endowing students and staff with a familial bond that still exists today.

Teachers like Herb Bergquist, who came to the area in 1955 and taught science at Roe Jan for thirty five years, embody the permanent impact the Roe Jan experience has left on long time members of the community. As he and his wife Flora reflect on their time spent dedicating their lives to the students at Roe Jan, Herb eases back into the nape of his rustic recliner and smiles warmly, saying with genuine modesty, “The kids I had were great, just real good people.”

Herb’s legend is unique in the lineal history of Roe Jan, his notably intimidating size only outmatched by his unguarded smile and sincere interest in the lives of his former students. It is no wonder that his former students, some now in their sixties, are hard pressed to forget the nature trail he cut for his classes on the grounds where he took his students out walking in order to identify wildlife and vegetation as well as planting various trees and shrubs. Mr. Bergquist extended his tutelage beyond the classroom as well, coaching Junior Varsity and Varsity baseball for twenty four years.

The history of Roe Jan is a treasure trove of moments and events that have become lost to the veil time casts upon history, but are easily recalled when rekindled in the minds of those who lived through the days of Roe Jan’s prominence. One such event that has yet to fade from the collective memory is the annual Ag Fair, spearheaded by one of the original members of the Roe Jan staff, Robert Lawrence. Described as the largest event of its kind in the area’s history, each year farmers would bring animals for the local kids to enjoy, tents were erected on school grounds and filled with varieties of small animals and cattle, games and exhibits were held in the gym, classrooms would be filled with homegrown plants for display, and judging would take place followed by ribbons and prizes. Former Home Economics teacher, Lynn Colclough, recalls the grandeur of the event, “That night the gymnasium transformed into a carnival, it was a huge community event, it brought everyone together in a way that’s hard to describe.”

Dutchman vs. Hornets

Before long, the once small farming community began to grow in size, bringing with it an an influx of students to both the Roe Jan and neighboring Ockawamick school districts. During the early 1960s Roe Jan began to feel the economic squeeze of overcrowding and to compensate constructed a separate elementary wing in 1962. Still, the extra space was not enough and thus began a decades long struggle between the local Taxpayers’ Association and the School Board of Education. The pressure of overcrowding combined with the lack of resources began to mount, with the urging of the State Education Department and the promise of increased aid, a new solution was determined to be reached.

As a result, in 1969, the two school districts of Ockawamick and Roe Jan merged in an effort to create more space for students, teachers, and staff trying to keep pace with the growth in the area and to mitigate space for students and classroom size. Despite the agreed upon merger, delays in the transition persisted until 1971 when Roe Jan and Ockawamick finally became unified under the newly titled Taconic Hills school district.

When the dust of litigation finally settled, it was agreed that both schools would host students from K-5, Roe Jan would house students from junior high 6-8, and Ockawamick would become the defacto high school for students 9-12. The result was one of mixed emotions and, at times, logistical nightmare as school resources and spending were split between the two schools. Bus runs for example, became a rubix cube of transportation. In one day buses reportedly traveled three thousand miles and double bus runs were instituted to accommodate after school activities at Roe Jan.

Jim and his wife Lynn Colclough, who graduated from Roe Jan in 1966 and would eventually return to the place they loved so dearly to teach science and home economics respectively, remember the nature of the merger between the two sports rivals distinctly. “Herb [Bergquist] and I would love to look out from room 224 out on the bus parking lot, it was exciting to see the rivalry playing out in front of us,” Mr. Colclough opines wryly recalling the initial interactions between the manufacturing town students of Ockawamick with the farming community of Roe Jan.

Similarly, Mrs. Colclough recalls the early morning raids on the school announcements by members of the Ockawamick Hornet’s nest. In reality, the 1969 merger was more than just the forced alliance of bitter sports rivals, it was just the beginning of a nearly twenty year-long struggle for the education of every student of Taconic Hills that would test the will of the community and the endurance of the educators tasked with leading it.

The tipping point and the breakthrough

What ensued following the merger was nearly three decades of “make-do” education, a pressure cooker of state expectation, and a wasteland of resources. The staff at Roe Jan were tasked with improvisational modes of teaching and a reliance on their fellow educators to push through the curriculum. The advance of technology and the modernization of the home computer forced Roe Jan to expand its educational borders even further. Flora Bergquist recalls the first computer classes taught at Roe Jan originating from a school bus, “They fixed the mainframe into the bus and the aisles were converted to computer stations.”
During the period between 1970 and 1987 six proposals were made to build a new school, one that would be large enough to house both former districts, six proposals were rejected. Roe Jan’s space problems extend far back before 1987, until 1977 the district mitigated the issue by spreading the student body over several outside facilities including churches, the Masonic Temple in Hillsdale, Clara Harder Hall, and the old Copake School. During the early 1980s the growing student population and the lack of supporting classrooms ballooned and the problem of physical space started coming to a head. Classes were consistently quite large making the student-to-teacher ratio effectively incongruent with the state requirements for student proficiency, twenty six children in Kindergarten class, for example, was common.

New York regents mandates also put the squeeze on educators and the district itself as they limited student participation in Vocational Educational classes, an educational program that had previously allowed many students to attend BOCES without having to concern themselves with certain graduation requirements. The compulsion to pull more students back to their appointed public school forced Roe Jan to adopt severe and unorthodox locations for classroom accommodations, including entry ways, closets, even bathrooms, and the advent of the mobile class, where teachers literally taught arts and sciences on wheels using carts from the technology and home ec rooms to carry supplies and lesson plans. Lynn Colclough’s home economics course was subsequently taught on wheels, “I had all my stuff on a cart, I can remember pushing my stuff around and teaching in any room available. Coordinating with other teachers about classroom availability was so important.”

In 1987, then governor Mario Cuomo included in his State of the State speech a call for the gradual opening of pre-kindergarten classes statewide. He told the New York legislature, “We should find a way to expand [pre-k enrollment] so that it goes beyond just the disadvantaged population to the whole population.” Despite the magnanimity of the idea, enacting a statewide decree of an additional population of students meant the potential for an influx of children into a school that was already experiencing severe space problems. A projection from the 1987 proposal for a new building suggested the need for as many as ten additional classrooms to accommodate potentially 150 new students based on the governor’s proposed requirement. In fact based on the committees projection for the next decade, student enrollment was forecasted to increase by 356 students, or 22%. The specially appointed 1987 committee began to notice that classes in lower grades were growing in size, thus the projected increase in overall population over the course of the next decade began to be perceived with a growing sense of urgency.

Once again state mandates and changes to graduation requirements created the impetus for more course offerings, including a foreign language requirement in junior high, shop class became a requirement for junior high girls and home economics for junior high boys. In an effort to meet the pressing need for space, the district resolved itself to endure conditions that were not only unfit for a learning environment, but barely met safety code regulations. The cramped, noisy conditions were impossible to navigate from an educators perspective and teachers often had to be ready to move from room to room in order to clear the way for the next incoming instructor. On top of all these internal struggles, the school board was also aware that both Roe Jan and its sister school Ockawamick were in need of significant structural upgrades.

In 1986 the board hired Leo A. Soucy Associates, a firm hired to assess problems within the district and recommend solutions that would benefit the students, staff, and taxpayers. In a concluding report handed over in February of 1987, the firm stated incredulously, “In our long, varied and extensive experiences in working in and with hundreds of school districts, seldom have we seen so many problems in a single district.” Needless to say the recommendation for the construction was pushed with more vigor than ever before.

Finally, in the summer of 1987, the Board of Education voted in favor, after over six proposals in nearly two decades, for the construction of a new school building and put together three committees in charge of the planning. Incredibly, it had been nearly two decades before the last ditch effort for a new building, a successful last pitch was approved, that the original plan to build a new high school had already formed. Fifty-six acres were purchased by the district in 1969 at the intersection of Route 23 and County Route 11A for the purposes of constructing a new building – thirty years before any student would step foot into the twnty-first century Taconic Hills school as we know it today.

Roe Jan’s future shrouded in mystery

The 1999 graduating class would prove to be the last of its kind at the Roe Jan building. Despite the massive undertaking accomplished by members of the Roe Jan community to build the new school, the decommissioning of both Ockawamick and Roe Jan in 2001 proved to be a sad moment for everyone. “It was just a sad time for every resident that grew up in Roe Jan,” says Mrs. Colclough, who, along with her husband Jim, had at least one member of the family in every graduating class at Roe Jan.

What exists in the aftermath of Roe Jan closing its doors can be found deep within the fibers of the small town rumor mill. Over the years potential buyers have cropped up only on the periphery, a home for troubled youth here, a senior living center there. Roe Jan’s lack of suitors remains a symbol of its sentimental importance to the community, the citizens of the Roe Jan area are protective of the building’s potential future, however it is this same sense of parental ownership that is perhaps responsible for the building’s current state of neglect. The building is currently listed at an asking price of $2.9 million and Klemm Real Estate is the real estate company representing the property. The hope of restoration it is still a possibility even after two decades of isolation, Hillsdale town supervisor, and former student at Roe Jan, Peter Cipkowski says simply with confidence, “It can be done.”

Cipkowski’s optimism is perhaps not misplaced either, for less than thirty miles away a similar restoration has already been successfully accomplished. Dubbed “The School in Kinderhook, NY,” artist Jack Shainman has reestablished a 1929 Federal Revival school by converting it into an art exhibition gallery. Architect Antonio Jimenez Torrecillas reimagined the gymnasium by converting it into a 5,000-square-foot exhibition space. Even the five acres surrounding the property are used for outdoor sculptures.

Memories are the foundation of the human experience, and to save Roe Jan in 2019 is to preserve the collective seventy-six year experience of a community no matter what the the building is ultimately used for. Like tapestry woven into the fabric of time, Roe Jan will forever be a reflection of the community it represents. The waters of the Roe Jan kill still flow with as much life as they ever have like the memory of the names that have etched themselves into the worn bricks: Bergquist, Colclough, Atwood, Fournier, Herrington, Preusser, Lampila, and Keough.

It is a building that has cultivated so many memories and wrapped its loving arms around so many esteemed members of the community that it would be impossible to attempt to justify their contributions in just one story. Women like Bette Gallup who served as a shining example of female leadership, or Coach Shoemaker whose leadership and dignity on and off the ballfield pervade for so many in their daily lives. It is true, Roe Jan is a memory now, but its heart beats within the people of the area, those who remember the now cracked hallway tiles being a mosaic of construction paper and hundreds of five-fingered turkeys lining the walls during Thanksgiving. The scratched-out names in pencil on both sides of a catalog card in Mr. Tiger’s library, the thrill of climbing the wings of the cement dragon…

Though it sits in idle silence, Roe Jan will forever embody the heart of education, and the spirit of endurance.