Old Fairfield Seminary

The Most Famous of the Four Old-Time Academies of Herkimer County

by Silas C. Kimm

Published in The Evening Times, Little Falls, NY, 1946

engraving of Fairfield Academy

I deem it a privilege to bring to my readers an account of one of those teachers that for more than a half century moulded the characters of the thousands of young men and women, all of whom still living recall him with veneration and filial affection.

Professor James M. Hall, whom the students called Prof. "Jimmy", was born in Middleville in 1832, a descendant of sturdy, colonial stock. His great grandfather was a lieutenant in both the French and Indian War and in the Revolution. Six of this man's children settled in the southern part of the town of Fairfield. One of these was William Hall, grandfather, and his son, Zenas Hall, was the father of the subject of this sketch. Zenas Hall was a carpenter and wheelwright by trade. Two of the Halls, great uncles of Prof. Hall, were noted stone masons in their day. They built several buildings in the early village of Little Falls. The building that stood for many years at the corner of Main and Ann streets was a monumnet to the skill of these oldtime masons. Thus it will be seen our teacher "Jimmy" inherited his mechanical ability from a long line of skilled artisans. To this, too, may be traced much of his ability as a teacher of the natural sciences. Crude indeed, were the home-made instruments with which he taught us natural philosophy, (now called "physics"), astronomy, and geology. He extended our imaginations into the realm of the mystical to make up for the lack of material symbols.

Open-mouthed and wide-eyed we country swains and lassies sat in the old laboratory and listened to stories of the celestial bodies, or the atoms and molecules of mother earth, or the laws which govern the universe. Prof. Hall taught us to look thro nature upward to nature's God. Sitting at the feet of such a teacher our young minds responded to the influence of a man who had the vision of great things, and who seemed divinely sent to give this vision to the men and women destined to have a share in the great drama which is played on the world stage.

Previous to 1832 Eatonsbush was larger and more prosperous than Middleville, but about 1810 a bridge was built across the West Canada Creek which gave the latter village a great advantage. In 1838, when Prof. Hall was 6 years of age, his parents moved to the fast growing village of Little Falls. Here he attended school in the old stone building which stood back of the present Snyder Hotel. William D. Gray was his old time teacher, and scores of his boys and girls became active participants in the social and political life of the Mohawk Valley. On the hill above the schoolhouse stood the old Octagon Church, which residents called the "Pepperbox". The exterior was completed in 1796, the interior not till many years later. It must have been deserted by 1840, because Prof. Hall related how he and his schoolmates played in the old church and how they slammed the pew doors to hear the echo in the big auditorium. He said that years later a stone was set up to mark the site of this ancient edifice. Few people of the village had clocks in those early days so a bell was rung early in the morning and later for school hours and at 6 p.m. to tell the villagers the time of day. The bell which served the people for a clock so many years hung in the old Presbyterian church that stood on the corner where now is located the big Burrell plant.

Somewhere on the north side of Main Street, not far from the site of the Chapman book store, stood a large building called "Mechanics' Hall", which housed stores and a printing press. One day little Jimmy ventured up the stairway of this old building to come face to face with a huge panther. Jimmy let out a yell and fled. Later he learned the panther, which had been caught in the northern wilds, had been stuffed to place on exhibition. Some years later Mechanics' Hall burned and Jimmy had the pleasure of attending his first fire.

Among the old schoolmates and acquaintances of Prof. Hall's boyhood days in Little Falls were Darwin Chase, Andrew Wetherwax, who kept the Cottage Hotel that later burned; George Cooper, A. Spencer and James Wheeler, son of Dr. Wheeler, a graduate of West Point; Henry Petrie, son of Solomon Petrie, who owned the corner where the Grange store stands. In the garden back of the present store site was a mulberry tree, from which the boys picked luscious fruit. Back of the garden was an old barn where the youngsters established a menagerie, which did not prove a financial success.

The last of Prof. Jimmy's Little Falls boyhood friends was Rodney Whitman, who lived to be an old landmark still remembered by many of the city's residents. Rodney was the son of Samuel Whitman, an old time teacher of select schools. At one time he had a private school in the basement of the Baptist church. Rodney Whitman's mother was one of the Fairfield Arnolds, a family known for their splendid physical appearance.

At one time the professor's uncle, George Hall, formed a partnership with Shepard and Babbitt. Years later Babbitt's name became a household word, and Babbitt's soaps were a universal cleaner.

Prof. Hall outlived all his playmates. He saw the struggling village on the falls of the Mohawk grow into a live, industrial city. When he was a boy there were no buildings on Furnace Street and only a building or two west of it. No buildings on Monroe and Gansevoort streets beyond Ann Street. The boys went to what is now Gansevoort Street to drive the cows and pick beechnuts and acorns. Warcap's pasture was where the park is now and extended on eastward. The bars of the pasture is where Gansevoort Street now opens, and the little brook ran open down thro the village and emptied into the basin. Judge Benton lived on the corner and the old hotel was built over his residence. This later became the Girvan House, which is now the Snyder Hotel. The old Girvan House was a famous hostelry, patronized by old time merchantile "drummers" and political bigwigs.

Prof. Hall told of watching the early railroad trains that rolled on wooden rails covered with thin plates of iron. The cars were not much larger than a concord coach and the engines were tiny affairs compared to the monsters of the present day.

He related that when he was 12 years of age he saw the old stone academy of Little Falls in process of erection and recalled seeing the stone pillars lying on the ground before they were put in place. He attended school for a short time in this new building.

When Prof. Hall was 17, in the year 1849, his people moved back to Fairfield, where he engaged with his father in carpenter work spring and fall, attending Fairfield Academy during the winter terms. He taught district school for several terms in the surrounding farm sections. When he was 22 he started to take a course in medicine, but close confinement to study injured his health and he sought work less confining.

In 1856, when Prof. Hall was 24, he married Mary C. Green. She died in 1869, leaving two sons, John G. and Charles D. Hall. In 1875 he married Laura Tucker, daughter of Captain Benjamin Tucker of New Bedford, Mass. Mrs. Hall was a teacher of art and many of her pupils' paintings in oil are still to be found in Fairfield homes. Mrs. Hall died in 1925.

Prof. Hall said that W.H. Reese was the principal when he began his long career as teacher in the seminary. In those days it was expected that the principal would sustain the dignity of his office by teaching either Latin or Greek. It so happened that Mr. Reese could not teach Greek and Prof. Hall had been engaged to teach Latin. An exchange was made and so Greek was added to the other many accomplishments of the young professor, and the principal sustained the dignity of his office by taking charge of the Latin department. The succeeding years saw a constant change of principals, some of them remaining only a single year. About the year 1880 Stephen Tompkins and Prof. Hall became associate principals. The former acted as business manager, while the latter took charge of the educational department. They were succeeded by a Methodist preacher who knew more about theology than he did about running a boarding school. The boys played all sorts of pranks and it fell to Prof. Hall to pour oil on the troubled waters. One year was enough for the Rev. Babcock. He was followed by five different principals, some of whom remained less than a year. During all these changes and reverses Prof. Hall was the balance wheel that kept the works in motion. His sense of humor saved many a bad situation when the pranks of the students drove inexperienced principals to distraction.

With each new principal the professor would ride the surrounding country introducing the new man and drumming up students. Looking back over the years it is plain to see that the old school probably would have died before 1880 had it not been for the loyalty of that versitile genius who at various times taught in every department of the school save music and art. And even in 1885, when the energetic D.D. Warne assumed the principalship it was the helpful advice of Prof. Hall that started the greatest revival of the school in the latter part of the 19th century. For a half century James M. Hall was a living symbol of Fairfield Seminary. Every thought of the old school brings to mind that benign character who reigned supreme in the old laboratory.

It is a wonderful thing to have been the teacher of successful men and women and such Prof. Hall unquestionably was. He had a keen insight into the characters of young men and women. He traveled the road to their hearts, and he knew all the landmarks along the way. He made no distinction between the rich and the poor, between creeds and colors. He was kind, generous, charitable and broad minded. Simple in his tastes, his riches consisted of the friendships which he made. He gave wise, worthy counsel and every student knew that Prof. Hall was his friend. The inspiration of his influence went with his pupils thro all their later years, to cease only when they, too, entered the silent halls of death. Truly, Prof. James M. Hall was a great man and so long as there is a single living alumnus of old Fairfield, the memory of his good deeds will survive.

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Created 10/22/00
Copyright © 1946 The Evening Times, Little Falls, NY
Copyright © 2000 Jane Dieffenbacher
All Rights Reserved.