FEBRUARY 2020


One April morning, a young woman from the Susquehanna Valley began teaching at the school on Nicholai Street .  On that day, neither Hicksville nor Mabel Rebecca Farley could have realized that they were embarking on an enduring and transformative relationship.

This article, which covers Miss Farley’s first twenty years in Hicksville , is the first installment in a series of Ancient Hixtory articles about her life and career.


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Background

America was overwhelmingly rural, and in rural areas, four-year high schools were rare.  Small-town schools generally taught students only through grade eight, or they offered two more optional years of instruction.  To earn a four-year diploma, one had to attend a high school in another, likely larger, town.  In Hicksville, for example, such pupils might go to Mineola or Hempstead High to finish their studies.

Of course, most older Americans had never even attended high school.  As late as the 1920s, Hicksville ’s School Board was headed by a man who had left school after the seventh grade.  Ironically, all the teachers at the village’s Union School (see below) had educations superior to his, because to teach, one had to graduate from a normal school, the forerunner of a teachers college.

In 1853, New York State established a legal structure to make high school education more readily available, especially in rural areas. A group of small towns could band together with a town that had a four-year high school, offering youth in all the towns in this educational “union” the opportunity to earn high-school diplomas.

For whatever reason, the law-makers named such groups “Union Free School Districts.”  Any authorized feeder school in such districts was called a “ Union School .”


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Mabel

While she was still a child, Mabel Farley decided to someday become a teacher, and she never lost sight of that goal.  Around 1900, her public school studies completed, she enrolled at the normal school in Bloomsburg , Pennsylvania , about thirty miles from her home in the little town of White Deer .  She must have been a dedicated student, for later, at her graduation ceremony at Bloomsburg, she was praised both for her teaching ability and for her academic prowess.

Bloomsburg State Normal School, c.1920
https://guides.library.bloomu.edu/c.php?g=318739&p=2205990

Qualified, and showing much promise, she returned to her home town, and soon began her first teaching job.  She was still in White Deer several years later, where the 1910 U.S. Census recorded that both Mabel and her younger sister Lera were public school teachers.  It is easy to think that her older sister’s success had inspired the younger Miss Farley’s choice of career.

Mabel still had the passion for learning that had helped her win accolades at Bloomsburg.  Although Penn State was about seventy miles away, she had begun to study there, working towards a Bachelors degree.

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Hicksville , Meet Mabel

Of all the teachin’ joints in all the towns in all the world, how did Mabel Farley happen to walk into Hicksville ’s?

The simple answer is that she applied to an employment agency for teachers.  The likely reasons for her choosing Hicksville are a bit more complicated.

She was blessed with exceptional gifts, and doubtless she wanted to make the most of them.  How much opportunity for her own growth lay ahead where she had been teaching?  How quickly could she acquire a Bachelors degree, and then a Masters, if she were to continue at White Deer?  Evidently, she had gained enough confidence to try teaching elsewhere – perhaps anywhere, if it was a place where her talents would be recognized.  Her own continuing education mattered a great deal, and any new teaching job would have to be reasonably close to a university, at which she could continue her own studies.  She also would want an opportunity earn her way into more responsible duties.

Salary would not have been an issue, for she was not one to live lavishly.  Moreover, given her demonstrated abilities and her experience, she could expect any job she was offered to provide a decent income.  The opportunity for her to learn and advance would have mattered more.

Huntington Long-Islander, April 7, 1911

It is interesting to note the responsibilities that went with
being a Trustee on a small-town Board of Education.

Newspaper articles from this era indicate that Long Island teachers often were “imported” from upstate New York or from rural areas in other states, where normal schools tended to be located.  Hicksville already had been willing to hire young women from such places.  To have an applicant from one more small town like White Deer would not have surprised the Board of Education.

Most likely, Mabel’s first reaction to the thought of teaching in Hicksville was to learn whatever she could about the place.  The agency, which may have placed other teachers there, probably gave her some basic information about the school and the position.  In addition, it would have told her about Long Island’s strong agricultural economy, Hicksville’s ever-expanding Heinz factory, the convenient new trolley line, and the easy access to Manhattan – via the LIRR tunnels that had opened just months before.  The tunnels would fit in nicely with her plans.  First, because she could ride a train into Pennsylvania Station, and then take the subway to, say, New York University .  Second, because many town populations in Nassau County already were growing, as the tunnels had made commuting easier.  Schools in Nassau would need more teachers in the future, because they would have more students to teach.  Without question, being Mabel Farley, she could become a valued part of any of the schools, including Hicksville , and as “her” school grew, she would be considered for advancement.

She must have greatly impressed the members of the Hicksville School Board, for there was one aspect of her job that was not disclosed in the article excerpted above.  Perhaps it had not yet been confirmed when the article was written in April, but by the time the Union School opened the following September, it was known that Miss Farley was more than a teacher – she was also the school’s Assistant Principal.  That a woman under thirty achieved this status in 1911’s Hicksville attests to her maturity, character and exceptional abilities.


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Life at the Union School

Huntington Long-Islander, September 6, 1912

As can be seen in the above list, there was only one male in the faculty – the Principal.  In this era, this pattern – multiple female worker bees and one King Bee – was not universal, but it was widespread.  Even worse for career women, it was understood that female teachers had to remain single, so as to not disrupt schools by taking maternity absences.

The Union School actually consisted of two sections.  The first was built in 1897; its similarly-sized neighbor to the west was built in 1909.  Only two years after the school’s size was doubled, it again was too small, due to the village’s growth.  For example, classes for the eighth, ninth, and tenth grade had to be held simultaneously in a single room, with their respective teachers covering different subjects.

One of Miss Farley’s early Grade 8 classes at Nicholai Street
Nassau
Daily Review-Star, May 9, 1941

The overcrowding grew worse every year.  To gain classroom space, the School Board tried to eliminate Kindergarten, but the taxpayers rejected the idea.  Ultimately, Kindergarten was moved off-site, although no truly suitable alternate location for it was ever found.  Eventually, some senior grades used the “assembly hall” instead of class rooms; again, the space was unsuitable – and such use of an auditorium was contrary to State regulations.  Second grade was put on split-sessions, using an innovative approach that reportedly had no negative impacts.  The two teachers for the grade worked full days.  In the morning session, one of them conducted the class at an accelerated pace, while in a back corner of the room a small group of “slower learners” got special attention from the other teacher.  The afternoon session was similar, with the teachers’ roles reversed.  It was a trying time for everyone at the school.  Mabel’s position must have been exceptionally demanding, as at times she would have had to serve as a buffer for her boss.

Staff turnover was unacceptably high, with overcrowding a contributing cause.  For example, in 1912-1913, there were twelve teachers on staff.  As of March, only five of them were willing to commit to returning to their jobs in September, four were committed to leaving, and the remaining five might be rehired if they later were willing and available.  The Principal, who would be the most difficult to replace if he left, likely was getting tired of dealing with both the School Board and with parents about problems, especially overcrowding.  He was granted a three-week extension to decide, during which he probably tried very hard to find another job.

Huntington Long-Islander, March 7, 1913

Let’s try to put the salary figures above into context.  U.S. Census data indicates that at this time, the national average income for a male worker was about $680, and women averaged about half of that.  In this context, the salaries listed above seem excellent – but in the New York metropolitan area, both salaries and costs were higher than the national average – a given income did not go as far in Hicksville as it would, say, in rural Kentucky.  One indication that the teachers’ salaries, while good, were not exceptionally high for the region is that many Hicksville teachers lived as boarders in homes or rooming houses.  At first, for example, Mabel Farley boarded in the home of School Trustee Wetterau.  Other teachers instead banded into small groups, and together shared a rented accommodation.

With regard to Farley’s own educational aspirations, at the time, tuition for a full-time student at NYU was $150 a year.  Prorating that figure downward for part-time students might still have left a figure that seemed substantial to a teacher whose annual income was $800 or less.

The 1915-1916 school year saw a development that probably will surprise many readers: Lera Farley, mentioned earlier as Mabel’s younger sister, came to Hicksville as a teacher. 

Lera Martha Farley
Devlin-Yard Family Tree, Ancestry.com

Huntington Long-Islander, September 3, 1915
Lera’s name is mistakenly given as ‘Vera’

Why did she come to Hicksville to teach?  The Union School , as it often did in these years, may have had an unexpected late vacancy suitable for an experienced teacher.  Or, as this was to be Lera’s final year of teaching (i.e., she would marry in 1916; Mabel would serve as her Maid of Honor), the two sisters might have thought it would be nice to work together again.  Or perhaps it was simply that the idea of spending some of her free time in New York appealed to Lera.

Alas, the overcrowding would continue far too long.  It took more than a decade (and an intervention by the State of New York) before the people of Hicksville agreed to pay for the construction of adequate new classroom space.  Until then, the faculty of the Union School – at least those among them who chose to stay at their jobs – had to improvise as best they could.  Although Principals would change, Miss Farley would patiently remain the Assistant Principal for fourteen years.


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Achievements for Hicksville,
And Also for Miss Farley

Early on, Mabel was an advocate of the town’s creating its own four-year high school program.  Support grew rapidly, and such a program was introduced in the autumn of 1914.  She would always remain proud of the role she had played in establishing true high school education in Hicksville.

Huntington Long-Islander, May 2, 1913

I believe that the cost estimate quoted here – $1,000 per annum – refers not to the cost per taxpayer,
but instead to the net total increase in the village’s school budget.

In hindsight, it seems odd that the School Board was willing to expand the number of classes in the building without also making plans to add more classrooms.  As the newspaper article states, adding the new grades would mean more Hicksville students in the school, and also adding students from Bethpage and Farmingdale, which still lacked their own high schools.

The 1920s brought significant changes.  New classroom space finally became a reality, first in 1925 with the opening of a purpose-built secondary school on Jerusalem Avenue, which originally housed both Junior and Senior high school classes (the structure, much expanded over the years, now is the home of Hicksville Middle School).  You can read about how it came to be built in the May 2018 Ancient Hixtory, which is available online by clicking this link: http://hixnews.com/1805/Wencer.htm

In 1927, even more space was created by the construction of a new primary school on East Street.

The decade was also a period of great personal achievement for Mabel Farley.

At long last, she completed her undergraduate work, and was awarded a Bachelor of Science degree by New York University in 1923.

Two years later, with the opening of the new high school, she became Hicksville’s first female Principal.  It is probably relevant that George Duke, elected President of the Board of Education on the basis of his intention to finally end high faculty turnover in Hicksville, sanctioned her appointment.  She had a knack for dealing with people.

In 1929, Miss Farley attained another milestone which she had long sought, earning a Masters degree, again at NYU.

Nassau Daily Review-Star
May 9, 1941

 

Despite her having accomplished so many of her lifetime goals by 46, she did not lose her determination to excel – nor did she let the school system sit on its heels.  Speaking some years later at an event that marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of Hicksville’s four-year high school program, in part she said:

We cannot be content with what we have accomplished.  We must dedicate ourselves to a speedy beginning for another twenty-five years of progress.  We must be united in promoting hopefulness in our youth.  We must make a concerted effort to uncover new opportunities for our graduates… [who] must make the necessary adjustments to the situations in which they find themselves when leaving school.


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End of this Installment

 


Note that the picture of Miss Farley used at the beginning of this article appeared in the Nassau Daily Review-Star on May 9, 1941.  Reportedly, it was taken in Hicksville shortly after she first arrived.  Like all the photographs used here, it has been digitally altered by the author.