This Woman of Courage profile was written and produced by the St. Lawrence County, NY Branch of the American Association of University Women.
May Eleanor Richmire and the Pine Grove School no longer exist, but the memory of both is still cherished by many Massena, NY citizens. Miss Richmire came to Pine Grove School in 1911. She was born March 12, 1882 in Toronto, Ontario. She taught second grade there and continued to do this after she became principal of the school in 1911. In addition, from 1921 to 1948 she was director of the Department of Adult and Immigrant Education at the Pine Grove Evening School. This was the night school which many of the parents came to learn the English language and basic facts about American history and government to they could become naturalize citizens. Miss Richmire and her teachers had a remarkable influence upon many immigrant families who settled in the Pine Grove area, near their jobs at the new aluminum plant. In 1897 Massena, a small but flourishing farming village, received its first large group of immigrants from Europe. They came from New York City by train because the St. Lawrence Power Company had jobs for them. They were needed to dig a canal to connect the Grasse River to the St. Lawrence to provide a source of hydroelectric power. The Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa), formerly known as the Pittsburgh Reduction Company, had contracted to buy a portion of the electricity to be produced. Alcoa built a factory and began producing aluminum in 1903.
The rapidly increasing work force for the new aluminum plant needed housing. In 1904 the company established the Pine Grove Realty Company to manage construction and sale of houses to employees. Workers could buy these houses, which were conveniently close to the plant, or rent them until rental payments had equaled the purchase price, whereupon they obtained the deed to the property. The company also provided a recreation hall and athletic field. Longtime Massena residents still call the section of Massena up Center Street and down to North Main Street "The Grove."
The Massena School Board had to provide education for the children. Pine Grove School was built in 1906 on land given by Alcoa to the Massena School District with the stipulation that if the school were discontinued for one year, the land would revert to Alcoa. The school was described as one of the most modern and up-to-date public school buildings in this part of the state. It had a heating and ventilating system, drinking fountains and flushing toilets. Showers with hot and cold water had been installed on the boys side. The school was razed in 1960 because it could not meet current fire and safety standards. The Pine Grove school yard is now the parking lot for the Alcoa playing field.
Pine Grove School was the hub of the community for many years. The population of Massena grew rapidly during the early 1900s. By 1917 Pine Grove School was coping with as many as 72 children in a class. They started in two shifts - 8 to 11 and 12:30 to 5. Miss Richmire observed that the children of immigrant families picked up English with little or no difficulty.
For their parents, learning English was more difficult, but their motivation was keen. Desire to "become an American" was very strong in many immigrants who had left a life of poverty and little opportunity in the old country and who could already see that some of their dreams were within reach. But first they had to master the language sufficiently to pass a citizenship examination. Night school classes were large, but somehow Miss Richmire and her teachers managed to give them individual attention. One woman recalls her father telling her that if someone could not pronounce a word, "She would sit there with you until you got it right."
English language and Americanization classes were started in 1917 at the plant. Alcoa had recruited teachers from Pine Grove School for this job. In 1919 these classes were transferred to Pine Grove School, but Alcoa continued to sponsor the evening school until 1921, when The New York State Education Department assumed that responsibility.
Miss Richmire was highly praised in 1926 by the Bureau of Immigrant Education for the operation of the Americanization process in Massena. That year Miss Richmire, with a staff of six teachers, taught a total of 305 adult students. Songs and rote learning were the methods used. Some practices and rituals were introduced. Officers for the evening school were elected. These included president, vice president, secretary,treasurer, safety first director, physical director, chaplin, head usher, flag bearer and naturalization recruitment officer. There was a president for each class.
Pine Grove School, with its Department of Adult and Immigrant Education, was described as a model, one of the finest of its kind in the state. Peak enrollment was 350. At one time, more than 31 nationalities were represented at "the school for the foreign-born." For students of the Evening Classes, citizenship papers were the graduation diplomas. It is estimated that Pine Grove teachers helped about 2,000 adult students to achieve this.
May Richmire retired in 1953, after a long career in teaching. For 42 years she had been at the Pine Grove School, and for 31 of those years she also taught adults who learned English and became citizens. She died on January 1, 1955. She was buried in the Massena Center Cemetary along with other Richmires.
A letter to the editor on the occasion of the razing of the Pine Grove School in 1960 paid this tribute to Miss Richmire: "She will be remembered not only for her work with the grammar school children, but also for the hard work and wonderful inspiration she gave to those in the night school who were seeking naturalization."
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