CHATHAM TWP. — The first formal dress Judith Summers bought was the one she wore to a Chatham Alumni Association gathering.
“Oh yes, we had dancing after dinner and the program at the gatherings,” she said, paging through a gently worn copy of The Leader, the school’s yearbook for 1922-23.
She recalled the Bradley Orchestra provided the music and “Kenny Bradley’s mom played the piano.”
The evening of music and memories shared by former Chatham School students and teachers is a tradition that spans a century and will culminate in the 100th alumni gathering Saturday at the VFW Hall.
“This is the 100th because they didn’t meet every year at first,” Summers said as she pointed out past township residents in the yearbook.
Summers, 86, graduated in 1942 and said “somewhere along the way,” she became the keeper of the paper path that leads back through time to the gatherings that started May 18, 1901, the year of the association’s inception.
“I went to school there, and we just inherited the school things,” she said.
She and other former Chatham grads have kept the custom alive, sending out the invitations and taking registration for the event.
“I’m amazed,” said Bob Summers, 76, Judith’s husband, shaking his head as they sat at the dining room table looking over the carefully kept scrapbooks. “The school closed (as a 12-grade school) in 1951. How many years ago is that? And this is still going on.”
He slid a three-ring binder across the bright floral oilcloth table cover, and Judith picked it up.
She opened it to a class photo and gently tapped a finger against the image of a woman standing with the students.
“That’s Emma Webber,” Judith said. “She taught first and second grades.”
Webber is something of a township legend.
She began her 41-year career in a one-room school, continued teaching at Academy Hall and finished at the brick school that now serves as the township’s community center.
In most settlements, pioneer children met for class in a log schoolhouse until something better could be built, and Chatham was no exception.
As the township grew, trustees established eight sub-districts, each with its own board responsible for hiring a teacher and arranging for firewood, school supplies and maintenance.
In 1871, Academy Hall, a two-story frame schoolhouse, opened at the township center under private ownership, but later the state legislature transferred ownership to township trustees.
Most of the one-room schools in the sub-districts closed by 1916, and students transferred to classes in the main school in Chatham.
The township built a brick school building in 1921, when state inspectors recommended a new construction to replace Academy Hall.
Homer Kohli served as superintendent when the new school year started in 1922 and retired when the last high school class graduated in 1951.
“It housed all 12 grades,” Bob said, adding the brick building continued as an elementary school until 2004.
He said a history of the school system will be included in this year’s program.
Judith’s father, Don Williams, had a brief stint as a kid-wagon driver, transporting children in a horse-drawn bus to school.
Her mother, Lillian Beach, taught grades five, six, seven and eight in the Garver District school, near what is now Letha House Park.
“She was a teacher who rode her horse down to the schoolyard, started the fire in the stove before the kids got there,” Bob said. “And she might have all the kids from the same family be in the same class.”
The early alumni programs bear witness to a simpler time, when class members sang songs and presented essays and debates as part of the evening’s entertainment.
Originally, the PTA provided the meal.
The fare from one of the first gatherings in 1904 included a pairing of strawberries and cracknels — crisp bits of fried pork fat — as a first course, followed by pressed chicken, nut sandwiches, creamed potatoes, pickles, jelly and coffee.
A third course consisted of salmon, wafers and cheese, with a dessert course of cake, candies, ice cream and fruit.
“And they listed olives with the desserts,” Judith said with a little laugh, pointing to it before she turned to another page of past programs.
Today’s menu is buffet style.
“You know, roast beef and ham, green beans, scalloped potatoes, salads,” said Bob. “For years it was potluck, and one year I think there must have been 20 pots of baked beans. Or maybe hundreds of deviled eggs.”
When the PTA turned in its bean pots, the VFW Auxiliary picked up the call to the spatulas in the early 1960s.
“The PTA served the meal in the school auditorium,” Judith said. “At first, folks brought their crystal, china and silverware, but then we used those pale green restaurant-style dishes. I remember packing them up and moving them over to the VFW.”
Now the Chatham Historical Society puts on the dinner and opens the doors of the schoolhouse museum and historical society museum for the occasion.
This year they expect about 80 or 90 guests to attend, including Harold Dull, who graduated in 1931.
Dull is flying in from Georgia to dine with alumni and catch up on all the local news.
“We used to worry about providing entertainment, but they don’t want entertainment,” Bob said. “They want to sit around and talk. They want to go over the old sports teams, hear the old cheers.”
The couple doesn’t consider it unusual that people are willing to travel hundreds of miles to the place they once called home.
“Today we don’t have the connections that families who came into the township from New England had,” Judith said. “The residuals — us — are still here. We’re still family.”
Contact Judy A. Totts at email@example.com.