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James Ricalton brought the world to his Maplewood students
By Valerie Davia
Among the murals gracing Maplewood's Town Hall is a lovely scene of happy school children enjoying the world outside their classroom doors on a warm spring day. Their teacher, James Ricalton, instructs from his perch on a log bench while his students investigate his plate camera, photographs, and artifacts brought home from one of Ricalton's many journeys. The students sit in what is now known as Ricalton Square. The former school building rests on the site of the current post office.
James Ricalton was Maplewood's first permanent teacher, and for 20 years, he made his mark on our educational system, leaving "an unforgettable impression on the memory of every child who came under his teaching," according to Maplewood Past & Present. A native of Waddington, NY, Ricalton arrived in 1871 to teach for 12 weeks at a salary of $200. Teachers were hired per 12-week term in those days, and very few stayed around longer. In fact, it was not unusual for students to have three or four different teachers within a single year.
Ricalton changed things. He proved to be an "able teacher," according to MP&P, described as having "marked individuality and character." As the only teacher for several years, he had as many as 80 students and taught them everything from reading to science to Latin, at times also in evening classes in order to accommodate everyone. Despite his wide appeal, he had his ups and down with the school board, whose members voted to dismiss him in 1873. Later that same year, they not only changed their minds, but also retracted their term-by-term hiring policy and offered Ricalton a job for the next full year. By 1878, Ricalton had enough clout to hire an assistant. While he continued to teach, he also took on the position of principal, which he held for the following 13 years.
James Ricalton's passion was travel and his avocation, photography. Every summer, while on vacation from his school responsibilities, he embarked on journeys to places little known by most Americans, such as Iceland, the Amazon, and the St. Petersburg region of Russia.
"From his travels," wrote local historian Joseph Veach Noble, "he brought back thousands of photographs, specimens of minerals, articles made by natives, and curios . These extensive travels gave him a breadth of vision which he imparted to his students, thus opening their eyes to the world beyond their little valley."
In order to transport his photography equipment to remote places, Ricalton invented what he called a dormo-cart, a wheelbarrow-like apparatus that he pushed along by day and slept in by night. It was built in such a way that during rainy weather, he could stand in a well in the middle and continue walking under the cart's cover.
While Ricalton's treks raised a number of eyebrows among provincial townspeople, his achievements were not lost on local inventor Thomas A. Edison. Working to perfect his first incandescent lamp, Edison asked Ricalton to search the Far East for a bamboo filament to use in his new electric light bulb. Ricalton jumped at the opportunity and the school board granted him a leave of absence. Ricalton left Maplewood on February 22, 1888, reaching Ceylon on April 1st after sailing from Liverpool through the Suez Canal.
Ricalton wrote, "Three and a half months were spent in that Eden of tropical luxuriance, where nearly 100 different species of bamboo and palms were found and tested . I visited every part of the island, often sleeping in the dense jungle by camp-fire, where insect pests are multitudinous and merciless. The most revolting specimen was the land leech, twenty of which, mostly filled with my blood, were removed from my body after emerging from the jungle."
Despite the discomforts, Ricalton continued from Ceylon to India, Singapore, China and Japan, becoming an expert in the differing properties of various bamboo woods. He returned to Maplewood exactly one year after he left, and was "met at the Maplewood station platform by my faithful students." He delivered hundreds of samples to Edison, together with his recommendation for the two species he felt most suitable. For nearly nine years (until Edison discovered something better), all Edison lamps were made with the bamboo filaments that Ricalton discovered.
Ricalton returned to school as principal for a couple of years, but his wanderlust eventually proved stronger than his love for education.
In 1891 he resigned to become a photographer and war correspondent. For 15 years he photographed and recorded events such as the Boxer Rebellion in China, the installation of Edward VII as Emperor of India, and the Russo-Japanese War. His pictures earned him numerous honors and many were used to illustrate textbooks.
Not quite retired in 1909 at age 65, Ricalton walked from Capetown to Cairo, photographing Africa's vast and abundant wildlife. In 1912, Edison once again employed Ricalton, this time to test his new motion-picture camera. Ricalton and his son Lomond took it to East Africa where they experimented with photographing animals in action. Tragically, Lomond contracted typhoid fever and died after two weeks in a British hospital.
That trip proved to be Ricalton's last. He returned to his family in Maplewood, and built a wing onto his Valley Street home to house his lifetime of collections. He became something of a local celebrity and his home was an open museum to all who wished to visit and learn.
At age 80 Ricalton returned to Waddington, NY, and spent his final five years in the familiar environment of his birthplace. His daughter Kathryn celebrated his achievements in The Life of James Ricalton: "He had traveled six times around the world, had photographed four wars, added much knowledge to the craft of picture taking, and played an important part in the development of science and exploration. He died October 28, 1929, at the age of 85 years, having lived the full life, wherein most of his dreams came true."
In her youth, Valerie Davia experienced the rigors of camping in California's Sierra Nevada and Colorado's Rocky Mountains, and traveled to the relatively exotic destinations of Botswana and rural Mexico. While she still relishes a lengthy hike, she now prefers trekking that includes a comfortable bed, a hot shower and a good dinner.