Singular sensation: Fans of state’s old schoolhouses put spotlight on remaining structures
Published 5:24 pm, Tuesday, October 10, 2017
Melinda K. Elliott’s prey was completely static, and easily prone to capture, which is exactly what she did for six months. Her hunt, however, may ensure her finds stick around for a while, garnering the fascination and attention of others who also share her affection for the past.
“I can’t say I was surprised, but, rather, very pleased,” she says, of the discoveries she made time and time again as she traversed the state with her husband, Ray, and photographed old schoolhouses for her new book, “Connecticut Schoolhouses Through Time” (Arcadia Publishing).
A longtime docent, and the director of the historic Bullet Hill School (which was built in the 1700s in Southbury), she has helped about two decades of present-day school children and teachers learn how their counterparts managed in what were sometimes simple and spare structures, or the solid, two-story affair that is Bullet Hill. In her book, the Southbury resident tapped into her own postcard collection and pictures from historical societies around the state to show how the present-day schoolhouses looked in their day.
That the nearly 100 she captured still stand is a testament to devotion and luck, given that many were not expected to stand for more than several decades, let alone more than 300 years. By 1899, the state had 1,110 one-teacher schools, according to former state historian Christoper Collier’s book, “Connecticut Public Schools: A History, 1650-2000).” By the early 1920s, only 647 were operational and sprinkled throughout the state. By the mid- 1930s, there were 337. Eight years later, 162 were still in business. By 1955, only 23 were serving students. The last one, in the Gaylordsville section of New Milford, closed in 1967, some 225 years since it was built. It was the last one in operation in the state.
While some of the one-room (and two-room) schoolhouses managed to extend into the modern school era, many new, modern buildings were constructed around the turn of the 20th century, when the state ordered compulsory attendance for all students from 7 to 16, including girls. It gave rise to the designated room with one teacher for each grade. When old schoolhouses could no longer be used for public educational purposes or bought by towns to be used as libraries or other needs, they might be sold at auction and carted away to start a new life as a house, or a chicken coop, a church or a garage. Some had the misfortune of rotting away, neglected at the side of the road.
Those, fortunately, are not the ones Johnna Kaplan has found, though her travels have revealed some that could use some tender loving care. Similar to Elliott, Kaplan, who grew up in Westport and now lives in New London, has developed a fascination and love for these vestiges of the past. As her freelance writing career takes her around the state, she is sure to bring along a camera to capture what she finds.
“One of the first ones was in Beacon Falls,” she says. “I thought it was still rare to have one standing, even though I knew they existed around the country.”
Soon, she started finding them everywhere, and began writing about them on her blog (http://www.thesizeofconnecticut.com), or to let others know about where to find them, as well as to encourage travelers to seek them out and check them out when they turned up unexpectedly.
“In all my searching, I never found any comprehensive list, or an attempt to create one of the schools still standing, and there are quite a few left,” she says. So, she created an Instagram account, @OldSchoolCT, devoted to old schoolhouses. “I do love that they still exist and … I find they are adorable, especially the smaller ones, particularly when you have attended a big, modern school.”
The greater Danbury area, for instance, has quite a few, including the West Lane Schoolhouse in Ridgefield, built in the 1700s, and the Plumtrees Schoolhouse in Bethel that opened in 1867. The King Street School in Danbury operated from 1888 to 1939, while the White Oak District School ran from 1840 to 1941.
All the schools were different, even if the concept of the “little red schoolhouse” is a prevalent image in literature and history. Michael Day, a career educator with a long interest in history, says people did not begin to consider a distinct school architecture until the 1870s. And, traditionally, when a new school was built, it was done as cheaply as possible. They could range from 15-feet-by-35-feet to 16-by-20, to Bullet Hill School, that is 28-by-32 feet.
Day also is owner and publisher of Clippership Publications, which produces reproductions of schoolbooks and materials of the one-room schoolhouse era, such as primers and personal recollections.
As with the others who have been drawn to these structures, Day, who lives in Barkhamsted, but travels around the state for presentations, says he has always wondered what it would be like to be a teacher in an earlier age. “For many years, I collected early school books and I used to enjoy taking them into school to give the kids a better sense of what life was like in an earlier age.”
Elliott knows getting the next generation interested in the history will help to keep these structures standing. “We need to love them. We need to take care of them.”
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