Little District Schoolhouse circa 1897. Built about 1883 at a cost "not to exceed $350," this one-room schoolhouse served Topsham's Cunningham or Watson Hill District. It was still in operation as late as 1911. The tall student in the white dress in the center of the front row is Nettie Wright (Pierson) the author's wife's grandmother. (Town of Topsham)
“Selectmen of towns to have a vigilant eye over their neighbors, to see that none of them shall suffer so much barbarism in any of their families as not to endeavor to teach their children and apprentices so much learning as may enable them to read perfectly the English tongue.” NH Provincial Legislature, June 14, 1642
Education was crucial in early New England as it enabled people to read the Bible. By 1777 New Hampshire and Vermont required primary schools in most towns.
In 1782, Rev. Gershom Lyman spoke before the Vermont Legislature expressing, “the belief of the majority of Vermonters when he referred to ignorance as ‘a natural source of error, self-conceit and contracted, groveling sentiment.’”
Randolph Roth’s study of the early Connecticut River Valley of Vermont found education in high regard. “Education promised to create an electorate that would chose its representatives wisely.” Roth concluded that by the turn of the 19th century, “the valley had one of the highest literacy rates in the world, approximately 95 percent for men and 85 percent for women.”
That high rate of literacy was fostered at least until the beginning of the 20th century in small, usually one-room, district schools. The following includes just some local examples of this historic practice.
In local towns, such as Bradford, Orford, and Corinth, the earliest schools were held in homes or barns. In 1770, Orford voted to hire its first schoolmaster. In 1773, Haverhill established its first primary school. East Topsham built it first schoolhouse around 1810.
In 1782, Vermont provided that towns could create neighborhood self-funding and self-governing school districts. New Hampshire followed suit. Each district was “a little independent commonwealth with certain defined boundaries.”
In local towns, the number of districts increased with population growth, especially in previously unpopulated areas. Haverhill began with 4 districts in 1786, added 5 more by 1815, eventually reaching 20. By the early 1800s, Bradford was divided into 17 districts and several fractional districts. The latter were districts that shared a school with adjoining towns.
The district was responsible for the construction of a schoolhouse, usually within walking distance from most homes. Sometimes, property for a new school was donated by a local landowner as property near the school increased in value. Terms of up to 12 weeks were held 3 times a year, with timing determined by farming practices.
Early schoolhouses lacked many of the amenities of later schools. Initially, students sat on benches and, later, in straight-back desks. At first, there were no blackboards, globes, or teaching supplies.
Student were expected to bring their own textbooks, which often meant little uniformity in books. Students brought wood for the stove to heat what were often cold, drafty buildings. Schools were without running water for drinking or toilets.
Initially, only Vermont taxpayers who had school-age children were expected to pay on a per-student basis. The early practice of allowing taxes to be paid in labor or produce was abandoned and, by 1864, all property owners were expected to pay school taxes.
A district school committee made decisions about school operation., including securing a teacher, usually at the lowest possible price. “The system was the occasion of more local quarrels than anything else in town.”
In many local towns, the population peaked in the 1850s, and Vermont schools had an average of 38 students. In 1860, there were 2,591 school districts in Vermont with a reduced average of 29 scholars in grades 1-8. In 1867, Vermont required attendance for students up to 14 years of age. While district students could stay beyond 16 years of age, few did. In 1854, New Hampshire had 2,294 district schools.
As the population continued to decline in the latter half of the 19th century, the average number of students also declined. In 1884, there were 103 Vermont district schools with six or fewer students and 420 districts with between 6 and 11. School were sometimes closed briefly until students were available or closed permanently. Reduction in the number of students in a district school did not result in a similar reduction in fixed expenses.
These factors led to a decline in the number of district schools. In 1900, there were just over 1,500 district schools in Vermont, by 1920, there were 1,000, and by the 1950s, about 500. Abandoned school houses were often dismantled or sold. By the beginning of the 21st century, the number of one-room schools in the two states had dwindled to single digits.
This was especially pronounced in rural districts that became underpopulated. The one-room school in Orford’s Quintown district is an example. In 1894, there were only seven students, the following year, five, and by 1900, it was abandoned.
Until the late 19th century, there were no state certification requirements for teachers. Generally, anyone who had completed the equivalent of high school could be hired as a district school teacher. While there were men hired as schoolmasters, most teachers were women.
In early Newbury, teachers received 50 cents a week. Teachers were expected to board with families either on a weekly or full-term basis. In some districts, the housing of the teacher was bid off to the lowest bidder, which did not always provide the best of accommodations for the educators..
This was the description of one early Newbury teacher: “She was not incompetent, however, having learned through her own efforts to read and write. She also knew a little something of the science of numbers and taught successfully.”
The academic demands on teachers were significant. In 1867, the teacher in the District 12 school in Bradford village taught 45 pupils 25 different subjects in an ungraded one-room school.
A good teacher was one who could keep order “even if preserved with a rod.” Historian Steve Taylor described the discipline as varying from “chaotic to dictatorial.”
During the winter term, big farm boys often created discipline problems for younger teachers. Some years ago, an elder told me of a local school that had a problem with a number of boys who “broke up the school,” including driving teachers away. A new teacher arrived and, placed a large whip over the blackboard, stating her intention to use it as necessary. She taught successfully for decades.
The district school was a center of local activity, and school affairs were newsworthy. In February 1876, The United Opinion carried an article on the “excellent and successful” winter term of West Fairlee’s District 4 school. It had 27 students under the instruction of Miss Lydia Smith,” an able and experienced teacher.”
Samuel Reed Hall opened the first teacher training or normal school was opened in Concord, VT in 1823. He also operated a similar program in Plymouth NH after 1837. Over the years that followed the Civil War, both states operated normal schools that provided teacher training and increased certification requirements.
Beginning in 1885, both states passed a series of acts setting standards for school buildings, allowed women to vote in school affairs and adopted a policy of town-wide graded school districts with consolidated schools located in the centers of local population. In 1919, the NH state started a program to improve underperforming schools.
In the late 19th century, both states began to reconsider the self-financed neighborhood district. In 1884, Vermont enacted a law encouraging towns to adopt the township system of schools. Newbury voters voted twice not to adopt. In 1894, the state mandated the town system. The takeover closed some district schools, whereas other were kept and improved.
This town-wide control encouraged the consolidation of schools. In 1895, Bradford built a new brick primary school on South Main and placed grades 4 through 8 in the newly-constructed Woods School Building. These locations served until a new elementary school was built in 1952 at which time the last district school, located in Goshen, was closed.
In 1890-92, the Vermont Legislature passed legislation to equalize school funding, improve teacher training, and consolidate school administration. These efforts were enhanced by further legislation in the 20th century.
A state-wide property tax, designed to use moved funds from wealthier communities to assist poorer ones, passed with the support of rural legislators. Their numbers were more influential because each town had one representative, regardless of population. Orange County schools were among those which benefited the most from this new tax.
That tax remained in effect until 1931. From then until it was re-established in 1997, the cost of local education again depended on local property taxes.
In 1892, hundreds of local Vermont school districts were wiped out when the State replaced them with a single town-wide district. Known by its detractors as the Vicious Law, this placed the responsibility for public education in the hands of a town school committee.
As the district schools served a neighborhood, children who lived within two miles walked to school. As these local schools were discontinued, some town districts provided school wagons. In 1902, Bradford students were transported in four school wagons. Pulled by two horses, these canvas-covered wagons had two benches running lengthwise.
On nice days, the canvas was rolled up. Often, boys had to get out and walk up the steepest hills. In the Spring, all but the smallest might be required to walk as the muddy roads became almost impassable.
Little Elizabeth Miller didn’t have to walk from her North Road home to the West Newbury school because her family had the horse named Pete. When Elizabeth started school around 1915, her family hitched Pete to a wagon to transport her to school. After dropping his passenger off, Pete found his own way home. Bradford’s Douglas Miller recalled his mother’s story, adding that the afternoon trip didn’t work quite so well. His mother had to walk home.
Newbury’s Aroline Putnam and Bradford’s Margaret Drew began school in West Newbury in 1941 and recently spoke of those school days. They said there were usually less than 30 students in the one-room school. Grace Whitman was the teacher and conducted group lessons, sometimes with the help of older students. The school did not have running water so, it was carried from a nearby farm. There were two privies, one for boys and one for girls.
Drew agreed that it was a “wonderful little school.” She recalled there were few discipline problems. She remembered that sometimes boys would hop the tail of the milk truck to get a ride to school.
In 1947, Putman, Drew, and the two other girls that made up their class, transferred to the Newbury Central School. Whitman told them she had taught them all she could. When asked if she thought most children got a good education in a one-room setting, Putman thought they did, but it “depended on the kids and their parents.” Having served the district for 75 years, the school closed in 1970.
In some districts, one-room was replaced by two-room buildings. East Haverhill resident Marilyn Seminerio recently related stories of her experience in a two-room school in Chesterfield, NH in the years after 1935.
She said there were fewer than 25 students, but they were divided into grades one through four and five through eight. Instruction was often ungraded, with courses such as history and geography offered in alternate years. Her teacher heated soup on the top of the wood stove for those students who could not walk home for lunch.
How communities handled the consolidation of their elementary schools varied. Where there were several village centers, separate schools existed longer. Wells River maintained a separate school system long after the rest of Newbury consolidated.
When Thetford’s new elementary school opened in 1962, it replaced district schools in Union Village, North Thetford, East Thetford, Post Mills, Rice’s Mills, and the Stevens District.
Several village schools were maintained in Corinth and Topsham until Union 36 opened in 1972.
In 1898, a new two-story Orfordville School was built to accommodate students as many of the town’s district school were phased out. In 1901, Fairlee voted to build a new two-story building at the south end of the village. This was used as the elementary school until a new building was built in 1956.
These are just examples of the continued consolidation of school districts. Since the 1960s, town school districts have merged in a number of configurations.
Those interested in the further history of the one-room district schools that once operated in their neighborhood are encouraged to go to their town’s history book. Most have extensive descriptions. My article on the early history of area high schools can be found on my blog at larrycoffin.blogspot.com. It is entitled School Bells: Academies & Seminaries 1790s-1890s.