Back to School: the Lakes Region’s Schoolhouses
By Kathi Caldwell-Hopper
If you wish to see a real one-room schoolhouse and to experience what education was like long ago, there are many examples in New Hampshire. In the village of Andover, there were once a number of small schoolhouses, each serving a region of the town. In the 1800s, there could be many hamlets within one town, and without transportation, students could not be expected to walk miles to a distant schoolhouse, thus small buildings were erected and teachers - sometmes the local minister or his wife - stepped in to educate youngsters.
The Tucker Mountain Schoolhouse remains in Andover to show what education was like long ago and it is open through October and run by the Andover Histosrical Society. The schoolhouse was built in 1837 and served the local community until 1893, when a fast dwindling student population led to its closing. According to information at www.andoverhistory.org, “it stands today in its original setting and location, in very good condition, looking much as it did when it was in active use.”
The schoolhouse, like most of its era, was a single room, and it measures about 16 feet by 18 feet. An “ell” or shed that serves as a weather-protective entrance to the school building was also the place for storing firewood. Another necessity was a small closet in the shed with the two-hole privy. The building is of post-and-beam construction, made of hand-hewn timbers fastened with trunnels, and it sits on a foundation of unmortared granite stones. The walls are sheathed with vertical planks, covered externally with clapboards.
Once you were at your desk, you were expected to sit quietly and in place; the pupils’ heavy plank desks were (and still are) bolted to the floor. Those who visit will see that the floor slopes downward on two sides toward the center of the room, increasing visibility for the pupils in the back rows (a frequently-seen design detail in the schools of this time). The interior walls are covered with wide pine boards painted flat black to serve as chalkboards.
The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is now a museum exhibiting details of a way of education that no longer exists.
In the 1830s, Ashland, New Hampshire, like many New England towns, was likely a remote spot. The town was fortunate to have as a resident, Miss Nancy Perkins, as a teacher. Perkins saw the need for a school in the area, and rolled up her sleeves and started a private high school in the Vestry of the town’s Baptist church. The school was in session from 1836 to 1847, according to Ashland, New Hampshire Centennial 1868 to 1968. She was said to be a wonderful teacher and parents and students alike sang her praises. Indeed, she must have been a good teacher with a love for passing on knowledge because she eventually married Oren Cheney and together, they helped found Bates College.
Schooling was certainly different from what we experience today. In the 1880s in Ashland, grammar school students were required to take an exam written by the school board each term. Pupils had to answer 60 percent of the test questions correctly in order to advance to the next grade. Old schoolhouses – usually consisting of just one room — were a part of the American landscape for decades. Ask any older person and it’s a good bet they once attended a one-room schoolhouse. These charming little buildings were every town’s answer to education and local children from age 5 to 15 or more all sat in one room, taught by a single adult woman or man.
Conditions in many village schools were par with the rest of society’s housing at the time: a woodstove warmed the space and students were often expected to split and carry wood to feed the heat source; a bucket of water served as refreshment and another was for washing hands. Outside, usually hidden behind bushes, sat the outhouse.
A very unusual school was in session at Canterbury Shaker Village in Canterbury in the 1800s and into the 1900s. The Shaker religious sect welcomed and cared for many orphaned or foster children over the years and they were given excellent educations at the Shaker school. The one room, one-story school was erected in 1823. As the population of Canterbury Shaker Village expanded, with it came more children and in 1863 he school was expanded to become a two-story structure. Area children were allowed to attend the school as well as Shaker children.
In Sandwich, NH, the Lower Corner School was a place of learning in the mid and late 1800s. Most towns were in remote spots and many families lived in even deeper rural areas. Small schools were built to serve children in various rural locations.
The Lower Corner School began in 1825 as the John Quincy Adams School. At that time, according to information at www.sandwichhistorical.org, citizens in Sandwich voted a tax of $193.70 to build a schoolhouse. The school was small with a plank door, tiny windows that were placed high and underpinnings of stone. A big fireplace heated the building. Four-foot wood fed the fire that kept teacher and students warm during the cold winters. Fireplaces are notorious for providing uneven heat and this one, as a former student recalled, provided heat that “burned the face while the back was freezing.” Students who sat at the back of the room took turns moving to the front to share the warmth during the day.
In the 1880s the school was renamed the Lower Corner School. By the 1930s an addition brought indoor toilet and storage facilities to the school and a playground. In 1944 the school closed and students traveled to the Center School in the town.
Children in the Cook settlement in Moultonborough had a schoolhouse near a spring. The school building was modest in size; one child who attended the school was said to be the envy of all the other students because he could coast down from his home to the schoolhouse door in snowy winter weather, according to Moultonborough to the 20th Century, a publication of the Moultonborough Historical Society Bicentennial Issue 1963. As the year progressed, school children had quite a walk to get to school – down a steep hill, through fields and over stonewalls and fences. Even with the arduous walk each day, some students were said to have good or perfect attendance.
The Village School in Moultonborough was the site of learning for many years. During the early part of the 1900s the school was located opposite the Moultonboro Town House and was a one-room school. By 1913 the town improved the school as the population grew. An assistant teacher was hired in the 1920s and the school was divided and two regular teachers were hired. A jacketed stove was secured for the school and a note in town reports for 1923 stated, “The new stove makes it possible to have the rooms comfortable as far as the heat is concerned.”
In 1925 a new school had been built and housed elementary school aged children. In her book, I Remember Moultonboro New Hampshire by Frances A. Stevens, she recalled being a student at the school in the late 1920s. “As I remember, when this school was first built there was a big stove with a jacket around it in the back corner of the room. In the winter when it was real cold she would have us gather around the stove for our classes. It wasn’t long before they put in a furnace with steam radiators.”
On the other side of Lake Winnipesaukee, schooling was seen as a necessity in New Durham. The town’s original land grand specified that a portion of the community’s money be set aside for a schoolhouse. In 1779 the town raised money to hire a town school teacher and for some years after, money was voted for schooling. At this time there were no school houses in the town and school masters were hired who traveled from town to town boarding with different families. These men would teach the children of the area the basics: reading, writing and spelling.
By the 1800s schools were built in New Durham. In the late 1800s, improvements were made with the installation of blackboards, iron stoves and desks. In 1906, the annual report of the school board stated that “We cannot expect a woman to teach in a town paying $6.50 to $7.50 for 24 weeks in a year when she can obtain $8.00 to $9.00 per week for 34 to 36 weeks in the year. She will most certainly choose the latter.”
According to The History of New Durham, New Hampshire by Ellen Cloutman Jennings, the original 14 New Durham schools had shrunk to just seven with a school budget of about $1,000. Teacher’s salaries, supplies and repairs came out of this budget and the board closed schools when necessary if enrollment dropped drastically.
Further north in the Plymouth, NH area, the village of Dorchester had a small schoolhouse that was built in 1808 and originally called the North District School. It was used as a one-room school for area children until 1926. The school's last teacher was Lena Bosence Walker.
According to www.livingplaces.com, “…the 1808 Schoolhouse, a single story clapboarded structure, its gable front capped by a small gable-roofed cupola and set above a rock wall foundation.”
At excellent preserved one room schoolhouse is part of the Wolfeboro Historical Society on South Main Street. The Society owns The Clark House Museum Complex of structures at the site, including the Pleasant Valley School.
The one room school was built about 1805 on land in South Wolfeboro in the area known as Pleasant Valley according to information at www.wolfeborohistoricalsociety.org. Known for some time as District #3 School, some residents called it the Townsend School, because it was close to the home of Reverend Isaac Townsend, Wolfeboro’s first minister. (Perhaps the reverend visited the school and probably taught religious classes to the children.)
The school was crude by today’s standards, as were most in New England. Local children learned to make due. All grades were taught in the one room. The enrollment of students ranged from 20 to 50. In 1959 the schoolhouse was moved to its present location at the Clark Museum Complex. (To tour the schoolhouse museum during seasonal hours, call the Wolfeboro Historical Society at 569-4997.)