Schoolhouse Enthusiast Shares His Reflections and Artwork in Cards!
by Bruce Fountain-Stalker
A small pond reflects stark branches of naked trees. The tall brown grasses of a nearby field move with each whim of the late afternoon wind. Restless horses appear to sense the winter snows that will force them to leave their meadow for warmth and security of their barns. Stonewalls reach meticulously in every direction to tie these private realms together.
The Stow West School District #3 appears to be smug and contented to act as a sentinel for this patchwork New England scene.
This rare example of America's architectural heritage has reasons to be smug. Ignoring the 20th century schools that resemble glass and metal shoeboxes, it enhanced the charm and dignity of the streetscape since 1825. It's design, location, and history are typical of 19th century one-room schoolhouses.
Built of red brick, it replaced an earlier schoolhouse, c. 1789, on a pine tree dotted hill that faced two merging dirt roads leading to farms and houses of the scholars. They walked to and from the schoolhouse, winter and summer, unless needed for farm chores.
Upon entering the interior of the small structure, the scholars became part of an academic atmosphere that nurtured independence, simplicity, and an unquestioning belief in God, country and family, qualities necessary for survival in a growing country.
A iron wood-burning stove was the only source of heat during the winter, but only the children who brought wood from home were allowed to sit near it. The fire was only as good as the wood, and unfortunately, the wood pile often consisted of straggly pieces of green oak which would fill the schoolhouse with smoke. The older scholars had to comfort the little children who complained of chilblains nearly as often as they had to help them with their lessons. Usually, a boy was assigned the duty of placing the ink wells on the stove to melt the ink that had frozen during the night.
Blackboards were not common until 1820 and the schoolhouse had good fortune to have one. The schoolmaster made his exquisite "hooks and trammels" on the blackboard, and the scholars would use their quill pens and ink made from ink powder to copy them in their copybooks. The copy-books were hand-sewn with brown paper at home and usually adorned with ornate "flyleaf scribblings."
A schoolmaster who was particularly talented in "ciphering" was called an "arithmeticker." He would require each boy and girl to "toe the crack," to stand at a particular crack between the floor boards to recite the lessons. Ciphering was important for boys because they had to sell their crops at market, and reading was necessary for girls because they would read their Bibles in the homes.
The scholars were allowed a "nooning" after morning lessons had been completed. This time was spent playing, talking, and laughing in fields because playgrounds were unknown then. Finally, they could share secrets and laugh with each other without the threat of the schoolmaster's ferule coming down upon them. The sound of the schoolmaster's bell brought the children running from all directions for their afternoon lessons.
Their primers, psalters, and the New Testament were essential for reading because they offered lessons about morality, patriotism, manners, truth and beauty. Also, they would share books they had brought from home because there were never enough books for all the scholars. A "spell" was usually included in the afternoon lessons.
The waning of the sunlight coming from the windows meant it was time to sweep the floor, chop wood for the following day, put away the inkwells, and gather coats and lunch pails that had been left in the narrow entry.
The schoolmaster who "boarded around" was as anxious as his scholars to go home. He said goodbye to the scholars and watched as each one left the schoolhouse.
Obviously, the Little Red Schoolhouse has left many former scholars with bittersweet memories, but who doesn't yearn to return to the simplicity for which it is a symbol?