Ichabod Crane, Who Built Your Schoolhouse

F. B. “Floppy” Tolman
From Grapevine-2, November 1990

When I took over as Treasurer of the Nelson School years and years and years ago, I also took over a large beat-up carton of old school papers – receipts, vouchers, etc. – which had been tossed higgledy-piggledy into the carton. Eventually I bundled all these together and tossed them higgledy-piggledy into a new carton and left them for the next treasurer to cope with. At the bottom of the old carton I found a small ledger, the Account Book of School District #5 which covered the records of every annual meeting from 1821 to 1856. It listed the expenses of the building, running and maintaining the school.

The old schoolhouse, probably #5, possibly #7

It’s a small book, the cover worn and haggard, the original marbled paper faded to a grubby, mottled brown; but inside, the leaves are in fine condition considering that it had been in the rough hands of teamsters, farmers, tanners, bricklayers, and millworkers, each of whom had, at one time or another, been either the moderator, the clerk, or the official acting for “the prudential committee” and responsible for keeping the records. As I turned the pages it seemed warm, familiar – the texture of work-scarred hands. The signatures were the names of men whose fathers had settled here just after the Revolution and had made permanent homes in town.

As the clerks varied from year to year so did the character of the written minutes; some were meticulous, some scribbled as if the only thing that mattered was to get the figures in, no matter now – get the business done and over with. The signatures varied too – some were crabbed, precise; others splashy, impatient and each clerk had his own idea of spelling. All lived in the neighborhood of District School #5.

There is Noah Hardy’s signature (he lived on the hilly road that works its way up to the height of Nelson); and here’s J. Richardson’s who was on that same road with its enormous sheep barn (later Parke Struther’s); and there’s john Yardley’s neat and dwarfed signature (he lived on the site where the Clymers are now); and Timothy and Joel Bancroft’s, mill owners at Mosquitoville; and Bethuel and Milan Harris’s; and Capt. Sam Scripture’s; and Darius and Absalom Farwell’s (who were Dot French’s great, great, great something-or-others); and Chauncey Barker’s (he married one of J. Bryant’s twin daughters, so the Bryant house turned into the “Barker” house) – all dipped their pens in the ink pot and left their identities in the ledger.

The old brick schoolhouse near the Barker Place, late 1800s

The account book opens in 1821, the year that it had been decided that District #5 needed a new school. The location was to be on the road “running easterly from Nelson towards Dublin on the lane near J. Bryant’s.” District #5 was the southernmost part of Nelson, which included a big chuck of Harrisville and so was naturally part and parcel of the activity of that growing mill town. The location of the new school was selected to be within walking distance for the kids on the road. It suited Bethuel and Milan Harris for instance, because they were living then on the road in Nelson.

Every meeting of School District #5 opened with the same formalities that our Town Meetings still do – except that they always had “an agreement for adjournment,” something we don’t have – we just quit when we run out of steam. After the usual formalities and warrants of legality, the meeting was called to order and officers for the meeting chosen.

The year of the new school, 1821, Noah Hardy was chosen as Moderator and B. M. Buckminster, Clerk. Buckminster set a high standard for penmanship, a fine, delicate hand – a work of art. Many of the succeeding clerks failed to meet that standard – some used an overdose of ink, others ran out of ink in the middle of a word, scratched it out, started over in a panic, gripping the pen in a clutched fist and using whatever spelling came to mind. (I’m not great on spelling myself but before this article goes to press it will have been scrutinized and edited by the former Reporter of Decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States (Henry Putzel) – pick on him if the spelling doesn’t suit you.)

At this meeting it was voted to raise the sum of $240 to build a new school and Maj. Bethuel Harris was chosen to draft a list of materials. The next few meetings were devoted to the materials to be supplied – every board, every post, every nail, every brick was allotted to someone in the school area. These materials, by vote, were “set up at vendue to the lowest bidder” (or “bider”). I had a problem with “vendue” and looked it up in the dictionary – it means “auction.” The successful bidder was to provide the item and the labor and cut the timbers, or whatever it was, to size from his own property, take them to a sawmill and deliver them at the school. Each bidder is listed, as is the bid itself. The lists take up pages as the allotments are spread out among the farmers who lived nearby and here are two examples:

“2 hhd of lime to Absalom Farwel …………………10.00
10 timers 120 ft long to Timothy Bancroft ………….2.00

Bricks are frequently listed – lots of separate bids for “drawing” (hauling) bricks. By 1823 the school must have been finished and running, as now the business of each meeting goes into a routine of bidding “at vendue” for cords of good, hardwood to be split and delivered at the schoolhouse. And the routine business meetings decided what date the summer session was to meet and the winter session – at first each was for only 6 weeks – later increased to eight weeks each. The teacher’s (sometimes “teecher’s) salary was assigned. For years and years the rate was one dollar a week. Also, the boarding (sometimes “bording”) mistress was put up at vendue to the lowest bidder. The standard bid in 1823, was 97 cents a week, but over the yeas it went up to a dollar a week. Since the bidder must have intended to gain by this transaction, I expect the teacher’s meals, were not lavish. What’s more, since the average family in those days was huge, and since there was no such thing as a “spare room,” the poor girl probably had to double up – share a bid, help with the dishes.

The new Center School in Nelson Village

The last meeting reported in the ledger, in 1856, brings up the possibility of building another schoolhouse or repairing the old one or taking up any business in relation thereto. The last two pages are empty – no new schoolhouse. By that time Nelson had built a central school and presumably it would have been considered less expensive to have all the children go there – since by then teacher’s salaries had become exorbitant – something like three dollars a week. The cost of education had soared.

It was in 1936 that I found the ledger – that’s eighty years after the last entry, and by then the “new” schoolhouse had gone, not a whisker left, not a brick. Gone too were most of the farms adjacent – Noah Hardy’s house had gone, the Yardleys’, the Scriptures’ and just about all the mill buildings in Mosquitoville – the whole community –in just eighty tiny little years! The only house left was the Barkers – a wreck, its dry grey bones leaning together in a desperate effort to avoid falling into its own cellar.

Most of those houses had been substantial, well built, with kitchen stoves and stenciled parlors. But, once abandoned, they gave up and let mold and rot take over. Even the barns went, the wagon sheds, the outhouses, the fields and fences quit – a few apple trees hung on crouching stubbornly under a new growth of trees. The children had grown up, gone to the Civil War, only the drained and sick came home. Gone too were the sounds and smells – the squawking of irritable hens, the creaking of harnesses, the grinding of big-wheeled drays drawn by oxen with loads of bricks for the expanding mills. And the smell of wood smoke was gone, and of kerosene, of sweat, of manure. The road itself is still gravel but now it goes between trees instead of fields; and when one is passing the Bancroft water trough late in the day, there’s no chance of hearing the off-key voices of a family singing around the piano to amuse themselves.

Another Nelson schoolhouse on Lead Mine Road

It wasn’t as if in 1821 Nelson had been some frail, struggling village – it was thriving right up to the Civil War, and even later. In 1810 there were 467 children town! There was a little schoolhouse on every road, mills on every creek, on every stream, at the outlet of every pond – sawmills, flourmills, and mills making woodenware to be sold in Boston. The war and the railroads did it in. The town couldn’t get its wind back after the war and never got the hang of coping with the industrial age. It shrank, turned into itself. A few old diehards stuck it out, nailing up their front doors and retiring to the kitchen where they gloomed out the kitchen window, a shotgun at hand, in case a deer wandered through the backyard.

The only physical thing left of School District #5 is this one little old account book, fleshy, calloused, tough – but alive. Holding it, touching it is like touching the warm, living hand of the past.