The Nursery of Liberty: Schools and Education in the Monadnock Region.
Historical Society of Cheshire County, 2009
Settlement began in Nelson, then called Packersfield, in 1767. The first town meeting was held in 1772 but it was not until 1785 that the town voted to raise thirty pounds to support a “reading and writing school”. Prior to that, Nelson’s children were encouraged to have instruction at home largely focused on religious teaching. The first one room school was built on the hill south of the present village. It was across the road from the site of the old meeting house where the Nelson Cemetery is now located.
The population of the town grew rapidly after the Revolutionary War reaching a maximum of 1076 in 1810. Farm settlements were scattered and roads in some areas were no more than grassy paths through the woods making travel to the village school difficult. The state-sanctioned solution was reached in 1805 by dividing the town into 10 school districts. A one room schoolhouse was built in each district.
Each district was controlled and administered independently taxing its residents for the support of the school. They became, in fact, a separate entity independent of town government. A state law passed in 1827 established a Superintending Committee consisting of one to three town residents giving general oversight to town schools. However, records show that independent management continued within the districts. Each school was still supported by taxes from residents within the district as determined by the district school board. The length of terms, divided into the summer school and the winter school term, varied from district to district as did the competence of teachers some of whom may have only completed a local district education. The summer term was shorter because help was needed on the farm during this busy time of year. Some of the boys only attended school in the winter term when farm labor was not so demanding. Attendance was often irregular and classroom behavior sometimes difficult for young teachers to maintain. Tales are still told in the village of the older boys who often tested a new teacher’s merit by physically removing him from the classroom with the intent of closing school for a few more days.
The subjects taught also varied among the schools. A report from the Superintending Committee in 1829 showed that most district schools taught “Arithmatick and Grammar and Geography” while only one also listed “History”, one “Latin”, and three “Rhetoric” in their annual reports. The same report showed that the length of the school year varied from as little as thirteen weeks in District No. 9 to as many as twenty-six weeks in District No. 1, the Nelson village school. In 1860, the length of the school year was between seven and twenty weeks depending on which district students lived in so it appears that little had changed to achieve a more even learning experience throughout the town. This ended in 1885 when the district system was abolished by the state in the Town School Act. All schools were placed under a single town school board of three members elected at the annual town meeting.
Only two of the one room district schools now survive, being soundly built of brick. The present District No. I school was built in 1838 in the newly established village of Nelson replacing the original district school on the hill. At the request of the First Orthodox Congregational Society a second floor was added, paid for by public donation. It was used for religious and community gatherings and, at one time, a music school. The old barrel-vaulted ceiling can still be seen above the alterations added later to fit it for town office use. By 1898, it was the only one of the original ten district schools that was still teaching students within its walls.
The “Old Brick”, as the village school was fondly called, continued to serve as a school until 1945, still without water and with only a wood stove for heat. It is listed on the National Register in recognition of its importance in the town’s history. Presently, it is still serving the needs of the town by housing the town office. A sensitive renovation a few years ago provided more modern office space and made the building handicapped accessible while being carefully designed not to impact the historic building.
The original District No. 1 school located on the hill across the road from the old meetinghouse was sold for private use when the new brick school was built in the growing village. The early center of the town had been established on the hill south of the present village but travel during mud season and long cold winters with snow and ice contributing to difficult travel lead residents to move to the more accessible “Nelson plain”.
The second surviving school building is in the former District No. 5 school on Lead Mine Road. It is now the living room of a private residence with added living space built on the east side.
The Munsonville School on Granite Lake road was built in 1893 to replace the old District No. 2 school on Murdough Hill Road. After the Nelson village school closed in 1945, it became the only grade school in Nelson, though still a one room school. Grades one through eight were taught there. In the 1953 annual town report, School Superintendent Dr. Charles Bowlby stated, “Thus again we are almost at the maximum number of pupils which one teacher can properly educate in a one room school”. Thirty pupils were listed as students and an additional seven were expected the following year.
A new classroom was added in 1955 as well as an additional teacher thus ending the long tradition of one room schools in Nelson. A renovation in 1990 added greatly needed space. After much discussion, the residents approved the design of architect, Dan Scully, to suggest the external appearance of a train leaving the station. The center structure with the gable end to the road found in the architectural rendering is the original 1893 school. The name was changed to the Nelson School to reflect its service to the entire town. Students are now taught from grades one through five. For all further education, both middle school and high school students are bussed to the Keene School District.
Tolman, Rodger M., “Nelson Schools: 1767-1967“, A History of the Town of Nelson, New Hampshire, The Sentinel Printing Company, Keene, N. H., 1967.
Bowlby, Dr. Charles L., “Report of the Superintendent”, Annual Report of Nelson, NH, 1953.
Bowlby, Dr. Charles L., “Report of the Superintendent”, Annual Report of Nelson, NH, 1955.