The Center School (reflections from this student)

Ethan Tolman

~ Ethan Tolman

Editors note: Ethan Tolman submitted this article in January, 2019, shortly before he died on February 20 of that year. This story perhaps more than any other on this website captures the character of the Town of Nelson. 

Early photo of The Center School

The Center School (School #1), 1946; back row l-r: teacher Miss Josephine Stewart, Marguerite Creamer, Ralph Warner, John Warner, George Warner, Ethan Tolman, Robert Curtis; front row l-r: Beverly Creamer, Barney Quigley, Tammy Quigley, Philip Stack.

There were as many as seven one-room schoolhouses, of which the current Nelson town office (known as the Brick Schoolhouse) served as one, in Nelson from 1838 through the spring of 1945.   Until 1963, the room above the office was owned by the church. Called the Concert Hall, it served as a location for both church and civic meetings of all kinds. The roof, though, remained in the ownership of the Town. The picture attached below is of the last group of students in this building, eight grades posing with their teacher on the last day this building served as a schoolhouse.  I was the boy standing with my arm over Robert Curtis’s shoulder, second from the right, back row. The teacher, standing left, Miss Josephine Stewart, had boarded with my family for two years, while she taught us. Next to her is Marguerite Creamer, then Ralph Warner, John Warner, and George Warner. First in the front row is Beverly Creamer. Next is Barney Quigley and his sister Tammy and Philip Stack, the only one among the group who moved away. Some years ago, he returned, just passing through, and we spoke. He was at that time near retirement as a Colonel in the US Air Force. But as a schoolboy, he was the son of the caretaker/handyman and the cook for D. Page Wheelwright, Nina and Mike Iselin’s grandfather.

Early photo of the Munsonville School

Early photo of the schoolhouse on Lead Mine Road

When the Center School was built in 1838 there were several other one-room schoolhouses scattered around the town, which until 1812 included part of what is now Roxbury, and the northern half of what is now Harrisville, which was not incorporated until 1872. Each school was largely run by the parents in that district, hence, “District Schools” with separate budgets, a teacher, and students who could walk to school. The town then had more people living in it than now, and large families. The population of Nelson peaked about 1820, at 2,000 or more. But by the time the Center School was built in 1838, population was already in a steady decline.

The first settlers in town were largely subsistence farmers, who grew or made all the material things they needed for survival. They were concerned about other needs as well, though, and made provision from the first settlement for support of a church and its construction, and for schools and their support. Earlier settlement had been precluded until 1763 by the so-called French and Indian War.

By 1838, and the gradual move of the center of the town from the top of the hill where the cemetery remains at its original location, a new school made of brick seemed appropriate as the “Center School.”

Most of the other one-room schools have vanished, but one, now enlarged, sits on the Lead Mine Road at Priscilla Williams’ house. Interestingly, the Town spent funds to brick the end and sides of the building which would be visible from the common, but left the northeast end – the end open to the wind coming off City Hill – wooden, presumably for economy’s sake.

Thus, I remember sitting with the others around a wood stove – the building’s only heat. We sat in a semicircle facing the stove, with our outside coats on, open to the stove side, as a cold wind and snow drifted through that wall. After the Center School was built, the population of the town of course continued to drop. Several factors combined to accelerate the process. After many years of cropping, soil fertility dropped sharply.

By 1820 and the importation of Merino sheep from Spain by the American minister to Spain to his farm across the Connecticut River, sheep displaced subsistence farmers. (The same process had occurred elsewhere, of course, as in the English Midlands and north in the 15th century.) Shortly thereafter, a new income source opened up as work in the new textile mills rapidly spread across central and northern New England. And of course, Nelson remained too distant from markets for farm products even if the declining soil fertility had allowed their economic production.

After the opening of the Erie Canal in 1823, farm labor moved to Ohio and beyond. Imagine the letters home. As one diary reports a son writing home:  “I plowed all day Pa, and did not turn up a single stone!”  Schoolhouses in outlying areas of town lost students, and gradually closed as the population declined. I remember one such building, still standing in the 1960s. Located on Nubanusit Road between what is now the John Zurich/Kathleen Vetter residence (my childhood home) and Mike and Mary Cornog’s, it was a wooden building with half plastered walls, with simple paneling below. Barry Tolman’s grandmother Sadie had come over from Milford, NH, to teach there (boarding locally), met Wayland Tolman, and stayed a lifetime as wife and mother of Francis and Newton. By the time they were of school age, the school where she had taught had been closed, and they, and their cousins Gordon (my father), Rodger (Harvey’s father), and Doris (their sister), had to walk to the Center School. Three miles. Often, my father told me, he would – as the eldest – take “the old blind mare” if his father did not need it for work, and the three cousins would ride bareback to town. There, they would stable the horse in one of the horse sheds behind the church, feed and water it, and walk across the road to the school. So it was in the years before World War I. By the time I went there, during and at the end of World War II, horses were vanishing, cars had arrived, and I was lucky enough to have one of my parents drive me. And, of course, they brought Jo Stewart, the teacher, who boarded with us.

Though it’s now unheard of, such local boarding of teachers was once common, of necessity. My mother Arvilla, in fact, was familiar with the circumstance. When she graduated from high school in Newmarket, NH, she took a six-week certification course that summer at what was then Keene Normal School and taught the following two years in a one-room school in Landaff, NH, boarding locally. Because she boarded with us, I remember Jo especially well, not only at home, but getting to school and home again. One day, for example, Gordon drove us to school in our 1936 Ford. He had chains on, for there had been freezing rain during the night. (Four-wheel-drive cars had of course never been heard of.) We got to the top of Dixon Hill and Gordon stopped. “This is as far as I can go,” he said. “Whatever do you mean, Gordon,” Miss Stewart said. “You have chains on.” “No, too slippery,” he said. “Well, we’ll just walk,” she said, visibly angry. So, she stepped out and promptly fell down. We watched her sliding down the hill, rotating to hit first one snowbank, then the other until she was out of sight. “Well, trot along, Ethan, and help Miss Stewart get to school,” my father said.  Sanders such as we now have did not exist. In a bad ice storm, such as that one, the road agent might apply sand. It was only since sometime in the 1930s that Road Agent became a town-wide office. Earlier, local men in each “district” were responsible for the road or roads in their district.

My grandfather Wilmer was the road agent for his part of town – for far fewer roads than now exist in that area. I expect that the road agent and perhaps one man would shovel sand into a small truck, about the size of a one-ton today, and then shovel it out onto the road. There were no loaders, such as we have now. But it would take all day, or perhaps two days, to do the hills in town. The only plow the Town had was a late 1920s or early 1930’s Cletrack. This was smaller than any of the bulldozers you may see on construction jobs today. On the front was a V-plow, raised and lowered by a cable (no hydraulics yet). On each side was a wing, held up by a chain falls, pulled up and let down by a man walking on each side of the tractor.  In the winter, we sometimes had to walk to my grandfather Wilmer’s house, where Deb Navas now lives, for as much as a week or more and borrow his old Nash. The snowdrift between our houses sometimes did not get opened up for that long. One year, I remember, it took ten days to open the road there, and at the end of Lake Nubanusit. A cable shovel on tracks was brought out from Keene to move the snow. Other sections of town had similar conditions, affecting all the schoolchildren in town. And everybody else too, of course.

Thus, for most of the years the Center School was a school (and the other district schools as well) there was a regular six week to nine-week summer school. These added days of schooling compensated for days lost to the weather in the winter.  In the spring of the year, we sometimes had to drive to Harrisville, then back past Child’s Bog to the village for as much as two weeks, while Tolman Pond Road was impassable in mud. The Child’s Bog road was still dirt, but the two roads thawed out at different times. Sometimes it was hard to get home.

One day it was very cold. My father had of course brought the car battery into the house in the evening and put it under the wood stove in the kitchen to stay warm. (Almost no one had an electric or gas cook stove. I had never seen one.) Warm batteries have more cranking power than cold, so this was a common occurrence. While he was putting it back in the car, my mother would make sure that there was a kettle of boiling water to take out. Gordon would pour the hot water over the carburetor, to warm the gas, and then start the car. Off to school we went, to sit around the wood stove.

The oldest boy in the school, Robert Curtis, had walked from his house before school started, as he did all winter, and started the wood stove to take the edge off the cold in the room before the rest of us got there. The house – a cabin, really – where he lived at that time was on Center Pond Road across the road from where Kris Finnegan now lives. This was a regular job for him, which he did every cold day all winter. I think he got paid fifty cents a week. As much as the bounty on a porcupine nose. In the first years of this building as a schoolhouse, after 1838, the only heat was provided by a fireplace at the bottom of the chimney on the south wall. It had been bricked up and covered over by the 1940s, though the fireplace shape remained. None of us kids knew nor I think did any of the adults know of the existence of the fireplace.

Cast iron stoves began to replace fireplaces for heat by the 1830s, but obviously not in Nelson until later. It would be interesting to know when the first stove replaced it. Perhaps the 1860s? The stove we had was a match with the stove that heated the town hall: perhaps bought at the same time? They were box stoves with two round removable lids on top and a front door that would accept two-foot wood. Wood storage was under the stairs. During the day in the winter, Robert Curtis or the teacher would bring in wood from the entryway and feed the fire. Another such stove was in the Town Hall many years longer. Two similar stoves made a feeble attempt to heat the church on Sundays.

The stove now on display in the Town Archives is much more ornate – a true Victorian piece. At the end of the very cold day, the other children left to walk home. Miss Stewart and I waited, and waited, as she got more nervous. “Well, Ethan,” she said, “let’s call your house.” So, we walked next door to the Quigley’s (where the library is now) and found Mrs. Quigley on the phone to Gordon, who had called. Fortunately, the Quigleys had recently got a phone – I think by only a few months. (None were installed during the war, of course.) His information was that the car would not start, and he had been unable to contact anyone who was both home and whose car would start. So, Miss Stewart and I set out for home. By the time we got to Tolman Pond we were both cold, and Miss Stewart suggested we go in and get warm. So, we went in, Sadie (Barry Tolman’s grandmother) gave us a hot drink and a fresh off-the-stove doughnut, and we soon were ready to head home, where my mother did much the same. Finally, someone thought to look at the temperature: minus 36 degrees F. That’s the coldest I have seen in Nelson.

So, travel to and from school was much different than it is now. But what happened in the little building was much the same as it is now: we learned. We learned to read, to write, to do at least some arithmetic, to cooperate, to be polite. There was a blackboard. There were a few – very few – books. None, I think, published after 1929. The Depression and the war years precluded such things. We learned a little – a very little – about the larger world: there was a map or two, and of course in the closing days of World War II several of us knew servicemen and women, and where they had been and were serving. While we did not know much about it, we knew the world was a bigger place than Nelson. But we did not always learn the right things. One day, for example, Miss Stewart read to us from a geography book these words: “In some remote parts of the world, wood is still used as fuel.” I learned then not to trust books: Everyone in Nelson burned wood, and we were not remote: we were right here. Paris, London, New York were remote.

I at least knew what remote meant. We learned a few things we would not learn now: gender roles, for example. Few as we were, after recess play outside we lined up in two columns to go back in: girls in one, boys in the other. Recess play was not so segregated, largely because baseball and capture the flag – or other games we  loved – were hard enough with ten participants ranging in age from six to fifteen. But some of the class participation certainly was. As was independent play.

Many aspects of the days at school remained the same each year. Thus, each morning two children would be sent across the common with a glass jug to the Morris and Cora Tolman residence (now MacKenzie), and Cora would fill it with water and we would take it back to the school for drinking water for the day. By the time I was in the third grade, I was sometimes allowed to be one of the ones charged with this responsibility. A real honor. As I later learned, the state allowed only that water, after testing, of any in the village to be used at the school. As an aside, it’s possible that this was in part a function of the fact that there was not then a flush toilet in the village. Or in most houses in town. Many did not have a phone. Many had not yet been electrified. Few of the many summer cottages around town had electricity until 1946, when Wilmer’s cottages were electrified, or later. Certainly, the school was dependent on an outhouse: actually two. The girls (and teacher’s) outhouse was accessed by a door in the back of the schoolroom. The boys used an outhouse that backed up to the one for girls on that corner. Thus, the boys had to walk out the main door and around the south side of the building in, sometimes, cold, and snow or rain. There was a peephole in the board wall, used, I was told (years later) by both sexes as part of their education. I do not believe Miss Stewart was aware of that. Architectural evidence of that part of the building remains in the form of the storage room out of the town office on the back, north side. Today, it might be difficult to find a teacher willing to teach such a disparate group. Even then, it was difficult, which is why we were (fortunately) under Jo’s supervision. I didn’t know then, but she had had a difficult time finding a job after graduating from Keene Normal School the preceding spring, as she was hard of hearing. Most school boards were not willing to take the risk, but my mother, the school board chair, interviewed her and saw something good. And indeed, it must have been, for following her two years in Nelson, she took a job in Oregon and had a long and very successful career. Among other things, she served on some major statewide boards and committees. Nelson was a good start for her, as it has been for many.

Of course, one of the strongest memories for me, and I expect the others, was time out of class. In the spring of the year, after school and by pre-arrangement, George Warner and I would walk down to White’s Pond and fish till my ride showed up. Second and third grade kids now seldom have that much freedom, I suspect. Sometimes, after school, there would be an impromptu game of capture the flag. That was a lot of fun, but as the puniest kid there, I had little to do but run aimlessly about. During the war, school children were drawn into the home front, as scavengers. There are now rarely milkweed plants to be seen in old fields, as was common in September of 1943. Probably because there are no longer old fields for milkweed to grow in. So also, there are fewer monarch butterflies, as they live only on milkweed nectar. Milkweed pods are full of small seeds attached to fine filaments upon which even the lightest breeze will float them away to a new location. These filaments, cleaned and placed in cloth bladders, served as floatation devices, now called PFDs, then life jackets. Now these containers or bladders are plastic, but then there was no plastic. All the school kids in the state that year were encouraged to collect as many of these pods as possible one weekend, and bring them to school that Monday. My grandfather Wilmer, in support of this effort, gave me an old grain bag, for which he might have received two or three cents at the Farmers Exchange in Keene. I spent the weekend picking milkweed pods, and got a few inches at the bottom of my bag. I thought of the airplane pilots in the English Channel my efforts would save. Monday morning when I got to school all the other kids, it seemed, had full bags. How small my efforts were! How the other kids laughed at me! The brave pilots would drown! The war would be lost and it would be my fault! Another scavenging effort we were encouraged to take for the war effort was to bring old iron to school. So, in due course, broken cast-iron stoves, cooking pans, broken farm equipment, and the like made a respectable pile near that corner of the building where we later stood for a picture with Miss Stewart. One day it occurred to us boys that a long heavy pipe on top of the pile would make a fine battering ram. But where was the castle to knock down? Propinquity counts, and thus if you look carefully at that corner even today, you can see where the bricks were repaired. Before we were stopped, we had managed to create a hole through the wall big enough for my hand (the smallest among us) to go all the way through. We were so proud of ourselves! The response of our elders startled us greatly.

Not all days fit the regular pattern. One day, for example, there was great excitement: a state policeman was coming to fingerprint us. And then he showed up: badge, gun and all. He gave a short “be good people” speech, and then the high point of the visit. We each, all ten of us, got fingerprinted, so, we later gathered, we could then avoid being kidnapped or face other unmentionable crimes. What would happen now for the same event? There was no parental uproar then – I certainly would have heard about one if there had been, either from the other kids or at home.

Another great excitement occurred each year, on Town Meeting day. Held then in the daytime (almost no one commuted to Keene or elsewhere for work, certainly not from the center of town or east of that), Town Meeting was held in the morning. As much as possible, we kids tried to slip over there to see what our parents and others were doing. And, of course, all morning long people walked up the stairs to Concert Hall, setting up Town Meeting dinner. After Town Meeting was over, all the townspeople gathered there. The oldest kids served dinner, prepared by ladies of the town:  Sadie Tolman, Mabel Curtis, Etta Tolman, Francis Upton, Ada Upton, Cora and Cora Alice Tolman and others; every woman in town, it seemed, some certainly from Munsonville. I cannot remember who they might have been, as the two sides of town then were so separate, with little interaction. I probably did not even know their names. Mashed potato, carrots, beets: all having been stored in a cool cellar. Sauerkraut, perhaps, and pickles. Homemade bread and rolls. Butter. A ham. And pies: apple (from dried apples), mince, Boston cream. Note that almost none of the food came from purchased goods, except the flour. Any “canned goods” were in fact from glass jars, put up (“canned”) by the ladies of the town. None of us had seen a metal can of food. Almost all the residents of the town sat down together there, before going back to the Town Hall for School Meeting in the afternoon. We kids went back to school, but snuck over to the town hall as much as possible. My father Gordon was moderator, and after 1946 was followed by Fran Tolman, father of Barry. Gordon gave up the job not out of preference, but because his worsening MS made it increasingly difficult to do. I doubt if much traditional education took place that day.

While the system of “district schools” managed by the parents of each district had been abandoned by that time, there remained only two schools: the Center School and the Munsonville School. (The current school in Munsonville was then one room, built in 1891, probably replacing a smaller one-room school located near where the Lothrops live now.)  Records from the several district schools, including the Center School, are spotty at best. I have not seen any such records for District 1, but I have seen some records from the District 3 school, on what is now Nubanusit Road. I append one passage from it here, as illustrative of the degree of local control each district had over their school. Very much the same records were kept in each district, including for the Center School.

Thus, for District 3 school: Nelson March 5th 1881

Meeting called to order by the prudential committee for the last year. Eben C. Tolman was chosen moderator and took the oath of office. Orson Tolman was chosen clerk of the district and took the oath of office. Henry M. Stevens was chosen prudential committee for the ensuing year and took the oath of office. Voted to accept and adapt the report of the prudential committee. Voted to raise the sum of fifteen dollars to repair the school house. Voted to dissolve the meeting. A true copy. Orson C. Tolman, Clerk of the District.  Clearly, each district school was a separate entity from each of the others, and the town itself. By the 1940’s, of course, the district system had vanished. There was, as there is now, one district, coterminous with the town, but it is clearly evident that for the period when district schools existed, there was essentially total local control of each school: who was to teach, how the building was maintained. The only function of the town(s) was to distribute funds from taxes to each district When my mother came on the school board, she searched for previous school records, and learned that a former school official, Fred Murdough (of Murdough Hill Road), might have them. Fred lived in a large handsome Victorian house, near the top of the hill. (Joan Warner was a granddaughter.) After Fred died, there was sentiment in town to “throw it up,” that is, discontinue ownership of that road, as had been done to so many other roads in town, as population declined. I remember Wilmer Tolman speaking in Town Meeting against that proposal: “A small amount of money now will save that road, and in time many will live on it.” Today, there are seventeen houses on that road, all built since he spoke.  My mother called Fred, and sure enough he had the records. “Come on over and I’ll get them for you.” So, she drove over there, and Fred said, “Come on out to the barn with me.” There, he climbed a ladder into the loft and said, “Arvilla, hand up that pitchfork, will you?” She didn’t know quite what was happening, but she soon did. After Fred had moved some hay, he said, “Here they are,” and passed the records down to her. No central office in 1943. No office. No rules. No check on local officials. And, in this case at least, no problems. It’s no big surprise that records of that time and earlier are largely missing from the Town archives, only recently established.  (Though I must note that Bert Wingerson and lately Rick Church and a host of volunteers have done a magnificent job of establishing a Town Archive, currently in what I will always think of as “Concert Hall.” In my first term as Selectman, after meeting in the old library, we moved into what had been the kitchen, at the top of the stairs. (With the permission of the church, of course.)

At the end of the school year, the Center School children and the children who had been in the Munsonville School and their parents met for a graduation ceremony in the Chapel by the Lake in Munsonville. From the Center School, the only eighth grade graduate was Bobby Curtis. Thus, he became the last graduate of the little school. The following fall, most of the Nelson kids went to Munsonville, and that pattern has followed since. An interesting sidelight is that until that time, and with gradually declining intensity in the years since, a social split between the two sections of the town then still existed. This regional social separation had many causes. One, of course, was the separate schools. The children did not interact, and so interacted less as adults. The parents’ focus was on the local school, not the “town school” as now.

There were economic issues, too. For example, during the Depression and the war years (and thereafter) it was a toll call to telephone between the two parts of town. Many parents did not have a phone. And for that period, a fifteen-cent charge was not lightly taken. In today’s funds, that’s the equivalent of perhaps $1.50 or $2.00 in a time when people had few such dollars. Such small things limit social interaction. Of course, few women drove cars. And there were few cars. No family had two: many had none. In the war years, there was even less gasoline. No one crossed the town unless there was a special event – and there were few such indeed. In fact, the only such events I can remember from that period are that 1946 school graduation, Town meetings, and Old Home Day.

Sectarian issues were important too. The east side of town was uniformly Protestant, the west partly Catholic, of more recent immigrants. The east side of town was composed almost entirely of descendants of the early settlers, Calvinists all, at least to some degree. Some, like my grandmother Etta, very much so. Born in St. John, New Brunswick, the descendent of a loyalist family who moved there during the Revolution, she came to town as part of a church group. When they presented their songs and message, the venue was of course Concert Hall – over the Center School – and Wilmer Tolman was in attendance. From his actions in later life I get the impression he may not have been fully receptive to the theological message Etta and the other girls brought to town. I do know that he was receptive to Etta, as later they were married in Hampton Falls, NH, and lived a full and happy life thereafter, mostly in Nelson. An interesting sidelight is that the church in which they were married has, and had, a weathervane shaped as a rum bottle. I don’t believe Etta, a strong opponent of strong drink, knew that.

That there should be friction between the English (Protestant) and French (Catholic) should surprise no one. The American colonies had been settled by the English, Canada by the French. The St. Lawrence River provided a trade route to the interior of the continent for the French. The Allegheny Mountains blocked the English. So, the two peoples developed different economic systems. The French settled to the north in what is now Canada. Colder and less amenable to farm production, they depended on the fur trade, and thus cultivated Indian allies. The English settled in what became the American colonies with better agricultural land and 1,500 miles of seacoast and harbors to support trade, developed differently. And as well, England and France had been fighting dynastic wars for centuries, so there was no love lost between the two groups.

Thus, by the time the parents responsible for the newly merged schools sought about eight years later to create a social club for townspeople which could also serve as a formal organization of support for the school, there was a real stumbling block. One group wanted to have “Nelson” in the group’s name, the other “Munsonville.” With no resolution, the group came close to floundering. Then, when I suggested “Packersfield Club” (after the original name of the town), the group organized itself, and eventually became the PTA. Forgotten by all the participants, I think, was the fact that the name “Packersfield” was coined to honor Thomas Packer, who reneged on his promise to give the Town land for a school and church. (So the story goes. If true, why should he be honored?)

The name Nelson, of course, may have been bestowed on the little town in honor of the English naval hero Admiral Lord Nelson. This is reasonable, as the New England colonies largely supported England rather than the new United States during the War of 1812, because of trade considerations. Nelson was too far inland to be realistically affected by such things, but the information flow came from the coast, largely Portsmouth and Boston, and political sentiment followed.  But such divisive issues in the little town rapidly vanished in the postwar period, with increased interaction among townspeople.

Now, thankfully, those parochial days are long gone. Though people do seem to always filter out into groups of like, no different from then. The type of educational instruction of course changed as well, with a larger student body in Munsonville. No longer did students in eight grades, or at least in that range, sit in the same room with a teacher. In the new model school, four grades, then two, then only one were under the supervision of a single teacher. Miss Stewart had to deal with the needs of, on the one hand, those who could not read, write even a little, and who know not what numbers were, and on the other hand try to prepare those who might be entering high school the following year. All in the same room, and all, to a large extent, at the same time. What she did, I think, followed somewhat the following pattern: she mentally grouped students into ability levels for each subject area: those who could read at beginning level, or intermediate or advanced levels. So also for each subject. Note that there could be different groups for each subject area. Beginning readers might be students A and B. Beginning math students might be students B, C, and D. Beginning writing students might be A, B, and F, each from any “grade”, and so through the ability levels she had to deal with. Students were thus not tracked, and worked with others of their own level, but often in different student groups. While she dealt with one group, the others worked on topics or problems she had set out for them individually. Often, as a change of pace, she would read to us, and try to get us to respond to what we heard with words and thoughts of our own – the whole group at once. In effect, she came as close as possible to providing individual instruction for each student. At the same time, students who grasped the subject matter were free to help those who had not. She had ten small minds to deal with, so she could not spend all her time with one. But she came very close, by thinking out this pattern, or a similar one, and following it. Societies that have struggled with the problem of educating future generations have generally followed one of three models: authoritarian (top down) instruction, which lends itself to large group instruction; apprenticeship (work with experts), especially common for practical knowledge and the sciences; and one-on-one discussion (especially good for developing not only the tools of thought, but an understanding of the same).

One-on-one instruction, encouraging a back and forth exchange of ideas, is sometimes called the Socratic method, following the educational practice of Socrates, in ancient Greece. Nelson was not classical Greece, Miss Stewart was no Socrates, and we were not the children of the elite classes in Athens c. 500 BCE. Nevertheless, she came as close to the Socratic model of individualized instruction as was possible in that time and place, and I think we all benefited from it. I know I did. For, as a third grader, I finally learned to read.  Miss Stewart (and my mother) despaired at my inability to learn to read through second grade, so during my third year, she took it upon herself to force the issue, and eventually I picked it up. Unknown to Miss Stewart, and to me the first half of my life, my brain has big holes in it, and one of those holes is called dyslexia. This condition affects perception. Dyslexics typically reverse “d’s” and “b’s”, for example. When printing, I still have to stop and think, “which way does this one go?” A problem such as this obviously affects reading and spelling. I suspect that this is also related to skill at math and music. The latter two are clearly related. Both are an absolute mystery for me. Of course, it had not been identified by our time in the Center School, so Miss Stewart was trying to solve a problem without knowing what caused it, or, indeed, what it was. In her, I was lucky. In a sense, this little essay about schooling in Nelson so many years ago can be read as a thank you note. I did not know of the condition myself, until in my 30s I was the division director of a College faculty group that included several psychology professors. From them I learned what had caused this problem. Unfortunately, it remains for me a problem. More importantly, I hope reading this little memoir has been interesting, and rewarding for you, as much as it has been for me in the writing of it.

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While school districts were largely self-governing, they were subject to town oversight and a growing body of state regulation on the qualifications of teachers. There were two bodies established during this period to oversee the operation of Nelson’s schools: The Prudential Committee and the Superintending Committee.  These committees seem not to have existed simultaneously and [...]

The Center School (reflections from this student)

There were as many as seven one-room schoolhouses, of which the current Nelson town office (known as the Brick Schoolhouse) served as one, in Nelson from 1838 through the spring of 1945. Ethan Tolman submitted this article in January, 2019, shortly before he died on February 20 of that year. At the end of the very cold day, the other children left to walk home. Miss Stewart and I waited, and waited, as she got more nervous. "Well, Ethan," she said, "let's call your house." So, we walked next door to the Quigley's (where the library is now) and found Mrs. Quigley on the phone to Gordon, who had called. Fortunately, the Quigleys had recently got a phone – I think by only a few months. (None were installed during the war, of course.) His information was that the car would not start, and he had been unable to contact anyone who was both home and whose car would start. So, Miss Stewart and I set out for home. By the time we got to Tolman Pond we were both cold, and Miss Stewart suggested we go in and get warm. So, we went in, Sadie (Barry Tolman’s grandmother) gave us a hot drink and a fresh off-the-stove doughnut, and we soon were ready to head home, where my mother did much the same. Finally, someone thought to look at the temperature: minus 36 degrees F. That's the coldest I have seen in Nelson.

School #7

D-2-12 School #7 This was one of nine schools built by Nelson in 1789-1790. It served the families in the southeast quarter of the town and was located “on the road between Captain James Bancroft’s house and Dublin”. This one-room schoolhouse, originally built from wood, had perhaps as many as 40 students ranging from [...]

School #4

Brick school was built here and served the mill village of Munsonville until the Munsonville School as built in 1891.

Nelson’s One Room Schools

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."

Ichabod Crane, Who Built Your Schoolhouse

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.

Heating a One Room Schoolhouse

The subject of heating the building consumed approximately one third of the written record of early school district meetings. In 1820 men bid to keep the fire at the school at $1.00 per week.  Five different men supplied both wood and fire lighting for that 8-week winter school session. It is quite a modern idea: subcontract a whole function. In this case heat.

Building School #7

In the late nineteen-nineties it took the Nelson School District three years to design, achieve political support for and build an addition to the Munsonville School. In 1821 School District Number Seven faced similar issues and dealt with the inadequacies of the old wooden building in a matter of months.

An Early Nelson School

Settlement in Nelson had increased remarkably in the years immediately after the revolution increasing from 186 in 1776 to 721 by the first national census in 1790.  With that growth came things that made settlements, proper towns: things like schools. In an era when we worry about dwindling school enrollment in our town of seven hundred, it is ironic to think back to 1790 when Nelson (then Packersfeld) had seven hundred and twenty-one inhabitants and a surfeit of students.

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