(this article Appeared in the March 9th, 2000 John Clayton at Large column in the Manchester Union Leader. It has been retyped from a copy graciously provided by the author, The photos were kindly supplied by Union Leader photographer Bob LaPree.)

Historic one-room schoolhouse in East Washington


Bob LaPree/Union Leader

THE WELL-PRESERVED, one-room schoolhouse in East Washington was a perfect place for Charlene Cobb, left and Jeffery Murray to examine his photographs of similar schools throughout New Hampshire.

Once, they were everywhere

As you ponder the interior of the one-room schoolhouse in the heart of East Washington - officially, it's School District 5 - you can almost taste the chalk dust still floating in the air from a century of lessons. And if you listen real close, you can still hear Miss Edna Crane - a spinster, naturally - as she clangs the bell to summon the children from the schoolyard.

     In his mind, Jeffrey Murray hears that clarion call every day.

      Jeffrey knows a little something about schools. He's a principal, but the state-of-the-art school he directs in Chelmsford, Mass. - the South Row School - is a far cry from the one-room schoolhouse we visited in East Washington yesterday.

      And more's the pity.

      Given his druthers, the 52-year-old Nashua resident would happily trade most of the modern academic amenities and all of the modern-day headaches for the simple trappings of a one-room schoolhouse.

      Except, perhaps for the outhouse.

      "But that's one reason kids were always glad to see the superintendent visit," Jeffrey said. "Whenever he'd come around he'd quiz them on their work. They didn't necessarily like that, but they'd always welcome him anyway because he'd bring the toilet paper for the outhouse."

      At the turn of the century - the 1900's that is - such a visit was a routine scene, played out in small school districts scattered throughout New Hampshire. Back then, one-room schoolhouses were as common as mud ruts in March, but nowadays, Jeffrey Murray is afraid these sociological gems - and the stories that emerged from them - may one day be lost.

      Charlene (Fletcher) Cobb shares that fear.

      She's fourth generation East Washington. These days, Charlene - herself a retired school teacher - keeps an eye on the building and serves as an unofficial tour guide for the Washington Historical Society. After all, she has an enormous emotional stake in the place. Her parents attended the District Five Schoolhouse. So did her grandparents.

      "My grandparents used to board the teacher, too," she said. "In the early days, the teachers were only paid $20 to $30 per term and they got room and board. The parents were supposed to board the teacher a week at a time, but some of the conditions left a lot to be desired, so my grandparents just put them up."

      And town officials didn't put up with a lot from teachers.

      "Teachers must not dress in bright colors," according to a legend in the smaller foyer of the schoolhouse. "Dresses must not be more than two inches above the ankle. At least two petticoats must be worn. Teachers will not marry or keep company with men during the term of her employment."

      The list goes on and on like that.

      "But for all that, there was another factor," Charlene smiled. "The teacher was always right. God forbid if the family ever found out about your kicking your heels up at school. You knew you'd get it worse at home than you did at school if word got home before you did."

     When you consider all eight grades might have been operating under one roof at one time with one teacher, you can understand why the academic emphasis was on the Three R's - readin', writin', and 'rithmatic - but yesterday, thanks to Jeffrey's passion for one-room schoolhouses, history was also on the curriculum.

      "I just think they are fascinating little structures, and what's equally fascinating is how well some towns have kept them," he said. "I've found 133 in New Hampshire so far, but I only photograph the ones that still look like one-room schoolhouses."

      That standard would preclude photos of the former one-room schoolhouse in Hopkinton - it now houses the fire department - or Waterville Valley - it is home to the town library - but an image of the Alexandria Village School in Bristol, the only still-functioning one-room schoolhouse in New Hampshire, is in his collection. [The May 12th 2000 John Clayton at Large column features a visit to New Hampshire's OTHER one-room school, in Croyden].

      Other favorites?

      "I like the Bed Bug School in Westmoreland," he said. "It's really called the Corner School, but people in town call it the Bed Bug School. Don't ask me why. Then there's the Tucker Mountain Road Schoolhouse in Andover and the South Meetinghouse School in Gilmanton and the Lockehaven School in Enfield."

      Jeff's also partial to the Chick's Corner School in Sandwich, although he cited a story in a 1907 edition of the "Sandwich Reporter" as proof that some acts of mischief went beyond the innocent dipping of pigtails in ink wells.

      "Some of the children are in the habit of carrying revolvers and firing them off in the vicinity of the schoolhouse," the paper reported. "Some of the parents of the children not so similarly furnished feel some alarm lest their children might accidently become targets of the young shooters to practice upon."

      Fortunately a subsequent issue of the paper revealed that the teacher was able to disarm both the situation and the students, thus preserving the idyllic image of the one-room schoolhouse.

      It's an image that both Jeffrey and Charlene both cherish.

      "These are called recitation benches," said Charlene, with a gesture toward the Spartan-looking seats along the wall. "The seat at each desk would go up so you could stand and speak right at your desk, but students who were going to make presentations would get up from their desks and sit and wait their turn on the benches.

      "And I don't know if you know it," she added, "but students had to provide their own books until about 1910. That's why it could be so difficult to teach reading because all the children had different books."

      If they had a mind to, Charlene and Jeff could probably collaborate on a book of their own, one that could chronicle the history of the one-room schoolhouse in New Hampshire. No such plan is in the works, however.

      "All I'm trying to do is gather the histories from the various towns," said Jeff, who has put together a locator map, professional display charts and a large photo album for occasional lectures on his favorite topic.

      "I have no grand plan for this," he added. "I'm interested in it, sure, but I'm not sure if anyone else is. What might be nice is to shed a little light on these schools and hope that people might take acre of them again."

      Even if he might never get to head one up himself?

      "My career isn't over yet," he smiled.

      (Union Leader columnist John Clayton, named "Columnist of the Year" by the Associated Press of New England, is also the host of "New Hampshire Crossroads" on New Hampshire Public Television.)



Bob LaPree/Union Leader

Return to Schoolhouse #5 Page for more history and photos.

See the WHS Spring 2000 newsletter article about this article!