Author documents CT schoolhouses with photos of past and present
WOODBRIDGE >> Melinda Elliott’s self-proclaimed longtime love affair with one-room schoolhouses was stirred during her New England honeymoon, when the Texan-by-way-of-Florida first saw the little classrooms in person.
Those legacies of a bygone era in education conjure up a romantic image to Elliott, and are seen as a “nostalgic treasure.”
“Schoolhouses have always interested me,” Elliott said. “My mother went to a one-room schoolhouse, her grandmother taught in a one-room schoolhouse.”
Her continued passion has resulted in the book, “Connecticut Schoolhouses Through Time,” with Arcadia Publishing.
The format includes photographs of 91 schoolhouses; pictured in their heyday juxtaposed with recent images Elliott captured herself. Informative, paragraph-long captions separate the photos on each page.
Elliott’s first published work was the realization of both an involvement with her local historical society, and an idea to use the schoolhouse postcards she collected that never got traction.
“About 10 years ago I tried to get something published where you’d put the old postcards in a book,” Elliott said. “I was told that the market was too limited, and so that sort of sat on the back burner for a long time.”
The Southbury Historical Society — of which she is on the board of directors — received a request for a book with new photographs set against old photographs of the town.
Elliott said there were already three books on Southbury in that same style, so she instead asked if she could do the new/old photograph format on just schoolhouses in the state. She was given a book contract within a week.
Her knowledge of the subject also drew on her work with Southbury’s Bullet Hill School, a living history museum that demonstrates what education was like in the early 1800s to current elementary school students. The school, built between 1762 and 1789, operated until December 1941.
“Little schools were set up so kids wouldn’t have to walk more than 2 miles to school,” Elliott said.
That meant that each schoolhouse, in turn, was its own district. Typically, she said, neighbors, siblings, and cousins would be in one school taught by one teacher for grades 1-8.
Elliott said she is a stickler for accuracy, so she read old newspaper articles and accounts from teacher diaries. In them she would find specific details, like, for example, how the optimal classroom temperature in the winter was 62 degrees, taking two hours to warm up.
“They would put the inkwells in a box of sand to prevent the ink from freezing overnight,” she said.
Teaching at Bullet Hill School came to an end for the same reason most other one-room schoolhouses in Connecticut were shuttered.
“It became too expensive to support every single little schoolhouse,” Elliott said. “And so, everybody thought it was better to have a consolidated school.”
Reliable motorized transportation played a part, too, as students could more easily be brought to a centralized school instead of a reliance on how far a student could walk from home.
WOOBRIDGE, other towns
Elliott spoke while seated on the porch of the restored South School in Woodbridge, noting the separate marked entrances for boys and girls.
The small, white schoolhouse was slowly brought back to its original-looking condition starting 15 years ago, after spending part of the early 20th century as a fire station, Elliot said.
Aside from Woodbridge, schoolhouses in Greater New Haven didn’t always make the cut for her book. She attributed it to the lack of restored buildings, and in a few cases not being able to source enough historical information.
North Branford’s little red schoolhouse, though, opens the book’s second chapter, with Clinton and Killingworth rounding out the other local towns included in the book.
Clinton’s red Cow Hill schoolhouse, named after the area where cows roamed freely on a community pasture, was built in 1800 to replace an earlier school and remained in use until 1894. The building is owned by the town and sits on a small triangular plot bordered by Airline and Cow Hill roads.
Killingworth, which was a single town with Clinton until 1838, has no fewer than three schoolhouses in Elliot’s book.
Built in 1800, the Union District School is the oldest and distinctive in its green hue. Along with the Pine Orchard and Black Rock schoolhouses, built in 1853 and 1860, respectively, they were in use until the late 1940s when the town closed all small schoolhouses and moved students to a consolidated school.
About North Branford’s schoolhouse, Elliott said, in an email: “It was built sometime between 1800 and 1805, and had shelf desks along the side of the room. The children sat on benches, with their backs to the teacher. The building was used until 1925, when the ‘modern school’ opened a short distance away.”
Two years after it closed the League of Women Voters purchased the building, she said, and moved it from the original location on Route 22 to Old Post Road. The Totoket Historical Society maintains the restored schoolhouse.
The restoration and current condition of many of the state’s old schoolhouses are a direct result of what towns and historical societies began several decades ago.
“In 1976, when the bicentennial was coming up,” Elliott said, “a lot of the historical societies were scrambling, and saying, ‘We want a part of our history to display, what can we do?’”
More than 40 years later, she said, the funds have mostly dried up and a new round of restorations is needed.
“The schoolhouses are starting to fall apart, the money has disappeared,” she said. “So that’s sort of my hope, is that people will look at the book and want to be involved with making sure the schoolhouses are preserved.”
Elliott’s book was set to be released Sept. 4, and will be available online at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Walmart.