The Long Life of the Wilson Schoolhouse

It would seem that every small town in New England still maintains at least one of their original iconic one-room schoolhouses as a testimony to our forefathers’ dedication to properly educating their children. Many towns once had multiple schools that dotted the landscape that were within walking distance of almost every student who attended. In the mid-nineteenth century many folks were born, educated, employed and eventually buried in the same town. Their education was usually limited to several years attending the same small schoolhouse, with the same neighborhood children, and often taught by the same teacher throughout their formative years.

Easton had a grand total of thirteen separate school districts in the mid-nineteenth century. Eight of those districts had schoolhouses located within the confines of Easton, while the other five were part of combined districts with Weston, Fairfield, Trumbull and Redding. Amazingly, five of the eight Easton structures still survive: Adams, Everett (also known as the Yellow School), Rock House, Sport Hill, and Wilson. With the exception of the Adams School that is presently owned and maintained by the Historical Society of Easton, the remainder have been converted into residences.

The Wilson Street School was located a few yards north of Silver Hill Road on the western side of what we now call the Black Rock Turnpike. During the early years of Easton’s history only a few roads had names that were considered official in the eyes of the town’s residents. This section of what many called the “Great Road” that ran from Fairfield to Danbury was referred to as Wilson Street in the mid-1800’s, the name recognizing the area for the multiple generations of the Wilson family that resided in the general vicinity of the school’s location. The Clark map of 1856 shows the school’s location, but it wasn’t until 1865 that William W. Thorpe recorded a deed that transferred the land on which it sat to School District Number Nine for the sum of $75.

It’s not until 1884 that records kept by the Board of Education break down the costs of each district individually. In that year, the Wilson Street School had a total expense to the town of $220. Anna Wells taught the winter session and Novella Thorpe the summer. There were a total of 16 pupils enrolled for the entire year.

By the late 1890’s enrollment had dropped to only the nine students shown here and the Wilson schoolhouse was closed.

By 1897 the enrollment at Wilson Street had declined to the point that the schoolhouse was shuttered, and the remaining students transferred to the Center School on Westport Road. By then the town was paying to have the students in the outlying areas transported by wagon to their respective schools. As area families with school age children would grow and then shrink as the children reached adulthood, some of the smaller school districts opened and closed their doors based on the number of children that needed to be educated. After several years of inactivity, in 1904, Wilson Street reopened when Marilla Rockwell was hired as a teacher and a new generation of neighborhood students returned.

Easton HSE 1920 Town School expenses
Easton’s Education Budget for the 1919-1920 School Year as published in the annual Town Report.

During the first two decades of the twentieth century, the task of balancing the needs of the town’s students with the taxpayer’s desire to spend no more than was absolutely necessary to educate them, the town fathers struggled to juggle the constantly changing enrollment. There was frequent talk about a need for a single consolidated elementary school, but it would take until 1930 before voters would finally agree to paying the cost. In the meantime, those in charge of the coffers and those tasked with teaching the children did the best they could.

The entire school budget for the 1919-1920 school year was $8,346.91. Based on the monies Easton received in state aid and grants, that amounted to a town expenditure of $26 per pupil. Even when using the Federal Government Bureau of Labor’s Consumer Price Index inflation adjustment, that only translates into $302.64 per student in today’s dollars, and a total town education budget of $96,808.83 at current valuations.

Absence from class that year was deemed higher than acceptable, and one of the reasons given was excessive illness. The last waves of the Spanish Flu were just beginning to wane. There was no school nurse in Easton in 1920, but the school committee was seriously considering one as a means of identifying children with communicable diseases and curable ailments, and then getting them removed from school and to a clinic where they might receive adequate treatment.

By the end of the school year in 1920, there were only six school districts left in operation in Easton. Some of the outlying farms had shrunk in size with crop output at the lowest levels in years due to poor soil conditions. Many of Easton’s farmers had moved into cities such as Bridgeport where work was plentiful. Property acquisitions by the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company for their expanded watershed areas continued unabated. Most of Easton’s original thirteen school districts had already seen varying degrees of merger and some of the outlying schoolhouses had already closed for good.

There was a total of one hundred and sixty-seven registered students who were taught by a total of eight teachers in 1920. High School students were transported to Bridgeport where the town paid their tuition. In a survey of three of the town’s largest six remaining schools, it was found that out of one hundred and eighteen students, only forty of them had “some schoolbooks of one kind or another.” In the lower room of the Academy, a total of eight geography books were found, seven of which represented completely different texts. The system of the day consisted of the teachers being allowed to order books individually and then sell them to the students.

By the spring of 1920, Sport Hill and the old Staples Academy were the largest in physical size and the only two schools to employ two teachers each. The town had already closed the Adams School at the end of 1919, with the teacher, Miss Bennett, going to teach at the Academy. Her students were transferred to Sport Hill. Judd had operated for the entire 1919-1920 year, but in the fall of 1920, those students were transferred to the Yellow School (Everett). With the Center Primary School on Westport Road being located within about a hundred yards of the Academy, it too was closed, and the students moved north that autumn. By the end of the winter session in 1920, Wilson was overflowing with students, and consideration was then being given to either expanding the building to two classrooms or closing it altogether. Ultimately, the decision was made to once again shutter the school and transfer the students to the Academy beginning in the fall of 1921.

In November of 1928, the town sold the Wilson Street School to Herbert Mills and Ethel Votre. Eminent domain proceedings resulted in the taking of the old school by the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company in July of 1936, as the company took most of the remaining land west of the Black Rock Turnpike for its Saugatuck Reservoir project. By then, the building had been converted into a small dwelling by Mills, and after they acquired it, the BHC occasionally rented it out to workers of the company. When Arthur “Turb” Bush retired as Superintendent of the Easton Reservoir in the late 1960’s, the company refurbished the old school one last time and leased it to Bush and his wife as a summer cottage for the next several years.

Easton HSE S101 Wilson School Turb Bush house 1974
The Wilson schoolhouse had been repurposed for use as a summer cottage as seen here in the 1970’s

In 1974, the Historical Society of Easton accepted a “deed of gift” from the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company for the old school with the stipulation that it be removed from the site no later than June 30, 1984. Having no real use for two one-room-schoolhouses (the Society by then also owned the old Adams School), it was eventually decided that it would be offered free of charge to anyone willing and able to move it to a new location in Easton; the only other stipulation being that it would not be destroyed, but instead repurposed for future use. In May of 1984, Jerry and Susan Gabert took possession of the old school and agreed to move to its present location on Kachele Street, where it became part of their house.  It survives today as a reminder that even buildings that have outlived their original intent can be successfully repurposed and saved from the wrecking ball, preserving a little piece of history that future generations can enjoy.

A more recent photograph of the Wilson schoolhouse that is now part of a residence on Kachele Street.

As more and more of our historic buildings face an uncertain future, we should all welcome new means to preserve what we have, be it through restoration or repurposing. Once structures such as these are lost, they are gone forever, only a fading memory of the way life used to be.

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