2017-09-07 / Front Page

Witherbee School a Return to the 1890s

By James Merolla


Witherbee School is one of five remaining one-room schoolhouse buildings in Middletown. (Photo by Chris Parish) Witherbee School is one of five remaining one-room schoolhouse buildings in Middletown. (Photo by Chris Parish) There are 26 scratched, authentic wooden desks filling the remarkable Witherbee School, with those nearest the teacher’s desk coming only to an adult’s knee. They increase in size the farther they go to the back of the room, the largest in the last row. The smallest children would fidget in the shadow of the teacher’s skirt, nearest the pot-bellied stove for warmth, up front, with the annual graduating class of eighth graders rising at the rear. Witherbee is the only one-room schoolhouse on Aquidneck Island still set up as a school building, but for historical purposes.

Middletown fourth graders will have a final chance during the 2017 summer season to visit the school, on Sunday, Sept. 10, from 2 to 4 p.m., as part of a program called "Those Dear Old Golden Rule Days."


Curses, no, cursive Yes. Mary Dennis of the Middletown Historical Society shows the traditional practice of cursive writing, a lost practice, on the blackboard at the one-room Witherbee Schoolhouse. 
(Photo by Chris Parish) Curses, no, cursive Yes. Mary Dennis of the Middletown Historical Society shows the traditional practice of cursive writing, a lost practice, on the blackboard at the one-room Witherbee Schoolhouse. (Photo by Chris Parish) When students arrive, a single teacher at the front of the room, dressed in period clothing, will present lessons as they would have been given more than 100 years ago, when K-8 students learned under one roof in one room at Witherbee, with the same instructor and a single purpose: to further an elementary school education in the heart of old Middletown. From 1892 through the middle of the 20th century, there could be 50 or more students attending the school, depending on the year.

It was a heavy responsibility for a teacher, instructing as many as 54 students from ages 7 to 16, while maintaining discipline. Anne P. Smith taught at Witherbee from 1895 to 1904, Ann Sarah Ward from 1906 to 1908, Daisy E. Stenhouse in 1918, and Vivian A. Ellis in 1922. Most were paid less than $48 per month for teaching reading, writing, arithmetic (classified as “mental” and “written”), geography, grammar, history, physiology, drawing and spelling.


The Witherbee Schoolhouse today. In the late 19th century, students answered math questions called "mental questions," from John F. Stoddards 1867 workbook, "Rudiments of Arithmetic," among others. The Witherbee Schoolhouse today. In the late 19th century, students answered math questions called "mental questions," from John F. Stoddards 1867 workbook, "Rudiments of Arithmetic," among others. Mary Dennis, vice president and archivist of the Middletown Historical Society, vibrantly described teacher-student roles at the end of the Victorian Age. “The teacher had to take care of the place, stoke the fire, teach a variety of advanced subjects. This was her domain,” she said.

“Males were held to a higher standard than girls. They were going to enter the workplace or the government. They had to be properly trained,” she said. “You have to put yourself back then to much different standards.”

The marvelous late Victorian structure stands at the corner of Green End Avenue and Valley Road and served hundreds of the town's children from 1892 through the 1940s. Hundreds of modern students visit the school each year, part of a program entitled, "Those Dear Old Golden Rule Days." The marvelous late Victorian structure stands at the corner of Green End Avenue and Valley Road and served hundreds of the town's children from 1892 through the 1940s. Hundreds of modern students visit the school each year, part of a program entitled, "Those Dear Old Golden Rule Days." Discipline was meted out severely. Fighting got you five lashes, which Dennis described as “quick flicks,” and not anything resembling severe whippings; quarreling got you three. Playing tag got you one lash, while giving each other “ill” names merited three more. Telling tales out of school earned a whopping eight lashes.

The Witherbee School was one of five situated in the Bailey’s Brook Valley. The other four are the Oliphant School (1702), which has been drastically altered and serves the school department as storage space; Peabody School (1794), now a private dwelling; Wyatt School, which was demolished and is currently the site of the town’s police and fire departments; and the Paradise School, in Paradise Valley Park, which was constructed in 1875 and now serves as the home of the Middletown Historical Society.

The Historical Society acquired Paradise School in 1976, at the society’s formation. It houses a museum with numerous displays relating to town history, a vintage doll collection, cannon balls from the Revolution, Native American stones, and many photographs.

The Witherbee site was given to the town by landowner Sophia Witherbee, in 1891. Joseph Coggeshall constructed the first building for $1,975, but it burned down in 1907 and was immediately rebuilt in the same design on the same footprint by Coggeshall’s son, John, for $3,500.

The end-gabled, wood balloon-frame structure in a modest Queen Anne style is complete with a square bell tower and its original bell. A door from each vestibule opens to the classroom, with high ceilings and a structure that differs from the other originals.

Visitors of the older set will see visceral reminders of their youth. In one corner is a dunce cap sitting on a stool. “I can’t tell you how many parents see the dunce chair and exclaim, ‘Oh, God, I remember that!’” said Dennis.

Above the blackboard is the Latin alphabet in cursive. “Every parent comes in and remembers the cursive lessons, the making of loops on bars over and over. Kids today will tell them they can’t read cursive,” she said. “There is one study that finds that the lack of cursive writing practice, that soft, smooth, gentle practice of making loops, absent from modern teaching, may lead to spikes of child violence. It makes sense.”

To learn more about the tours, visit www.middletownhistory.org

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