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Early District Schools in Simsbury
It is interesting to explore the educational opportunities available to early colonists’ children in Simsbury. After constructing their meetinghouse, the next order of business for the settlers was educating their children. Schooling was a priority in Connecticut and New England but not for the same reasons as it is today. Learning was centered on religion and the ability to read the Bible. The writing and mathematical skills to keep merchant accounts were also important to students and their families.
Connecticut towns were charged with providing a common school if there were twenty-five families or more plus a grammar school if over 50 families. The term ‘common’ referred to the shared Congregational Society religious beliefs taught in these schools that were the free, publicly supported schools of the 19th century. A ‘grammar’ school would correspond to today’s secondary or high schools. All pupils were charged tuition. For those too poor to pay it the choices were either no school or getting the town to pay the tuition.
In the 18th century towns in Connecticut that had grown to include several parishes were required to have a school in each. These parishes later became the districts school in towns and cities. By 1798, the legislature removed the control of schools from the Congregational Societies and placed them in the hands of secular school committees each of which governed a particular school. These committees were responsible for hiring school teachers, building, repairing and maintaining a school building, setting tuition, arranging for books and supplies as well as heat and sanitation needs.
The school districts in Simsbury expanded and shrank along with the population. Students were both male and female and the teachers included women as early as 1797 when Hannah Wilcox was hired “to keep a school in Hopmeadow district so long as we can furnish scholars sufficient to support the same” at the sum of four shillings per week.
The original Hopmeadow District School was located near the Center Cemetery. In 1799 a new school was built by joiners Elias Vining and his son, Elias Vining Jr. The agreement made by them with the school committee provides an intriguing look into its construction. It had clapboard siding, a shingle roof, a balcony, sixteen windows (twelve of which contained twelve over twelve glass panes each six by eight inches), four windows with twenty squares of glass, and a large front door. The interior had molding, fireplaces, encased timbers, a double floor on the first floor and “a single floor in the Chamber and half door.”
School operations consisted of both winter and summer sessions. The winter session ran from December 1st to April 1. The summer sessions ran for six months from March 1st to October 1st. Because of agricultural demands on men’s time during the growing season, male teachers were often hired for the winter term with women taking the summer session.
There have been as many as twelve or thirteen school districts in Simsbury reflecting the population settlement within the town. Hopmeadow District was disbanded in 1838 and reformed into a new Hopmeadow District and Center District as the residents increased. Among the other district names were the Northwest, East Weatogue, West Weatogue, New District, Union District, Tariffville, Farms, Bushy Hill, Terrys Plain, Westover Plain, Middle, Case’s Farms, and West Simsbury. In the 1830s when there were eleven districts a total 640 students attended, the most in Tariffville at 276, followed by West Weatogue at 63 and the fewest in Terrys Plain at 17.
Each district had its own school committee. The Terrys Plain committee at a meeting on November 18, 1811 agreed that each student provide one-third cord of wood and “voted that those who do not get their wood by the time [December 2nd] shall be debarred the privileges of the school after that time until they do comply.” A total of 32 students were expected that year.
Just like today teachers were licensed and in the archives of the Simsbury Historical Society are examples of those licenses from the 1800s. One licensed the future wife of Jeffrey O. Phelps, “We approve of Miss Pollina Salome Barnard as an instructress of Schools, and hereby license her to teach a school in the School Society of Simsbury the current year. Simsbury 16th May 1815 [signed] Benjamin Ely, John Owens Pettibone, Visitors of Schools.
”Visitors of schools or school inspectors made trips to the various districts to report on their condition and the quality of the education received by the pupils. Edgar Case served as an inspector in 1886-7 of the West Weatogue and the Simsbury Center District Schools. His remarks make interesting reading, “Nov., 10, 1886 13 Scholars. Very quiet. Not many unnecessary questions. Scholars seem to demand much respect for their teacher. The desire to excel seems quite prevalent. School appears to be quite successful.” His remarks on the Center school are quite different, “This school is one in which I feel very much interest it being the school that the present vacancy be filled by Miss Butterfield. Was very sorry to see the condition in which the school was in. The scholars had lost all respect for their teacher. The consequence was not very pleasing to me who chanced to spend a few minutes in visiting it.”
Most of the district schools, except those with a large enrollment like Tariffville or West Weatogue, were what are now remembered as one-room schools and were used until the 1930s when the state legislature required consolidation. Many of these smaller Simsbury district schools survive today housing businesses or private residences.