Litchfield County Sketches

By Newell Meeker Calhoun

Litchfield County University Club

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The Old Red School House

THE historian inquiring into the reasons for the intellectual accomplishments and public service of the men and women of Litchfield County during the nineteenth century will find one of the most potent in the old Red School House. For the most part their education was begun and completed therein. On its hard plank benches they sat during their A B C period, and at its desks wrought upon their arithmetic, grammar and geography. It was kindergarten, primary grammar school and academy all in one. The little ones “toed the crack” while they spelled words of one syllable, and the grown up boys declaimed from the floor in front of the desk,

“Stand, the ground’s your own, niv braves,”

or Fitz-Greene Halleck’s immortal words,

“At midnight, in his guarded tent,
The Turk lay dreaming of the hour
When Greece, her knee in suppliance bent,
Should tremble at his power.”

The very bashful young man, tall and overgrown, embarrassed beyond all control, found himself approaching nearer and nearer to the stove, until his hands, stretched out in a sort of despair, clutching at a straw, came near embracing the stovepipe. Those patriotic declamations, how they fired the soul; what visions of battlefields, and heroes, and statesmen! As we declaimed Webster’s reply to Haynes in the United States Senate, or those words of the eloquent Patrick Henry, our souls expanded with the inspiring thoughts, and we preferred death to the loss of liberty. These declamations of the district school did much to impress upon the minds of the pupils the worthy literature of the past. In my own case, I formed a taste for the best poetry and prose in that way. The reading books were carefully made up of selections from the best authors. The Bible, too, was read every morning, or, more properly, the New Testament. Every scholar had to have a copy along with his school books. That was worth something— to make that book one of those used in the school, and so possessed by every scholar. The Bible as literature must have made a profound impression upon the minds of those thus reading it in school. Some there were who would not read it elsewhere, or hear it often read.

At this time, of course, the girls had not thought of going to college, and the boy who went was almost as distinguished as the man who now goes in search of the North Pole. Such breadth of education required, of course, genius in the teacher. It should be said, however, that the ungraded school of those early days in the country districts of our county was virtually divided into two grades by the Summer and Winter terms. In the Summer the little folks all went, down to the abecedarians, while the older ones helped on the farm or about the house. The girls had the advantage over the boys, for many of them could have both the Summer and Winter terms. The lad of twelve or even younger had only the Winter months for his education. The school held from December to March, inclusive, for the Winter term, and about twelve weeks in the Summer; possibly longer if the school money held out.

The old Red School House which the writer has in mind stood within eight miles of the county seat, sheltered by a mountain on the northwest and within easy distance of the Shepaug River. Before it flowed a trout brook, with its swimming holes, while an old orchard covered the hillside in the rear. The building was low and roomy, with entry ways, and dark wood closets, which were used on occasion for bad boys or girls. Around three sides, under the windows, ran a wide desk decorated with the jackknives and the ink of generations of scholars. Parallel with the desks were backless benches. While writing or studying the pupil sat at the desk facing the windows and the apple trees, while for recitation or spelling the feet were swung over the bench, and the edge of the desk served as back. The modern school desks, with their patent seats, came into the county about 1850. Along with these new seats came blackboards, maps and modern school apparatus. The youngsters sat on low benches made of planks with holes bored in them for the legs. These, of course, had no backs, and the discomfort of those little tots can easily be imagined as they twisted around on those hard benches with nothing to do.

For heating, there was the large open Franklin stove, which at times “beat back the frost with tropic heat” and at others made it its chief business to smoke. It depended upon the wind in part. The older boys and girls were equal in age to those who now are in college. The common school education was not completed until later in life, owing to the fact that for most of the older ones it must all be gotten in the Winter months. It was customary, too, in beginning a new term with a new teacher to begin the textbook at the beginning, since the teacher had no other way of knowing where each pupil belonged. Then, too, the teacher could show great progress in this way under his instruction. The apt scholar had little advantage over the dull one in the ground traversed. There was an element of discouragement in this for the best pupils. Of course it was often true that certain scholars in the school became as familiar with the work gone over as the teacher, and were thus fitted to teach themselves. Such would do what would be called now independent work, mostly in mathematics, “hard sums.” The Winter’s teacher was ordinarily a farmer from the neighborhood, who drove a number of miles and took care of his stock, or one of the grown-up sons, who taught Winters and worked on the farm Summers. Such a man had no theory of teaching save what he had worked out himself. He taught oftentimes by main strength. If he was muscular and alert, then he would succeed in a way in “keeping school.” There were, however, men and women who were educational enthusiasts, who inspired their pupils with a genuine thirst for knowledge. It was more than likely that this thirst had been unquenched on their part. They had heard the river of knowledge as it swept by them, but themselves had drunk only of the least rivulets. So much the more those self-sacrificing men and women pointed out the river to their pupils, and encouraged them to drink deeply of its waters.

The old Red School House remains, however, a mystery. There were no modern textbooks, no theories of education, no grades, no continuity of teaching, by reason of the frequent changes of teachers. And yet results were achieved wholly beyond what would seem possible. There was a love for knowledge which was historic, perseverance in the face of difficulties, and an independence in working out results which was amazing. The student was an explorer in unknown regions. Even his teacher-guide knew little of that land of knowledge through which they were travelling together. Through long Winter nights, in front of the crackling logs, they worked out their problems independently, afterward comparing results. Sometimes the teacher was ahead, and sometimes the scholar. They saw only the low horizons of history, poetry and literature in the books which they had access to, but they were moved to make the horizon of to-day the camping place of to-morrow. Intellectual shrewdness was developed, and a marvellous receptivity. The pupils did not tire of knowledge. It always tasted good to them. They knew the cost of an education in hard work, and that made it appreciated. They knew the Winter’s term would be short, and that much must be crowded into it. Sturdy in body and strong in will, they became heroic without knowing it.

It need not seem strange to us that certain definite results flowed naturally from an education gotten thus in the old Red School House. One of them was tenacity of purpose. The Litchfield County man has been noted for holding on. Like “Bud Means’” dog, “Heaven and yarth couldn’t make him let go.” He stuck to the rocky farm, and made it bud and blossom as the rose. He held steadily to the faith of his fathers, although the mystery was profound and the theology beyond his comprehension. He held to awakened ideals of education, although they could only be realized in his sons and daughters. The goal once fixed, he fastened his eyes upon it, and reached out toward it with all his might, though mountains of difficulties lay between him and it. He was trained to this by the school and the farm, both of which taught him to endure hardship and laugh at obstacles.

Another result was independence of character. The way of knowledge was no fixed path for every student to follow. He blazed his way, as did Horace Bushnell, a graduate of the old Red School House. It mattered not how the problem was solved, so long as it was solved. It mattered not how the preparation for college was gotten, so long as it was gotten. He came to think that it was better to make a way than to find one. Such training produced inventors, explorers, improvers on the past. This Yankee trait was fostered, if not born, in the district school.

The heroic element has been spoken of, but should have more than a passing word. Our county has been the fruitful soil for the growth of heroic men and women. No distinction ought to be made, for although the women have not figured so much in the public eye they have no less possessed themselves of heroic souls. The mother of a hero must be a heroine. She must fire the soul of her son for great tasks worthily accomplished. Without the right influences of the school her work cannot be made perfect. Easy tasks easily accomplished, ways made smooth for the feet of our sons and daughters, their wills weakened by frequent yielding to difficulties, do not nourish heroic, self-sacrificing souls.

Farewell to the old Red School House! Its work is done. Here and there one decorates the countryside, but its walls no longer resound to the hum of a half hundred boys and girls. Its paths are grass-grown, its door is half off its hinges. The children of the district— if there are any—are carried in a wagon, hired by the school money, to the busy centre of industry and life. In the mean time the old Red School House dreams of bygone days.

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