Elementary School Life  in 

Early Bridgewater

Once again we are in the middle of another school year. As we think about our education today, I thought about looking back to public elementary education in Bridgewater around 1900. Part of our collection at the Historical Society includes many papers and items from Henry Clarence Sanford, a well-known resident in the early twentieth century. He was born in 1875 and lived over on, you guessed it, Henry Sanford Road (named in his honor). He passed away in 1965. Here is an account of his memories of early education in Bridgewater:

My first contact with public education occurred at the age of five in our River District School. It was a small one room school, not even red as I remember though it may have been once. The front door opened into a narrow entry where we hung our wraps, also kept the drinking water pail and dipper, and further back piles of stove wood. Another door opened in to the school room, which would seat 24 pupils, two on each bench which were made of boards, a combined seat and desk in front, which were jack knife carved, and had no curves to favor our bones. The classes came up to the front seats to recite and in very cold weather gathered around the stove if possible. 

The school visitor came twice each term. He was a very large man, 250 lbs. at least and very genial as I afterwards found. He always sat in the teacher’s chair in the only open space in front of the door. When we were called up to read or recite we always wondered how we could get around him and out the door if worst came to worst which never did.

He wanted us to read with expression and would read for us to do the same. Patrick Henry, sink or swim, live or die, survive or perish. I give my hand to this vote. His own daughter in the Center school was not so much in awe of him and would chant it out. always with a giggle.  He had a dry sense of humor and years afterward when asked his advice about selling some woods with many large trees to a saw mill man who wanted it. He said,” If you sell to him, you will always have something coming.”

Our River District school was typical of the four other district schools in Bridgewater. The Center school varied in that had two rooms which are now the lower rooms of the Grange Hall. The district schools were to be within walking distance, 2 miles, from each home, though there were many exceptions! The roads then were what we would call very poor. The side roads being two-wheel tracks and a path in the middle that the one horse, the rest grass or ledge. The main roads were simply dirt roads, no gravel and for a long time in winter were mud or frozen ruts with many impossible mud holes or honey pots. The teacher usually built the fire in the morning or in cold weather sometimes hired a boy to start it. 

The subjects were reading, writing and arithmetic, plus geography and grammar. Learning the alphabet first was a must. The fourth and fifth readers, Hilliards, had real gems of poetry, history and folklore - Ichabod Crane and the headless horseman, Emerson’s essays, Spartacus at the bridge.

When the schools changed later to the New Franklin Readers, they seemed horribly insipid. Many teachers encouraged nature studies too, collections of flowers, plants and bugs. In our school spring were cocoons of tiny stones glued together, dragonfly. Each teacher was supposed to teach the eight grades to high school if there was one or more that wanted it. 

Each school district elected their own committee man and treasurer every year. It was planned to have a different man each election to pass the honors around and that included the job of furnishing two to four cords of wood sawed into stove lengths. Usually they did so. One committee man I knew of when notified by the teacher that she was out of wood brought a cord of four foot wood, when the young lady asked him to cut it so she could get it in the stove, he told her to stick one end of the four foot wood into the stove and when that was burned, turn it around and stick the other end in. Another more public-spirited man had to cut the wood. Many teachers later were girls from 16-20 years old who had finished high school. The committee man in each district hired the teacher and part of his self-imposed duties was to squire the teacher around. The teacher usually applied for the job. I remember one pretty blue-eyed girl of 16 who applied to the committee man who was an uncouth but witty fresh man, and he was doubtful of her ability to handle the school. “Can you wrestle?” said he.  Let’s see you wrestle with me. She hardly knew what to make of it but got hold of him and they tugged around. “I think you will do”, he said and she did that year successfully. Most of the teachers were older and more experience. One in particular Miss Sarah Lyon a splendid teacher taught till she was over 80. Teaching parents and maybe grandparents in their childhood as well as the present children.

© Bridgewater Historical Society

    2021 A. Wilkicki & L. Shail