History of Schools in Thompson, Connecticut

Public schools continued under the administration of the ecclesiastic society till 1797, when by a change of law it was recognized in the “capacity of a school society.” Liberty had been previously given to the several districts to tax themselves for the purpose of building and repairing a. school house, to choose a clerk and appoint a collector and treasurer. In 1798 it was further enacted ” that each school society shall appoint a suitable number of persons to be overseers or visitors of its schools, whose duty it shall be to examine the instructors, superintend and direct the instruction of the youth in letters, religion, morals and manners, to appoint at their discretion public exercises for the youth, to visit the schools twice at least during each season for schooling, and particularly to direct the daily reading of the Bible by such of the youths as are capable of it, and the weekly instruction in some catechism, by them approved, and to recommend that the master conclude the services of each day with prayer.”

Reverend Daniel Dow, Noadiah Russel and Daniel Wickham were accordingly appointed visitors and “inspectors” of the Thompson school, and on May 1st, 1799, presented an elaborate report, recommending a faithful examination of school teachers, each master to consider it ” a necessary requirement to be able to read and write English with propriety,” to explain the spelling book, and to perform common arithmetic; that a moral character be considered indispensable, and a knowledge of English grammar very desirable; teachers to exercise their own choice between the shorter Westminster catechism and Doctor Watt’s catechism for children. These recommendations were faithfully carried out. Examination of teachers was duly enforced, Bible read daily, and catechism administered. Reading, writing and spelling were taught in all schools throughout the year, to which were added arithmetic and grammar in the winter, sewing and knitting in summer. The school-ma’ams’ task of overseeing the sewing, basting and sometimes cutting out and fitting garments, was often very arduous. Some little girls were even required to make underwear for their fathers and brothers in school hours. No girl was thought to have thoroughly learned the alphabet until she had acquired the art of’, affixing each separate letter perfectly upon an elaborate sampler.

Geography was taught in very economic fashion, the older scholars reading it to the school in place of other reading exercise, sparing the necessity of buying more than one copy. Saturday afternoons they were allowed, as a special treat, to read aloud by turns, in the weekly county newspaper, before recitation in the catechism. Air. Dow was accustomed to visit and catechize each school in town, if possible, twice during the season-the brethren of the church, resident in each district, making a point of attending with him at such visitation. To make amends for this strictness there were weekly spelling matches, when boys and girls enjoyed the privilege of ” choosing up sides ” and spelling each other down, ransacking spelling books for the most difficult specimens of orthography. Evening exhibitions were also much in vogue, with declamation, recitation and amusing dialogue. The last day of the winter school was celebrated with especial festivities, the boys contributing pennies to purchase the requisite materials for a generous bowl of flip, and the girls bringing cake and home-made dainties. A popular teacher in the South Neighborhood was accustomed to give the children a closing ball in his own house. Five shillings a week was considered ample pay for a school mistress; a successful master could command as much as two dollars. The school house of that date was usually as bare, cold and comfortless a building as could well be devised, but a daughter of Mr. Dow gives a pleasant picture of that in the Central district.

This Thompson Hill district school house must have been quite exceptional. As a rule the school houses were close, crowded, and every way uncomfortable, with great cracks in the floor and about the windows, the huge fires burning the faces of the children while their feet were freezing. The numerous children in every household filled the houses to overflowing, especially in the winter, when the schools frequently numbered more than a hundred pupils. Their progress depended entirely upon the personality of the teacher, some having that native teacher’s instinct or faculty which enabled them to stimulate intellect even under those disadvantages. Captain John Green was one of these “born teachers,” whose services were in great demand for many years throughout the town. His brother, Winthrop Green, Messrs. Horace Seamans and Winthrop H. Ballard, are remembered as successful teachers. Among the schoolmistresses none gained a higher rank than Miss Hope B. Gay, a shining member of Priest Atkin’s celebrated ” class ” upon Killingly hill, and highly gifted with the art of imparting her own knowledge to others and winning the respect and affection of her pupils. As a rule, however, the standard of the district schools was so low, and the accommodations so poor, that well-to-do families preferred to send their children to select schools or academies. Thompson boys were sent to Plainfield, Woodstock or Dudley Academies. Especially favored young girl had the privilege of a year’s schooling in one of the noted female schools ” of Hartford, where they added to solid studies the accomplishments of painting, drawing, music and fine embroidery.

The first piano in town was purchased for one of these young ladies about 1820, who in turn instructed the other girls of the village in those rare arts. The first select school in Thompson was opened by Miss Caroline Dutch, an experienced teacher, in 1824, where a large number of charming young ladies were trained in polite accomplishments. Select schools were also taught by Messrs. Welcome Wilmarth, David Fisk, Cooley and Matthew Mills. In 1837 a high school was opened by Mr. Thomas P. Green, of Auburn, Mass., which gained a more permanent standing and higher reputation. Woodstock Academy suffering a serious lapse at that time, its young men came over to the Thompson school, as well as many from other county towns and from Rhode Island. Mr. Green and his sister were not only stimulating and successful teachers, but they knew how to carry through an attractive ” Exhibition, held yearly in the Congregational meeting house on the Green, which added much to the prestige of the school. In 1840 the old tavern house was purchased by Messrs. Joseph B. Gay and William H. Mason, and transformed into an academy building and boarding house, where the school flourished for a number of years. A few years after the demise of Mr. Green’s school, viz., in 1851, another high school was opened by Mr. Henry Parker, an experienced teacher, which soon merged into a ” Family and High School,” carried on by Mr. Parker and the Reverend Alanson Rawson, in the historic old Watson House.” This school enjoyed a high reputation for thoroughness and good scholarship, and many young people of the town availed themselves of its privileges, while a number of lads from other states found a pleasant home and careful training.

During these years great changes had been wrought in the administration of public schools. Finding that the Connecticut school fund, of which the state was so proud, had proved to some extent a disadvantage, that people took little interest in what cost them little or nothing, and that the provision for public education in Connecticut was actually falling below that of other states, a new departure was resolved upon and effected. Through the efficient labors of Henry Barnard, first state school superintendent, measures were instituted which placed educational matters upon a new basis and led to thorough regeneration or reform. Schools have been formed for the instruction of teachers, laws passed compelling children to be placed under their tuition, and boards constituted to see that all these laws are faithfully carried out. School houses, school books and appliances, school methods, wages of teachers and ways of paying them, have been exhaustively scrutinized and debated, and if public schools in Connecticut are not some hundred per cent. in advance of those of former generations, it is not for lack of discussion, legislation or expenditure. Thompson has labored diligently to keep up with the demands of the age, and under the careful oversight of a competent board of visitors, has reconstructed her school houses, provided them with maps, charts, school books and libraries, graded the schools when needful, and supplied them with as good teachers as could be procured. Some of these teachers are graduates from the town schools, as Mr. Newton A. and the Misses Ballard, Miss Shaw, the Misses Chace, Knight, Bates, Bixby, Mr. George Town and Mr, Wilfred Mills. No one has done more for public education in the town, both as teacher and. visitor, than Mr. Stephen Ballard, often secretary and chairman of the board, and so many of the name are associated with our schools that it might well be called the banner family in this respect.

Miss Emma Shaw, a native of Thompson village, much esteemed as a teacher in the public schools of Providence, R. I., has won unique celebrity by her energy and enterprise in exploring unfamiliar portions of the American continent. She was one of the first American women to explore our Alaskan territory, and in successive visits has made herself very familiar with the topography and characteristics of that remarkable region. For six successive summers Miss Shaw has crossed to the Pacific coast, over the several trans-continental routes, making each year a special visitation and study of some almost undiscovered country, and describing her adventurous wanderings in graphic letters to many influential newspapers. Yellowstone Park, the Cascades of the Columbian river, the Winnipeg country, the Saskatchewan river far into the territory of the Hudson Bay Company, and other remote and unfrequented sections, have been thus visited and described. Miss Shaw has in a very marked degree the qualities essential for a successful traveler, and the interesting papers recounting her varied and unusual experiences have been greatly enjoyed and appreciated by many intelligent audiences.

Source: History of Windham County, Connecticut, Bayles, Richard M.; New York: W.W. Preston, 1889

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