The care of public schools was early made over to the three parishes. Each parish acted as a distinct school society, building school houses, hiring teachers and managing its own educational affairs. Under this system the common schools were well sustained, and turned out an unusual supply of competent and successful teachers. It has been said that no crop in Woodstock was so sure as its school teachers. Not only has it raised a sufficient supply for its own numerous schools, but a large number has been sent out to help enlighten the ignorance of other towns. Part of this proficiency is doubtless due to the additional stimulus given by the Woodstock Academy, which has furnished means of higher instruction to successive generations. A regard for education was an early feature in Woodstock history, leading to the establishment of a flourishing high school previous to 1730.
The public schools conducted in every district were supplemented by private instruction from such able and learned men as Reverends Abel Stiles and Stephen Williams. The latter minister fitted many young men for college, numbering among his pupils such future celebrities as Abiel Holmes and Jedidiah Morse. A demand for higher educational privileges kept pace with the growth and expansion of the young republic. The curriculum of the crowded ” District School house ” was far too narrow for aspirants for high political office and business influence, and Woodstock forestalled other northern towns in securing the establishment of an academy. General McClellan, with his sons, Major John and James McClellan, Deacon Jedidiah Morse, General David Holmes, and other influential men, gave their countenance to the project. Reverend Eliphalet Lyman, pastor of the church at Woodstock hill, was its most active and successful advocate.
On January 12th, 1801, the proprietors of the South half of Woodstock granted liberty to set an academy building on the common north. of the meeting house. Funds for building were to be secured by the gift of an hundred dollars each, from thirty-two citizens of Woodstock. Having headed the list with his own subscription, Mr. Lyman rode on horseback all over the town, and by his eloquence and persistency secured the requisite names and pledges. An efficient building committee was appointed, who pushed forward the work with unwonted speed. Farmers offered best white oak timber at half its market value, in their eagerness to help found an academy. It was said that the boards brought would reach from Woodstock to Providence. . The raising was made a day of special festivity and rejoicing, all Woodstock turning out, as well as volunteers from sister towns. ” A good slice of the ample common was filled with people, ox-teams and horses.” Boys, sires and grandsires assisted in the several stages of the work. Major David Holmes gallantly volunteered to be swung up on an eighty-foot timber to adjust the steeple frame. Volunteer labor cheerfully helped smooth off the ground, haul up a suitable door step from the old hearth-stone quarry, and install in the belfry .a much prized bell.
Yale College was much interested in this projected institution and selected one of its most promising graduates, Thomas Williams, of Pomfret, for the first preceptor. February 4th, 1802, the new academy building was formerly opened and dedicated. “The event of establishing a seminary of learning, superior to any other which had been previously enjoyed,” brought together a large and deeply interested assembly. Appropriate addresses were made by Esquire McClellan and Mr. Lyman, the exercises closing by the presentation of the key of the academy to Mr. Williams “in the name of the trustees and with the approbation of the proprietors.” School opened the next day with nearly a hundred pupils. Board for pupils from other towns could be found for five shillings a week in the best families.
Incorporation was secured in the spring by act of legislature, whereby Samuel McClellan, Eliphalet Lyman, Nehemiah Child, Ebenezer Smith, William Potter, Hezekiah Bugbee, Ichabod Marcy, Jesse Bolles, David Holmes and others, were made a body corporate. Five trustees annually appointed by the proprietors were to superintend the management of affairs. Mr. Williams was succeeded in the office of preceptor by Hezekiah Frost, of Canterbury, and he by other youthful Yale graduates. The academy continued very popular, attracting many pupils from out of town. William Larned Marcy, of Sturbridge; David Young, of Killingly; Prescott and David Hall, of Pomfret, were among its early pupils, famous in later years. George McClellan, afterward the distinguished surgeon of Philadelphia, father of General George B. McClellan; Ebenezer Stoddard, future congressional representative and lieutenant-governor of Connecticut, and many other Woodstock boys destined to win success in varying fields, enjoyed the privilege of attendance at Woodstock Academy.
The constant change of teachers was detrimental to the interests of the school. The administration of Preceptor Rinaldo Burleigh-an experienced teacher-from 1810 to 1813, was exceptionally favorable, and brought the institution to the culmination of its early prosperity. Aaron Skinner, the much-beloved mayor of New Haven; the Reverend Doctors Willard Child and Alvin Bond, the Burleigh brothers, so prominent in abolition agitation, received part of their early training in Woodstock Academy. A period of great depression occurred between 1820 and 1843, rival institutions in many towns and the lack of means, discouraging local effort. With the advent of Mr. Henry C. Bowen as a summer resident, new interest was awakened. The old academy building was thoroughly repaired and a first class teacher procured-Mr. John T. Averill. Under his stimulating influence a large number of scholars were attracted and much enthusiasm awakened. New chemical apparatus was procured, elm trees set out in front of the academy by teachers and scholars, a printed catalogue issued. After four years of continued prosperity, further advance was made under the preceptorship of Mr. James W. Patterson, assisted part of the term by Miss Edna Dean Proctor. These distinguished teachers impressed themselves strongly upon their pupils, and gave character to the school.
Competent instructors maintained its standing till about 1860, when another lapse ensued. By successful effort after a few years an endowment fund was raised and a new and capacious academy building erected at the cost of over $20,000. Five thousand dollars was given by Mr. H. C. Bowen to each of these objects, and the remaining large amount raised by some hundred interested friends and subscribers from Woodstock and other towns. The new building was opened with appropriate exercises August 21st, 1873. Reverend Nathaniel Beach reported in behalf of the trustees. Addresses were made by Governor Buckingham, Secretary B. G. Northrup and others. Mr. Clarence W. Bowen rehearsed the history of the academy in all its varied phases. A noteworthy feature in the day’s programme was the reading of a most delightful and characteristic letter from Doctor Oliver W. Holmes, descendant of one of the original settlers of Woodstock. Thus accommodated and endowed, the academy has entered upon a new career of usefulness. While under the present graded school system fewer scholars from abroad are obliged to seek the academy, it furnishes the means of thorough education to all scholars within the town. Competent and successful teachers have been employed, and a goodly number of well trained graduates sent out into the world. Elmwood Hall furnishes convenient board for such city students as prize pure air and congenial environment. Among Woodstock’s many achievements she has none more worthy of praise and congratulation then her well endowed academy.
Source: History of Windham County, Connecticut, Bayles, Richard M.; New York: W.W. Preston, 1889