In 1599, Shakespeare wrote of “the whining schoolboy, with satchel and shining morning face, creeping like snail unwillingly to school.” It seems that going to school has always been tough. And after summer vacation, going back to school can be a challenge for even the most dedicated students, teachers, staff, and administrators. In 1895 however, anyone connected with Bethel’s Center and Grassy Plain school districts had something to make the return to scholarly pursuits a bit more exciting than usual. They were about to become the very first to utilize two new identical modern school facilities.
The new Center School would replace a forty-two-year-old facility located near the corner of South Street and Nashville Road (then called Beaver Street). The new Grassy Plain School would replace an earlier one situated at the intersection of Greenwood Avenue and Griswold Street. Together, the two new buildings would represent the first brick schools ever constructed within the town and were designed to simultaneously meet the needs of the present and also provide for the expected population growth of the future.
The story of how the new schools became a reality can be traced through reports appearing in The Danbury Times and The Newtown Bee, from May 1894 up to the formal opening of the schools in September 1895. Highlights of these accounts are presented here with their original grammar and spelling. Additional information is provided for clarification and background.
The process of creating the two schools began with a town meeting to approve the proposal.
(May 4, 1894)
Bethel - To Have Two New School Houses
Saturday afternoon’s town meeting voted to build two new school houses of brick, according to plans and specifications before the meeting, to be located on the old sites, one in Center district, one in Grassy Plain district. It was voted to bond the town for $30,000 to pay for said buildings.
($30,000 in 1894 would be the equivalent of $910,000 today. At first, the new Grassy Plain School was to be built on the same property where the old one had stood. Later, town leaders decided to purchase a 12-acre piece of property located across from the west end of Griswold Street that faced Grassy Plain Street for $3,000. The town would keep two acres and sell the rest.)
(May 18, 1894)
The location for the new school in Center district has been surveyed. It is estimated that 10,000 yards of dirt will have to be moved to get the proper grade. For the next few weeks the public will be permitted to take dirt from the bank free of cost.
Despite the free dirt, not everyone was thrilled with the new project. Taxpayers in the outlying school districts of Plumtrees, Elmwood, Wolfpits, and Stony Hill questioned why they should have to foot the bill for schools being built in other districts. Bethel had voted in 1888 to consolidate all of its schools and bring them under the central control of the town. This plan was still in the process of being phased in.
(June 1, 1894)
Pertinent School Matters - The Plumtrees school district held a meeting Saturday evening and voted to rescind a vote passed at a former meeting to turn the district property over to the town. There seems to be a great deal of dissatisfaction in the out districts about being taxed to build two expensive school buildings in the Center and Grassy Plain districts, which will not benefit outside people in the least. By adding four rooms to the High school building, which belongs to the town, would supply all the necessary room needed for a number of years and would be of equal benefit to every district in town, and no question about the legality of the manner. The consolidation of the school districts was never properly carried through. The vote in the last town meeting to build two district school buildings, town wise, was against town council. Would the voters of the said district think it would be wise to tax themselves to the amount of from $15, 000 to $20,000 at the present time with the present prospects for the laboring man to pay taxes? There seems to be a disposition on the part of some to load up posterity with debts. They want to bear in mind that the interest on these debts must be paid yearly.
Despite the displeasure expressed by Plumtrees residents, the project moved ahead, and plans were made to find a location where instruction could continue while the old Center School was being removed and a new one built. The second floor of the town hall at 40 Main Street (now home to the Bethel Historical Society) was chosen as the best spot for temporary quarters. (Renovation work done on the Historical Society building in the 1990s uncovered a chalkboard still bearing writing from a century before.)
(August 3, 1894)
The Town hall is being put in repair for school purposes. The hall is also taking a coat of paint, spread by Hobart Pulford. (Hobart Pulford was a Civil War veteran who would later become the janitor for the new Center School.)
(August 31, 1894)
Arthur H. Senior has been awarded the contract for building the two new school houses.
Edgar T. Andrews has commenced work on the new foundation for the new school house in Grassy Plain.
Seven two-horse teams are busy taking the gravel from the Center district school site. The ground will soon be brought to grade for the new school house.
George G. Durant was a prominent businessman and land developer who served as the warden for the village of Bethel. (This was the premier post of the smaller secondary government that controlled the downtown district. The rest of the town was administered by the Board of Selectmen.) Durant purchased the old Center School buildings and had them moved to the south side of lower Main Street. They would eventually become part of a large hat factory.
Warden Durant has curbed and paved in front of his Main street property and has filled the road up to the same grade. He has also built the foundation for the old school buildings. Both are being moved onto the same location where the hat shops burned about two years ago.
Another now-defunct hat factory facing Nashville Road that had been operated by George A. Hickok & Son encroached on what would become the front lawn of the new Center School. The building would be demolished.
At the town meeting, Monday, Henry A. Gilbert, chairman, voted to buy the old G.A. Hickok & Son finishing shop and land adjoining the Center district property. The price was $1800. The buildings will be moved to enlarge the school grounds.
The old Center School was moved to make way for the new one, and the Bethel correspondent for The Newtown Bee shared a little of its history and also promoted the new facility. (Note: Today, home school is taken to mean teaching school subjects to one’s children at home. In this instance the writer uses the term to indicate a local public school.)
(September 14, 1894)
A Little History - The old schoolhouse that stood on the hill for nearly a half century will be resting on a new foundation before this week’s issue of THE BEE is read by its patrons. It was built in the year 1852. Hewed oak and chestnut timber was used for sills and posts, which today appear to be as sound as when first put on its old foundation 42 years ago. Our village at that time took a step forward in the education of their children. Better teachers were procured and a more advanced system of teaching adopted in our school. Our scholars were educated in the home school. That fact probably has had much to do with the prosperity of our town today. Quite a number of the first class in that school are today our businessmen. We can take a lesson from the past. Now what will the future be with the still better facilities for educating our children at home. We dare say that a future generation can well afford to pay a part of the money that is being spent for their benefit in the education of the children today.
(September 21, 1894) (Center School Progress)
Peter McDonnell has employed 20 men and 13 teams leveling the school site. By Wednesday or Thursday the ground will be ready for E.T. Andrews’ gang of stone masons to commence work. (Edgar T. Andrews was the Bethel building contractor awarded the task of excavating and landscaping the new schools.)
The owner of the hat factory that stood on the new Center School grounds salvaged what he could before the building was demolished.
George A. Hickok is removing his movable property from the old finishing shop lately deeded to the town.
Having students attend school at the town hall on Main Street had a decided effect on the neighborhood.
The old church square at times in the day swarms with children who attend the town hall school.
(September 28, 1894) (Center School)
The question of grade for the new school building was settled last Saturday by the committee very satisfactory to all concerned. Surveyor Brown of Danbury laid out the ground and drove the stakes for the foundation. Edgar T. Andrews has commenced to excavate the cellar.
(November 16, 1894)
Work on the school buildings progresses very slowly on account of the storms.
(June 21, 1895)
The Special Town Meeting
A town meeting was held on Monday afternoon. It was voted to appropriate $3000 to grade the school grounds and to purchase new school furniture for the Center and Grassy Plain school buildings. Henry A. Gilbert was chairman.
In order to provide a more level site for the new building, a great deal of soil was removed, primarily from the west side of the property. To provide for the difference in elevation, a retaining wall made of large cut stone was constructed. It still stands today and is a testament to its builder and the quality of his workmanship. (See photo.)
(July 11, 1895)
The new Center and Grassy Plain school buildings will be open for public inspection on Labor Day.
(July 15, 1895) (Center school)
Oscar Bates has laid a substantial wall on the north side of the Centre school grounds. The work of grading the grounds will be commenced probably next week. (Center School was sometimes labeled utilizing the British spelling, Centre.)
(July 19, 1895) (Center School)
The work on the new school grounds has been resumed. The bank walls are being built and grading the grounds will soon be commenced. The painting is nearly completed.
(August 2, 1895) (Center school)
Oscar Bates completed the laying of the west bank wall on the Center district school property on Tuesday. Ammi Carter, with a gang of men, is working the ground down to a proper grade.
(August 9, 1895)
Caught in a Trap - The building committee, last Friday, started the fires in the new Center school building to test the working of the draft. S.S. Ambler, E.B. Richmond and the writer passed into the vault below the basement through a small door which was closed. The vault, 4 X 5 feet, runs the length of the building and connects both chimneys. A small heater or fire pot in each chimney makes a powerful draft of air, which sucks all foul air through the ventilators from the room above, which then passes off through the two large chimneys which are a few feet higher than the building. All sewerage is dried up by the heat and the draft of air carries off all offensive odors. The system of ventilation appears to be complete and effective and all were pleased with its working. It is called the Smeed system. A laughable incident followed which may not be out of place to relate. It was 12 o'clock when we got through the inspection. All the workmen had left the building for dinner. We returned to the closed door to leave the vault and found that it locked on the outside. We were caught like rats in a trap. A yell...brought no one to the rescue. Richmond, being the best posted on the situation, climbed up to one of the ventilators, which he found unfastened. He made himself so small that he crawled through. The fact was he was so awfully small that he said, "I am going home to dinner. I will let you fellows out when I return." The joke carried out would have been a good one on us, for it was impossible to shrink ourselves down to his size and crawl through the same hole.
(August 12, 1895)
The idea of throwing open the new school buildings for the inspection of the public on Labor Day is a good one. All interested in our schools should not fail to visit the building in their district on that day and see what has been done towards furnishing school accommodations for the children. Bethel has reason to feel proud of its new school buildings.
(August 13, 1895)
The grounds are now all nicely graded about the new Grassy Plain and Center district school buildings, and will be seeded down.
(August 16, 1895)
The Center District School Property - The Center district school ground has been graded according to the survey. Just 250 loads of good soil have been drawn from the town property in Grassy Plain to cover the sand and gravel in order to secure a sure growth of grass where needed. Two large playgrounds, one at each end of the new building, have been reserved, which will be properly graveled and rolled down hard. A wide gravel walk leads from Beaver street to the main entrance. A driveway leads from South street to the rear of the building, where the coal bins are located in the basement under the school rooms. The grounds are elevated from six to 10 feet above the streets and make a gradual descent to the sidewalks. The location is central and one of the most healthy and pleasant places to be found in Center district for school purposes. The work of grading, soiling and seeding is under the charge of A.S. Judd, one of the committee.
(August 19, 1895)
The new school buildings are all completed and are now being cleaned and put in order for the coming term. The school furniture is all in the buildings, and the work of hanging shades at the windows will complete the furnishing. The buildings will be thrown open to the public for inspection on Labor Day, Sept. 2, the day before school opens.
(August 19, 1895)
The grading is completed about the Center district school building and the grounds seeded down.
(August 29, 1895)
Opening of the Schools
Rev. H.L. Slack, chairman of the school committee, has furnished the following directions to scholars about to enter the new school building: The schools open Tuesday morning in all grades. Only those who have been admitted to the High school will report at the High school building. In the new buildings primary pupils will be accommodated on the first floors in Room No. 1 and Room No. 2. Intermediate and grammar grades on the second floors in rooms numbered to correspond to the grades.
The section of the grammar class in Grassy Plain will meet in room No. 4 of that school; the grammar class of the Centre and all pupils promoted into the grammar school, from other schools in town, will meet in room No. 6, Centre building. Pupils will be admitted to the building at quarter before nine, the boys entering the basement door upon the north side of the building and the girls entering the corresponding door on the south side.
(Note: The “grammar class” was an extension of eighth grade or the equivalent of first-year high school.)
(August 31, 1895)
The new school buildings are all completed and ready for inspection. The buildings will be thrown open Monday so that all interested in Bethel’s schools may have a chance to inspect the same. The buildings will be open to visitors from 2 to 5, and members of the building committee will be present to show visitors through the buildings and explain the workings of the new heating ventilating system. Parents, in particular, should visit the buildings and see what has been accomplished in procuring new and modern school accommodation for their children. They can then appreciate the new buildings more fully.
BETHEL - THE NEW SCHOOL BUILDINGS
(An account of September 2, 1895, open house published in The Newtown Bee on
September 6, 1895)
“The new school buildings were opened for public inspection on Monday afternoon from 2 to 5 o'clock. A large number of citizens and scholars took the opportunity to inspect the beautiful rooms, equipped with the best school furniture made in the country. Members of the building committee were in attendance and escorted the visitors through the rooms and explained the new method of ventilation and heating. The Center school building is situated on the corner of Beaver and South streets. It is built of brick and is two stories high with basement of four rooms, two for play rooms with wash bowl and water closet connected, one for boys and one for girls. Both rooms have outside entrances and two stairways to a large hallway on the first floor. The first floor contains four school rooms, 24 x 28 feet. Room No. 1 contains 48 seats. The teacher will be Miss L. Hayes. No. 2 has 48 seats, the teacher, Miss C. Hyde. Rooms 3 and 4 will be vacant for the present. On the second floor are four rooms, 28 x 36. No. 5 has 56 seats and the teacher will be Miss Mary E. Short. No. 6, 54 seats with Miss Sarah A. Rowen as principal. No. 7, 54 seats, grammar grade, Miss G. A. Barnum, teacher. No. 8, 56 seats, with Miss A. D. Kyle as teacher. Janitor, Hobart F. Pulford. Grassy Plain school building is situated on Grassy Plain street and is pleasantly located and central and is in every respect built of like material and size and also furnished the same. First floor room No. 1, 48 seats, teacher, Miss Helen Bassett. No. 2, 51 seats, teacher, Miss A. Hayes. Rooms 3 and 4 vacant. Second story No. 5, 58 seats, teacher, Miss A. Mansfield. No. 6, 54 seats, Miss Mary E. Pillings, principal. No. 7 and 8 vacant. The janitor is Eugene Conklin. The building committee have had an arduous duty to perform and they have done it well. Each one has performed his part and is deserving of a vote of thanks from the town. We give their names as follows: Arthur S. Judd, chairman, Edward B. Richmond, secretary, and treasurer, Samuel S. Ambler, Andrew J. Hallock, Frederick Benedict, Henry L. Slack, Gideon S. Peck. The contractor, Arthur H. Senior, has given the best of satisfaction for the manner in which he finished his Job. The work has been completed without an extra being added. Peter Sweeney of Danbury completed the brick which was passed for a first class job. Dimond & Son did the plumbing for the Grassy Plain school building and Ryan Brothers for the Center school building. The curtains and fixture were put up by Cunningham & Doran of Danbury. The painting was done by Charles Senior. The United States School Furniture Company of Chicago. Ill., placed in the rooms about 600 seats and desks; also six teachers' desks. The bill was $1,452.80. George A. Hickok contributed two tablets of brown stone with date, 1894, which were placed in the front of both buildings over the main entrance. These tablets of stone were once a part of the old Hatters' bank building. The architect, Mr Sunderland, of Danbury, gave the two school buildings a thorough inspection and passed them for well executed workmanship. Mr Senior's contract for the two buildings completed was $30,000. Probably several thousands more may be added for purchase of grounds and grading and school furniture. The Underhill Warming and Ventilating Company of Boston, Mass., put in the furnace for warming and heaters needed for ventilation. The care of the school buildings will now be turned over to the town school board, who will act as guardians of all school property. Your correspondent trusts that consolidation in this town means a step forward for the advancement of education.”
Both schools still retain the stones that bear the date 1894 located in their front pediments, indicating the year the outer brick walls were constructed. As mentioned, the stone had come from the foundation of the old Hatter’s Bank chartered in 1858 that had initially stood at #6 Chestnut Street. The old bank building was subsequently moved to the rear of #12 Chestnut Street and survives to the present day.
(September 3, 1895)
The public schools commenced today.
With the schools now open, everyone seemed quite satisfied.
(September 7, 1895)
“Yesterday closed the first week of school in the new buildings. Everything has gone satisfactorily, and those having anything to do with the schools cannot praise the new buildings too highly.”
The two schools would see active use for over three-quarters of a century and were later aided and replaced by the Frank A. Berry School, Anna H. Rockwell School, the Ralph M.T. Johnson School, and the Bethel Middle School. The former Grassy Plain School at 57 Grassy Plain Street is now home to the YMCA Children’s Center. The former Center School at 9 Nashville Road is now home to the Center School Apartments. The buildings may no longer serve their original purpose, but many former students who attended these twin “temples of learning” still cherish many happy memories of the time they spent within their brick walls.
Trivia: The Center School served Bethel’s downtown elementary school students who lived east of the Danbury-Norwalk railroad line. The Grassy Plain School served those young students living west of the tracks. Over time, a good-natured rivalry developed between the two schools. Grassy Plain students called their friends on the east side “Center School Bums.” The Center School students referred to their friends on the west side as “Grassy Plain Grasshoppers”.
The 1968 motion picture, “Rachel, Rachel,” directed by Paul Newman and starring his wife Joanne Woodward, contains several scenes filmed at Bethel’s Grassy Plain School. The movie also used many Bethel schoolchildren as extras.
Thanks are extended to The Bethel Historical Society for the use of their photo archives.
Thanks are also extended to The Danbury Museum and Historical Society for their assistance in accessing microfilm copies of The Danbury Times.
The author is also indebted to Mrs. Eleanor C. Coffey for providing him with a full copy of her master’s thesis paper entitled A History of the Schools in Bethel, Connecticut. No finer work of research on the topic has ever been produced.