Center School: Wilton’s controversial schoolhouse
It might be hard to imagine that at the small triangular grass island at the intersection of Belden Hill and Drum Hill Roads once stood a school — Wilton’s fourth district schoolhouse, the Center School, built in 1830.
For 82 years, the “little brown schoolhouse” was where Drum Hill neighborhood children gathered for their first eight years of education.
However, its low student registration rate stirred up a good deal of controversy in its later years, according to Wilton historian and former first selectman Bob Russell’s book, Wilton, Connecticut: Three Centuries of People, Places, and Progress.
A large stove in the middle of the one-room schoolhouse provided “central heating,” according to a Wilton Library History Room document written by Alice B. Olmstead, born in 1859, who recalled “the smell of wet shoes and clothes next to its red heat.”
Desks faced the walls of the one-room schoolhouse and “long planks, worn smooth with much used,” were used as seats.
In her write-up, Olmstead referred to the school’s location as “a piece of pie” and school itself as the “flop-in and flop-out school.”
“At the top of the bell, we were in our places,” Olmstead recalled. “At the next tap we flopped out for prayers. The Lord’s Prayer and a few verses comprised the devotional period. Then we flopped back to our studies, all very gravely.”
The one-room schoolhouse had three windows and a door and sat on a fairly high stone foundation.
According to a 1997 Wilton Bulletin article, there was very little area for the children to play outside, as there were roads on three sides of the schoolhouse.
According to Wilton Library History Room documents from Angeline M. Post, who taught at the school from 1909 to 1910, the road was “very close to the building.”
“Horses and wagons passed on all sides and dust flew in all directions,” according to Post, who had only nine registered students during her time at the Center School.
During recess, students “slid down hill and played den, having the privileges of the lots opposite Mrs. Chapin’s,” according to Olmstead, whose father Edward had also attended the district school as a child.
Olmstead had Lyman Keeler and Alice St. John as teachers at the Center School, and the Bradley children had Katherine “Kitty” Sturges, Carrie Taylor and a Miss Beebe.
The Center School closed its doors in the fall of 1910 because only six children were registered, according to Russell.
The 1911 Town of Wilton Annual Report states that a “satisfactory arrangement” was made to send the students to other schools and Center School was not opened.
Center School students were sent to Belden Hill School and Kent School.
According to a document written by Dorothy D. Miller, Timothy T. Merwin attended the Center School around 1893 and later recalled students being transported to the Belden Hill School in a crowded old Model T Ford, which, he told Miller, “agitated residents.”
The school reopened in 1911, but closed in 1912 when registration dropped once again.
Every few years, residents petitioned to reopen the schoolhouse, according to Russell, but the town’s school committee “remained adamantly opposed.”
Although petitioners succeeded in getting Town Meeting votes to reopen the school in 1914 and 1920, the school committee refused to comply and it remained closed.
Merwin told Miller the school board’s refusal “precipitated the most bitter school fight Wilton ever had.”
Despite “a heavy increase in the birth rate in the vicinity,” according to a July 1918 Bridgeport Telegram article, the school still remained closed and “every effort to have a school opened there” had been “strenuously resisted” by “successive school committees.”
An unknown resident wrote a letter to the editor, published in a 1920 issue of The Bridgeport Telegram, about a town meeting during which “the Board of Finance was instructed to recommend an appropriation of $1,000 for repairs to the building and $1,000 for the salary of a teacher and the selectmen were ordered to upon the school.”
The recommendation was submitted to the town council, which “in a carefully written opinion,” pronounced it illegal, according to the letter.
At the April 1, 1924 Annual Town Meeting, voters authorized Wilton’s selectmen to borrow $10,000 for town work, and the meeting “authorized the matter of repair of the Center school be referred to the Town School committee,” according to a 1924 Bridgeport Telegram article.
In an effort to consolidate the schools rather than rebuild them, the town built a four-room school in Wilton Center in 1929 — the “new” Center School. This resulted in the eventual closing of all Wilton’s one-room district schools.
School to a shed
In 1927, Grace Schenck bought the schoolhouse, disassembled it, and moved it to Belden Hill Road to be used as a shed.
According to Miller, Schenck moved the schoolhouse to “a site back of Mr. Thomas Fagan’s house on Belden Hill,” and it was used as a summer camp for some time before becoming a “year-round residence.”
In a 1995 letter to Wilton Library History Room archivist Carol Russell, Schenck's daughter, Jeanne, recalled the old schoolhouse “but not in use.”
She said her brother, Philip, helped tear down the old schoolhouse and recalled “a lot of the desks” being stored at their family’s Graenest farmhouse, which is now the site of the Stop & Shop Plaza.
Click here to learn about Wilton's other district schoolhouses.