Students step back in time at Hurlbutt Street Schoolhouse
Kendra Baker photos
The Hurlbutt Street Schoolhouse was built in a single day by members of the school district in 1834 and provided education for students in grades one through eight over the next 101 years.
Today the schoolhouse still has a role in educating children.
Hurlbutt Street School House Inc. Vice President Linda Schmidt and assistant education director Ann McDonald trained seven mothers of Wilton second graders how to teach an early-19th Century class at the 181-yearold one-room schoolhouse at 157 Hurlbutt Street on Friday, Oct. 16.
The parents will teach 90-minute classes to groups of about 20 students at the historic schoolhouse this November.
The schoolhouse underwent a number of changes, including a transition from kerosene lamps to electricity, from hornbooks and slates to notebooks and lead pencils, and from students learning the three Rs — ”reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic” — to understanding the atom.
The only things that stayed the same over the years were the wood-burning stove, water jug, blackboard, teaching chart, old-fashioned desks, school bell, rain barrel, and outhouse.
When the schoolhouse closed in 1935 due to consolidation of all education at the Center School, “it stood empty for a little while,” said Schmidt.
Wilton’s Ladies Auxiliary was formed in 1929. The group bought the schoolhouse from the town for $1 in 1938 and created the nonprofit Hurlbutt Street Community House. The organization’s name was changed to the Hurlbutt Street School House Inc. in 1974, and the then 80-year-old building was gradually refurbished to its former schoolroom appearance.
“The neighborhood ladies all got together and took over the schoolhouse,” said Schmidt. “They turned it into a mini community center and added the kitchen, which includes a sink without a faucet, so they could have potluck dinners and things like that.”
“She passed away a few years ago,” said Schmidt. “She really wanted the little schoolhouse to keep going, and she and a whole group of women her age really worked on doing that.”
Schmidt said Wiltonians Carol Russell and Joyce Rosenbaum have been involved with the group for many years and have kept the schoolhouse operational.
“After many of the community volunteers dropped out for various reasons, Carol came up with the idea of training parent volunteers … to teach the children,” said Schmidt.
“Several of us trained them in the very beginning, and the past few years I have done this with my friend Ann McDonald, also a retired teacher with lots of enthusiasm for the task.”
Schmidt said several parents express interest in the program each year and volunteer to teach.
“Bernadette Hess, a teacher and schoolhouse neighbor, was one such parent. She gets great publicity for us for our open houses and jumps in to teach or to help as needed,” said Schmidt.
“Next came Anne McCann, who has now taken over managing and updating our website, created by Olivia Hollyer, of Weston, for her Girl Scout Gold award. Anne also spearheads the job of assembling informative folders for our parent volunteers.”
With a PTA liaison who coordinates the parent training at the schoolhouse, Schmidt said, they all form “a core group who works well together and does what needs to be done — from checking supplies to washing costumes and curtains, to checking the schoolhouse to make sure it is ready for the next class coming.”
“This is a small but most effective and dedicated group of women, determined to keep the feel, the spirit and the charm of the one-room schoolhouse alive for the town of Wilton,” she said.
McDonald said teaching the mothers isn’t an easy task, as there’s a lot for them to learn.
This year, two groups of Wilton mothers gathered at the schoolhouse on Oct. 15 and 16 for training, during which Schmidt and McDonald taught them how to teach a 90-minute class using 19th- and 20th-Century materials and lesson plans.
Each year, with two volunteer mothers per class, they teach approximately 13 classes of children during the months of November and December.
When the mothers come to teach, McDonald said, “there are usually two of them and then a teacher sits in the back.”
To look the part of a 19th-Century schoolteacher, the mothers dress up in clothing, provided by Hurlbutt Street House Inc., that includes skirts and shawls.
The day of their classes, the mothers come to the schoolhouse early “to get their wits about them and get the fire ready,” said McDonald.
“Getting the fire going is probably the hardest part for the moms,” said McDonald. “The fire is what they seem to dread the most.”
Schmidt said many of the children bring little bunches of wood for the furnace with them.
Because time management is very important when they teach at the schoolhouse, Schmidt and McDonald provide them an outline for the 90-minute school day.
When the children first arrive by bus or car, the mothers are to ring the schoolhouse bell, then greet the class and have them sit at the old-fashioned desks — girls on one side of the room and boys on the other, with taller students in the back.
After the classroom rules are set, the mothers introduce the children to the schoolhouse, explain its history and have them compare the classroom to theirs back at Miller-Driscoll.
The classroom experience at the schoolhouse is much different from what the children are used to, including how they respond when the teacher calls on them.
“When they’re called upon, they have to get out of their desks and stand on the right-hand side so they don’t get burned [by the furnace],” said McDonald.
The supplies and materials used at the Hurlbutt Street Schoolhouse are also very different.
The schoolhouse has a supply of hornbooks — board paddles with printed sheets on the front, covered by thin sheets of cow’s horn and brass strips — which were the first books students had back when Hurlbutt Street Schoolhouse was a fully operating school.
Schmidt said parents would make their children hornbooks and attach a piece of rope to each one.
“The reason they have these ties on them is because paper and books were so dear that parents would make a hornbook for their children,” said Schmidt, “and they had to wear them around their wrists as they walked to school so they wouldn’t lose them.”
The teaching chart, another teaching tool at the schoolhouse, contains the alphabet, stories, numbers, and cursive and demonstrates “learning by rote.”
The schoolhouse also has a collection of original McGuffey Readers — a series of graded primers for grades one to six that were used as textbooks in many American schools from the mid-19th Century to the mid-20th Century.
“We have the kids look at the book and they can’t believe the pictures are not in color,” said Schmidt, “and they don’t understand why there are numbers at the beginning of sentences,” which were there so teachers could assign lines for students to read.
Schmidt said the children are also surprised when they learn that the McGuffey Readers were the only books students would use during a school year.
“We use the chart and McGuffey Readers for reading, and we tend to do math on the blackboard,” said McDonald. With many schools incorporating Smart Boards and other technologies in classrooms, “some of them have never written on a blackboard,” said Schmidt. The children also get to write with quill pens and ink during their time at the schoolhouse, as well as slates and slate pencils.
During recess, the mothers have the students play Hide the Thimble, which, Schmidt and McDonald said, the children love.
“All the children sit in the classroom and we pick one child and tell them to go to the kitchen and we shut the door,” said Schmidt. “Then we hide the thimble somewhere. It has to be visible — it can’t be like under something, and they’re not allowed to talk.”
Once the child comes back out, the other children give him or her clues as to where the thimble is by clapping their hands. As the child gets closer to the thimble, the children clap louder and louder and when he or she gets farther away from it, they stop clapping.
McDonald said the point of the game is to “show how students amused themselves back in the day.”
The day also consists of a science lesson, which takes place outside in the back of the schoolhouse and is as simple as identifying trees and plants, said Schmidt.
While outside, the children are shown the school’s outhouse, which, Schmidt said, “they get so excited about.” The outhouse hasn’t been operational since it was moved from its original location on the side of the school.
Schmidt and McDonald said it is important for the moms to manage their time to try to fit all the activities within the 90-minute time frame.
At the end of the 90-minute school day, each student gets to ring the schoolhouse bell upon exiting the schoolhouse and stepping back into the 21st Century.
“The children love coming to the schoolhouse,” said Schmidt. “It is a great field trip.”
Click here to learn more about the Hurlbutt Street Schoolhouse.