Vacant schoolhouse in Vermont

Waits River Schoolhouse, Topsham Vermont
Date added: August 31, 2022 Categories:
1st floor classroom (1986)

The former Waits River Schoolhouse is an early twentieth century combination school and grange building which has sustained a series of well-documented historic alterations in response to standards set by the Vermont State Board of Education. Used as a school from 1914-1972, and as a grange hall from 1914-1953, the building reflects both educational and social institutions in the small, agricultural and manufacturing village of Waits River, Vermont. The chronology of alterations to the school describes the rural interpretation and implementation of the state's public school standardization process. The building is distinguished architecturally by a multi-story hipped roof form typical of twentieth century school buildings, by Colonial Revival style detailing, and by elaborate interior pressed metal cladding added in 1931.

A title trace reveals the history of this property as a school lot. In 1888, Sarah Burroughs sold the half-acre lot, formerly a part of her homestead, to the Topsham School District for $10.

The schoolhouse was built in 1914 to replace the previous District 10 schoolhouse that had burned on this site in 1913. Minutes from the Topsham Town Meeting in march of 1914 reveal an immediate concern for rebuilding the-school, suggesting that it be completed by November 1st, 1914. A motion made to keep the costs under $1500 was rescinded and replaced with an approved figure of $2000. By June of that same year, construction of the school was scheduled to begin with hopes that "every effort should be made to make it a model for future plans and civic pride." The contract went to J. W. Zwicker, an East Cornith carpenter, for $1885. Furnishings for the "hall" cost $81.59, making the cost of the completed project $1966.50.

The schoolhouse was used continuously through the growth of Topsham Town and the standardization of schools until 1972, when a new union elementary school was built approximately one mile away. In October of 1973 the school was sold to a private owner, who lived there for a very short time and made very few changes to the structure. It then stood vacant until 1985, when the current owner purchased the property. There is now an interest in maintaining the school's integrity while adapting it to use as a shop and living space.

In 1914, school reports reveal that consideration had been given to the need for better lighting, ventilation, heating, drinking water, outhouses and grounds in area schools. Despite these far-sighted attempts to make the Waits River School "a model for the future," the school was not initially built to the state's standard levels. Eight years later, growing concern is reflected in the school superintendents's annual report for 1922 that the town schools be brought to these levels through the use of state aid.

The State Board of Education is trying to bring the rural schools of Vermont to a higher standard; official score cards have been issued and the Board has agreed to aid towns not to exceed Two Hundred Dollars in any one year in bringing up the school to a score of seventy-five; this state aid must be duplicated by the town. The Waits River and the West Topsham schools could be standardized with the least expense. I recommend that an attempt be made to standardize one of these schools during the coming year and the other the following year be brought to the same standard.

Although Waits River Schoolhouse was presumably near standard levels in 1922, it was not until fifteen years later (twenty-three years after its construction) that the standard plate was awarded to the school at a P.T.A. meeting in Spring, 1937.

The growing concern for addressing these issues was possibly a response to a number of interrelated factors. In 1904, the State Board of Health had set standards for better sanitation, ventilation and lighting of public schools. Many older schools were "revamped" to create a better learning environment through the addition of windows, heaters and newer outhouses. In 1911, Fletcher B. Dresslar, reviewed in his book, American Schoolhouses, all aspects of school architecture from their plans, room functions and lighting to the ventilation and toilets. It featured photographs and drawings and as a publication of the Government Printing Office, it reached a wide audience. In 1912, Vermont Legislature formed a commission to study the education responsibilities of the State.

The report of their findings was prepared by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Perhaps in response to these factors, the school superintendent's annual reports became far more elaborate, critical and progressive than they had been throughout the late nineteenth century.

The years from 1922 through 1928 were financially difficult for the school. Like many towns in this period, Topsham had very little money. In 1924, State Aid was cut. Little activity is recorded aside from the wartime planting of victory gardens in the schoolyard and the school superintendent's concern for instilling civic pride in students through the care and maintenance give the school.

A ventilating heater was added to the school in 1929, but in 1930 the toilets were still deficient and there was a need for a playground. In 1931, full attention was finally given to the Waits River Schoolhouse. From this point on, the alterations to the school are well documented and provide a concise narrative for the structure as it stands today.

In addition to the completion of the West Topsham project, an extensive remodeling job was done at the Waits River School during 1931. This included enlarging the room, installation of chemical toilets, correction of lighting and redecorating the interior. Provision for proper playground facilities, together with some minor items of the equipment will bring this school up to the standard rating.

The costs of "supplies", "sundries" and "repairs" for this project totalled $1086.71. The specific tabulation of costs reveal that it was in this year that the schoolroom was enlarged, the interior walls and ceiling sheathed in pressed metal and banks of 12/12 sash windows were added to the first story of the southeast elevation. The International Iron and Steel Company provided the metal wall sheathing for $38.56, while the Canton Steel Ceiling Company of Canton, Ohio provided the ceiling metal for $22.83. The metal sheathing has been patched in areas, yet remains in excellent condition today. According to a local source, many homes and public buildings in the Waits River area once featured pressed metal sheathing. Another example of pressed metal sheathing surviving in excellent condition exists in the sanctuary of the Waits River Methodist Church (1859), located .5 miles southeast of the schoolhouse on Route 25. Like the school, the walls of the church are wainscotted to a height of approximately four feet with the remaining walls and ceiling being fully sheathed in pressed metal.

In the majority of the structures with pressed metal sheathing, the metal was removed in an effort to reduce heat loss and rid the rooms of the "busy patterns." Many people tired of the pressed tin and in 1951, the Waits River Schoolhouse nearly succumbed to the same pressures.

This past summer, the building at Waits River was painted on the outside and the classroom redecorated. Before another painting of the classroom is contemplated we should either remove the present metal covering and replace with sheet rock, or else simply cover with a new ceiling over the present sheeting. We feel the latter to be the better since it would eliminate quite a bit of heat loss that now occurs.

It was during the 1931 remodelling of the school that the banks of 12/12 sash windows were added to the southeast elevation of the first floor. The windows were purchased from a company called Flint Brothers for $215.77. Three Kaustine toilets were also purchased at the same time for a cost of $313.60. On was specifically earmarked "for the community," presumably for use by the Grange members who used the second floor of the building as their Grange Hall and for public meetings.

Despite these changes, school reports for 1936 again reveal the elusive nature of the standard rating.

Repairs and improvements made at the Waits River School last year included new front steps and porch, painting of the building on the outside and finishing off the library room. When painting and repairing of the fence is made in the spring and a few small items have been supplied, this school should be ready for its standard plate.

The 1936 porch remains today featuring narrow cornice returns and a Clapboard apron. During the mid-thirties, increasing numbers of students began to create overcrowded conditions in the schools. This was only somewhat relieved by the "epidemics of disease" prevalent in 1935. The percentage of attendance was very low and the Red Cross became involved in better health programs. More attention was paid to school attendance and parent involvement in educational programs.

The next major improvement to the building occurred in 1944 with the excavation of the basement. The neighboring West Topsham School was destroyed by fire and its students were shifted to the Waits River School. The increased school population and new problems revolving around toilet facilities, water supply and the heating system gave rise to a need for a basement under the Waits River School. School reports by the superintendent for 1948 describe the process of excavating the basement.

It was decided to install a new heating system and in order to do this part of the cellar was excavated. As this was being done it was decided at a joint meeting of school directors and Town Selectmen to jointly complete the excavation of the whole cellar space. This was done. There is now a solid cement foundation and floor topped by three layers of cement block. New flush toilets were installed in the school and also in the basement for use of community meetings.

The additional space provided by having a fully excavated cellar makes the school room floor much warmer and more comfortable for the children. It is planned to enclose the furnace which will leave room for play space on stormy days, as well as space that in the future may be utilized for hot lunches or community suppers.

This late, two-part excavation of the basement explains the unusual joist arrangement exposed in the basement. The joists run the length of the school with a summer beam providing support in the middle as opposed to normal framing which would span the width of the building.

In the year following the excavation, the Community Club of Waits River organized and initiated a hot lunch program at the school, one of the first such programs in the area. The kitchen, located in the basement under the porch area, remains with cast concrete counters and dividers. Double leaf swinging doors enter the basement on the exterior of the front elevation into the cafeteria.

In 1950, Waits River and three other schools were divided by grade level to accommodate an increase in the school population and to facilitate lesson planning and teaching. Grades 1 - 4 were brought to Waits River while Grades 5 - 8 went to the rebuilt West Topsham School. A devastating fire in 1952 resulted in the loss on many historic Waits River structures. The schoolhouse survived untouched. In 1953, a partition within the first floor was removed to extend the classroom by five feet. Formerly this five foot "hallway" had served as a wood storage area with a service door leading into the schoolyard for wood loading. Blackboards, tackboards and additional lighting were added to the expanded room. Floor markings still indicate the wood storage area's original location. The metal sheathing doesn't extend into this area and the service door has been closed over.

This enlargement of the schoolroom to alleviate the overcrowded conditions proved unsuccessful. In 1953, the Riverside Chapter of the Patrons of Husbandry was asked to vacate their grange hall on the second floor in order to create an additional classroom. The following year, banks of windows were added to the southeast elevation of the second floor and several second story, single bay sash windows were closed over.

In remodelling the upstairs room, windows along the front and west sides were closed in and added windows built in on north and east. Curtains were purchased and installed. The old stage was cut down in size and moved to the west side. The old partitions around the stage were eliminated. This now makes a large, usable space and is much nicer than before. We shall still plan to install different or additional lights in the near future.

In 1954, enrollment was 40 students and a second teacher was hired. The upstairs classroom was used by the third and fourth grades. The new room was "not a well lighted or adequate arrangement" but served temporarily while the new school at West Topsham was being built.

In 1960, baseboard radiation was added. A large, wood and coal burning stove remains in the schoolhouse, yet it is difficult to determine when it was installed. In 1962, a fence was added along the road edge. Aside from mention of having the fence painted in 1963 and the World War I victory gardens, there is little mention made for schoolyard landscaping.

No less important or significant than the building's use as a schoolhouse, is its function as a Grange Hall. The second story of the structure was built specifically for use as a hall for the Riverside Chapter (#455) of the Patrons of Husbandry.

The Patrons of Husbandry Grange is a national organization founded c.1875. Originally it was oriented toward farmers with discussions centering around agricultural issues. In Waits River the grange was organized c.1910, meeting at various places in the community until the hall was built in 1914. Membership in Waits River was not limited to just the farm community and anyone over 14 years old was invited to join. They met every two weeks and meetings incorporated an opening ceremony, lecture hour, entertainment in the form of skits and songs or poems of an educational and inspirational nature followed by a closing ceremony. The stage, podium and piano were used regularly.

In addition to their regular meetings, the Grange sponsored wedding receptions and dances in the hall. A majority of the community's meetings and entertainment took place in the Grange Hall. Despite being located on the western edge of the village, the hall/schoolhouse served as a core in the community.

The Grange was asked to vacate their hall in 1953 to facilitate the increasing school population. They moved to East Orange in 1953 and again in that year to the old White Rabbit Restaurant below West Topsham.