MIDDLEBURY — It’s been 59 years since classes were in session at the former Quarry Hill School on Case Street, but if you listen really closely, you can almost make out the echoes of the daily roll call bouncing off the now-bare plaster walls in that single room.
It was here, during the course of 74 years, that kids with last names like Fenn, Forbes, Brown, Dwire and Highter gathered together to be drilled in the “three Rs.” Their dusty lesson books still line a closet shelf, ready to be reopened. The coatroom hooks yearn to be adorned with a scarf or jacket. A dark, oversized woodstove sulks in the corner, begging for a match to spark a new flame in a venue in which alphabets were recited, times tables were learned and a few pigtails were dunked into inkwells.
While it’s unlikely the Quarry Hill School will ever be used again as a teaching venue, the descendants of its former students are hoping to resurrect the venerable structure as a spot for community gatherings. They also hope to preserve it as an educational tool for 21st-century students, to see one of the few remaining, untouched examples of a Vermont one-room schoolhouse.
“To me, it’s always been a gem,” said Carol Wood, who grew up next door to the former school building perched at the intersection of Quarry Road and Case Street.
“It’s a landmark coming into our neighborhood,” said Joan Forbes, whose family has long ties to the school.
Wood and Forbes are president and secretary, respectively, of the Case Street Community Club, which now owns and controls the former school property. Around a dozen people now have a stake in the building, acquired by their relatives from the town of Middlebury back in 1954 for $1,000. Since then, it has served as a spot for bingos, suppers, private parties, kids’ activities and community get-togethers. Until December, it was the home base for the Sodbusters Horseshoe Club, which had rented the property for events for the past 40 years.
But the Sodbusters have decided to move their activities to Bristol, prompting the Case Street Community Club to chart a new chapter in the history of the building, designed and erected by prominent local architect/builder Clinton Smith back in 1880. The tall, Victorian schoolhouse was one of 10 Middlebury district schoolhouses that each served families within a two-mile radius, according to research provided by the club.
The one-room community school hung on longer in Vermont than in most other states. With its isolated hollows, long winters, muddy springs, and strong desire for local control, the Green Mountain State had more than 1,000 small community schools in 1939 — many surely boasting just a single room.
These schools not only provided the experience of a multi-age classroom that is not available to children today, but also were unique workplaces for the teachers who staffed them. The teachers in those schools were often women who, in an age when many women stayed at home or on the farm, gained a degree of autonomy and status often not available to others of their gender.
The relative isolation that prompted the need for these schools also meant that they were true centers of the community. It was a time when holiday programs at the school were an opportunity for people in the community to come together and share some entertainment, which otherwise might be hard to come by in 19th-century rural Vermont.
The Quarry Hill School in Middlebury was closed in 1954 when what is now the Mary Hogan School came into being, according to Wood.
The Case Street Community Club has done its best to maintain the old structure, which is listed on the Vermont Register of Historic Places. The club held a workday at the schoolhouse this past Saturday, May 11. Various jobs included a thorough spring cleaning, yard work and preparing for the installation of new windows. A carpenter and an electrician have offered their services and a donor has graciously offered some wood to resurface the floor, which also needs to be jacked up. At minimum, a new front door will be needed, along with some septic system updates, Wood reasoned.
Wood acknowledged that the building’s complete needs remain unknown.
“We haven’t had a contractor come through yet,” she said.
But club officials realize it will likely cost a pretty penny to bring the building up to snuff. For that reason, the club is lining up a series of events to raise money that will be pumped into the former schoolhouse. Planned events include a picnic and flea market next month; a “big truck show” in July; a musical fundraiser and pie social sometime in August; an apple festival, slide show and potluck dinner in October; a bingo, turkey raffle and hunters’ dinner in November; and Christmas caroling and a hay ride in December.
Organizers hope these events — and future ones — raise enough money to make the Case Street property once again a hub for neighborhood and educational activities. Wood would like to forge an association with the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History, to showcase the building as a time capsule of how kids were taught in the olden days.
And if enough money comes in, she’d like to see a bell ring once again in the vacant tower. The old bell was stolen years ago, according to Wood.
The Case Street Community Club bylaws allow for the building and its 1.5 acres to be sold. But club members don’t want to see that happen.
“We want to continue to keep it up as best we can,” Wood said.
“It’s a lot of work, but we’re excited about it.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]