The Bell School

“Them folks at the Head is gittin’ mighty high toned buildin’ a school with a ‘bellcony’ on it,” remarked a mid-nineteenth century Westport resident.

The Bell School was built in 1841 as a school for District No. 14, on the west side of the river. There was evidently some jealousy aroused in the other school districts when the residents of the Head of Westport decided to build so magnificent a building to be used as a mere schoolhouse.

The Bell School was one of nineteen one-room schools that once dotted the Westport landscape in the nineteenth century. However, these once-admired buildings became the focus of a decades-long debate about education and an unsustainable district system.

By 1900, the Westport School Committee described the overall conditions of Westport schools as “Deplorable! Unhealthful! Worn out! Dismal! Repulsive!” Nothing illustrates the plight of children in the 1800s more dramatically than the daily hardships that they faced at school. Although each one-room school differed somewhat from the exterior, they were all equally primitive inside and presented the students with some serious challenges to their wellbeing.

In the winter, children risked being sprayed with hot soot from malfunctioning woodstoves. They risked contracting life-threatening diseases through the prevalent use of the common drinking cup and appallingly unkempt outhouses. They faced serious bullying and class disruption as anywhere from fifteen to fifty pupils ranging in age from five to twenty years crowded into a single room. Many children were sentenced to a life of impaired eyesight from the lack of adequate lighting in the schools.

It is astounding that within these difficult conditions, children managed to read the literary classics, learn complex bookkeeping skills, take in the practical arts (music, drawing, agriculture), and learn how to plant gardens.

Despite the poor conditions inside the buildings, the one-room schoolhouse has left a lasting architectural legacy, such as the Greek Revival Bell School and the temple-like Wolf Pit School. Many of the buildings that were once one-room schools still survive, but have been significantly altered. The struggle to provide an effective public education system is ongoing and many of the concerns voiced in the nineteenth century are still relevant today.

In 1972, the Westport Library Association gave the Bell School to the Westport Historical Society, and so the building continues to dispense knowledge—even if in a different manner.

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25 Drift Road, Westport, MA 02790