Filed Under Schools

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.

Images

Bell School, c. 1900
Bell School, c. 1900 School children stood outside the Bell School, posing for a photograph in the year 1900. Source: http://westhist.pastperfectonline.com/photo/1158C67A-B533-4971-A152-227352211510 Date: 1900
Horseneck School
Horseneck School At the Horseneck School, “the seats are fastened to the pedestals so that they lean forward at an angle of about 20 to 30 degrees and the children had to hold themselves in the seats by resting their arms upon the desks and pressing their feet against the floor.” (School Committee Annual report) Source: https://westhist.pastperfectonline.com/photo/2AE161AB-DD18-46F3-AFBA-074371953145
North Westport School, c. 1900
North Westport School, c. 1900 While this photograph shows the faces of 22 school children and their teacher, it also reveals the Interior of the North Westport School. Seeing the poorly lit and tightly packed school building helps to shed light on the struggles that children endured daily at schools across the country. The chalkboards in the background of the photo also show the various subjects that students were taught. A lesson on musical notation can be seen on the left side of the photo, and mathematics in the center. Source: https://westhist.pastperfectonline.com/photo/94FA7DAE-B68C-48AD-BF00-240241147817 Date: 1900
Wolf Pit School
Wolf Pit School Built in 1833, the Wolf Pit School was located on the east side of the river at the Head of Westport. Source: http://westhist.pastperfectonline.com/photo/297C587A-E11B-47F5-9D78-336153068200

Location

25 Drift Road, Westport, MA 02790

Metadata

Westport Historical Society, “The Bell School,” Rhode Tour, accessed May 20, 2024, https://rhodetour.org/items/show/270.