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History of Ryegate, Vermont
Chapter XVI



FOR the beginning of education in Ryegate we must look far beyond the town itself, and inquire concerning the origin and development of the public school system in Scotland, the manner in which that system was conducted, and the relation of the schools to the religious history of the country.

The first settlers of Ryegate were men of superior intelligence, as were the class from which they came in Scotland. As evidence of this the editor of this volume may say that in the course of its preparation he has read scores of letters written on both sides of the Atlantic between 1772 and 1815, by many persons, and has rarely found a misspelled word or an ungrammatical sentence. They were able to express themselves clearly and concisely on any subject. In this respect they were superior to the first settlers of the towns around them which were settled from the older towns in New England. It does not follow from this that they were, intellectually, their superiors, but that their earlier advantages had been greater. It must be remembered, also, that the public institutions of Scotland were long and firmly established, while in New England, at the time Ryegate was settled, the country was new, the people were engaged in subduing the wilderness, and had just emerged from a long and costly war.

NOTE. The authorities for the local part of this chapter are Mr. Miller’s notes and published articles, the town and district school records, statistics collected by Mr. Gilfillan, and personal information.

The school system of Scotland may be said to have begun with the introduction of Presbyterianism into that country, and schools were established in many parishes before the end of the 16th century. But it was not till nearly one hundred years later that a school system, supported by taxation, was made general throughout the country. In the autumn of 1696 the Estates of Scotland passed the "Act for the Settling of Schools."

"It was statuted and ordained," says Macaulay, "that every parish in the realm should provide a commodious school house, and should pay a moderate stipend to a schoolmaster. The effect could not be immediately felt. But before one generation had passed away it began to be evident that the common people of Scotland were superior in intelligence to the common people of any other country in Europe. To whatever land the Scotch man might wander, to whatever calling he might betake himself, in America or in India, the advantages which he derived from his early training, raised him above his competitors. If he was taken into a ware-house as a porter, he soon became a foreman. If he enlisted in the army, he soon became a sergeant. Scotland, mean-while, in spite of the barrenness of her soil and the severity of her climate, made such progress in agriculture, in manufactures, in commerce, in letters, in all that constitutes civilization, as the Old World had never equalled, and as even the New World has scarcely surpassed."

Very much of this progress must be attributed to the high character and attainments of the schoolmasters in Scotland in the 18th century. They were, generally, graduates from the universities, who made teaching a life work, and spent their entire lives, from youth to old age, in instructing the boys of a single parish, teaching the urchins their letters, and in the course of time, thoroughly fitting the most promising for the university. Next to the minister, the schoolmaster was the principal man in the parish. Very likely he would be qualified to "take the pulpit" in the minister’s absence. He was almost certain to be an elder in the congregation, and, if he held a musical gift, the precentor, a man of great authority in the churches of Scotland. Allan Ramsay thus speaks of one—

"The letter-gae of haly rhyme,
He sat at the board’s head,
Aud a’ he did was thocht a crime,
To contradict indeed."

But their stipends were meagre. Even as late as 1813, the salary of the schoolmaster at Inchinnan was only £16,13s, 4d, or, including fees and rent, £40 a year. Their attainments were extensive, and many a one of them understood Latin and Greek as well as his mother tongue. They were impatient of dullness or idleness, and the progress of the pupil along the paths of knowledge was apt to be hastened by inducements of a very substantial character.

Letters are preserved in Ryegate and Barnet which some of the first settlers received from their old masters in Scotland, which evince an intense interest in their welfare, and a hope that they "kept up their studies." There were a few men in both towns who, despite all the privations of pioneer life, kept up their acquaintance with the classics.

In the New England colonies the common school system is older than that of Scotland. In 1634 the delegates of the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed their ever memorable resolution—" To the End that Religion and Morality be not buried in the Grave of our Fathers, it is hereby ordered that when the Lord hath increased any Plantation to the Number of Twenty Families they shall hire a Master and set up a School, and when the Number is increased to Forty Families they shall set up a Grammar School." "The result was," says Green, the English historian, "that in New England alone, of all the countries in the world, every man and woman could read and write." That this was generally the case is indisputable. But in the struggle for existence, in which most of the people of New England were then engaged, there must have been many who had never been able to secure even, this beginning of education.

It is certain also that the children of the colonists who were born or reared in Ryegate had to be content with fewer attainments than their fathers.

Mr. Miller says that the first public school in this town was kept by Jonathan Powers of Newbury, in General Whitelaw’s house, but does not give the date. Mr. Powers was a son of the Newbury minister, graduated at Dartmouth in 1790, and died while minister at Penobscot, Maine. It will be evident that with people scattered all the way from the Gray farm to Connecticut river, in small clearings connected by rude paths among the woods, it must have been hard to get children together. That a school was kept at all, is evidence of the desire of the people to do the best they could by their children.

Who were the immediate successors of Mr. Powers we do not know, but the few actions of the town referring to schools, show that something was done. But beyond such teaching as the parents could give at home, very little could have been done in the way of instruction for the first years.

Mr. Mason says that in 1798, Mr. William Boyle, a learned Scotchman, came to Ryegate, and taught school with great success, and also says that later this gentleman opened a school for the benefit of young men who intended to teach school, and that all his pupils became excellent teachers, This would seem to have been one of the first attempts at normal education in Vermont.

But who was this Mr. Boyle? I find no mention of him elsewhere. But in letters written to Gen. Whitelaw, twelve years later by Rev. William Forsythe, while preaching in Nova Scotia, he adverts with pleasure to the accounts which had reached him of the success of his former pupils here. As Mr. Forsythe certainly taught school while preaching here in 1798, and afterward became a very successful teacher in Nova Scotia, it seems plain that Mr. Mason, writing sixty years afterward, was not correctly informed as to the name.

A man who did such solid work should not have been forgotten here. A letter written by Robert Hyslop of New York City to Gen. Whitelaw in March, 1798, speaks of Mr. Forsythe as a native of Dumfries, and educated at Glasgow University. He would have been a young man in Dumfries during the last years of Robert Burns.

It is very hard to obtain all the particulars which we would like to have regarding schools so long ago, and even Mr. Miller, writing thirty years since, confessed his inability to obtain all he desired to know concerning them. The discovery of some letters and records not known to him gives us a few facts. It is certain that the Ryegate schools were as good as those of any town in this vicinity a century ago. The people provided only what they were able to pay for, and they certainly received more than their money’s worth.

Schoolmasters were invariably employed as teachers, both summer and winter, until about 1802. "People did not think," says Mr. Miller, "that a woman could teach school any more than she could mow or chop wood." But about that time Abigail Whitelaw succeeded in persuading the committee to let her try her hand at teaching, much against their conviction. But she settled the question beyond all future cavil, and after that school mistresses were generally employed in summer.

A small manuscript volume containing the procedings of school meetings in the "Middle district," from 1809 to 1847, whose successive clerks were James Dunsyre, John Page, William Gray and George Cowles, conveys much information about the schools of that period.

The middle district seems to have had about the same territory as at present, but was a little larger, embracing part of what is now called the Hall district. In the year 1810, there were 108 scholars between the ages of 4 and 18.

The summer school for 1810 began about the middle of May, and was taught four months of six days in each week for $16, by Abigail Chamberlin. The board was "according to the scholar." There seems to have been about 60 pupils. The winter following was taught by John Gibson for $14 per month. It was voted—"That every person that sends to School shall for every Scholar they send find one-half a cord of. good wood ready cut for the fire."

There does not appear to have been any Superintendent or other official chosen by the town, but in Dec., 1811, it was voted that Messrs. Andrew Millar, Rev. Wm. Gibson and John Cameron should be a committee to visit the school and examine the scholars.

In the summer of 1812, Ann Wallace, who became Mrs. Wm. Brock of Newbury, taught the school for the same wages. In the summer of 1813, the same teacher taught the school at an advance of fifty cents over her former salary. In 1814, John Page—called Lame John—taught the summer school for $10 per month, boarding himself. He was the schoolmaster for several years, and his meager salary was not always paid in cash, but partly in grain or other produce. For the winter term of 1822-3 the teacher’s board was bid off by John Hall for 7/6 ($1.20) per week.

In 1829 the district voted to build a new schoolhouse of brick on the site of the old one, and voted to raise $300 for the purpose, $125 to be paid in cash, and the balance in grain. The house was built in the next year. It is probable that the schools were conducted and paid in all the districts in town at about the same rate. From 1815 to 1830, the teachers board was set up at auction, and bid off for about 87 cents per week, the teacher to receive that amount if he boarded himself.

The schoolmasters of those days certainly earned their pay. The school at the Corner was the largest in town, and in winter often 100 pupils were crowded into the schoolroom. How the master could keep order, or, keeping order have time for anything else, we fail to comprehend. The want of uniformity in text-books then, and for half a century later, was a great disadvantage. Books were few and hard to get; pupils brought to school such books as they had, and the master grouped into classes those who had the same books. Mr. Goodwin says that there were always several kinds of arithmetics, with classes in each, and the same with other books. Often there was only one pupil who had a particular reading book or geography, and the master had to find time to hear him recite his lesson singly. One afternoon of each week was devoted to instruction in penmanship, in which more than half the master’s time was taken up in mending the pens of the pupils. Steel pens were not in those days, all writing was done with the quill, and it was indispensable that the master should be skilled in their preparation. He might be weak in arithmetic, all at sea in geography, blundering in grammar and yet be forgiven, but inability to make a good pen stamped him a failure. It is now almost a lost art, yet nothing can surpass a well made quill pen for elegant handwriting.

Mr. Miller’s first experience as a schoolmaster at South Ryegate in the winter of 1844-5 was, probably, little different from that of any other master in those days, and for half a century before. He taught three months of 26 days each for $10 per month, boarding with his pupils in proportion as each family sent, the fuel being furnished in the same manner. "There were 35 pupils. I had six young men among my scholars larger than myself, and three about my size. I had no fewer than twelve different reading classes, from the highest down to those just learning to read. One boy’s reading book was Huntington’s Geography, another read from the ‘History of Coos.’ There were three different kinds of spelling books in use, two kinds of arithmetics, and three kinds of geographies. I boarded at thirteen different places and found them all good ones. There was a farmer in that neighborhood who had scales, a pair of balances with five stones for weights. On those scales I weighed 179 lbs., while Fairbanks scales declined to allow me quite 160 lbs."

The district records which we have cited show that just a century ago, in the summer of 1810, the district voted "to recommend to the school committee to hire a woman for four months to keep school the ensuing summer, beginning about the middle of May." As we have seen her wages were $16 for the whole term.

Mr. Miller mentions by name several young men who were successful teachers in the "middle district," and adds that so far as he knew all of them were successful in after life. We should suppose that any young man who could teach 100 children and young people in one of the small, rude, unventilated schoolhouses of that day, would succeed in almost anything. John Page, commonly called "Lame John," taught that school several years with marked success. He was one of Mr. Forsythe’s pupils. Mr. Page began to teach about 1800, and was still at his post when Merrill Goodwin, who has died while this chapter was undergoing its final revision, was old enough to go to school, about 1825. He went on crutches, and sometimes used them for the castigation of refractory pupils. Another master, long remembered, was Alfred Stevens, afterward a D. D., and for more than forty years the honored pastor of the Congregational church at Westminster West.

It is very easy for us to say that such schools were little better than none at all, and point with complacency to our modern apparatus of instruction. But it is safe to say that our modern school system, with all its complicated machinery of education will not turn out better or more useful men and women than went out into the world over the thresholds of those old schoolhouses. Greater lessons were taught under those roofs than were learned from Adams’ Arithmetic, Morse’s Geography or Webster’s Spelling Book. Learning in a visible form, plain indeed and humble, was set before children, at a time when their minds were most susceptible to influence and most receptive.

The town was entirely in one school district till 1795, when it was voted "to divide the town into two school districts by a straight line drawn from the head of the pond to the place where the river road crosses the line between the north and south divisions of the town." There would seem to have been another district formed before 1800, as in that year the "west and north districts" reported 98 scholars between 4 and 18 years of age.

In 1800 the town was divided into five school districts which were called the North, the Northwest, the Southeast, the Middle, and the Southwest districts. The first and second of these were in the north division. In 1811, a district was formed out of the central portion of the north division, and in 1820 the Gibson District was organized. In 1821, after much opposition and a compromise, a district was formed at Craig’s Mills, now South Ryegate.

Mr. Goodwin was told that the first school at the Corner, the Middle District, was kept in Andrew Brock’s house, and the next in a log house which had been used as a dwelling. The first schoolhouse stood where the Grange hall now stands. The second, of brick, built on the same site in 1828, seems to have been unsatisfactory to many, as in 1846, a vote at the annual meeting to build a new schoolhouse, was rescinded at a special meeting a week later. In 1840, part of the people wanted the school divided, but the proposition to obtain new quarters for the advanced pupils was voted down. About 1850 a new house was built on that site which was in use until the erection of the present building.

In 1899 land for a new schoolhouse and ample yard for a play ground was bought of John Gibson, and a new house was erected and furnished at a total cost of $2,884. A. B. Lowe was the contractor and builder, and the completed house was decided by the state superintendent of education, as the best two-room schoolhouse in the state. Photographs of this house were exhibited at the World’s Fair in Paris by the state.

Mr. Goodwin remembered as teachers there in his youth: John Franklin, who afterward became a physician of note; John Bigelow and Daniel Symes of Ryegate; Albert Spear, Wooster Sawyer, Adna Newton, Julia Spear and Jane Tucker of Newbury; Ann Barnet and Salome Stevens of Barnet.

No. 2, the McLam District, was formed in 1811, and the first schoolhouse stood on the west side of the road a little south of where Colin McDonald lives. In 1860, it was moved to the present site, and a new house later built. This district has suffered greatly from the changes in population. In 1870 there were 30 scholars, and one deserted farm.

Now there is but one scholar, nine houses abandoned of their tenants, and its comely schoolhouse stands tenantless before the noble grove of maples which crowns the hillside behind it.

In the Park—formerly called the Milligan District (No. 3)—there have been two schoolhouses, the earlier one being about a half mile farther south.

District No. 4, formerly extended along the river road from Newbury line to Barnet line, and was organized March 15, 1814, having ten families and 30 scholars.

A new schoolhouse was built in 1867. In 1851 the district was divided, and a schoolhouse built half a mile below the falls on the river road, which, in 1908, was moved to East Ryegate. This is District No. 10.

In No. 5, the Whitelaw District, there have been two school houses, The first was about half a mile nearer Wells River, on the Bigelow place. An early teacher was Jane Johnston, a sister of Mrs. Gen. Whitelaw. She wrote several tracts and small books, among them a biography of a little boy, a son of Joseph Ricker, a copy of which, although remembered by old people, cannot he discovered.

In the northwest part of the town, No.6, there have been three schoolhouses. The first stood, says Mr. John Gates, on the extreme northwest corner of Lot No. 3, in the 4th range, known as the Holmes place, and the second house was on the west side of the road, opposite the first site. The present building is where the road from South Ryegate to Peacham crosses that from Groton to Barnet. An early schoolmaster in that district was Flavel Bailey of Peacham, a noted teacher in his time. Later school masters were a Mr. Howe, Jacob Trussell of Peacham, Hugh and Edward Miller, Amaziah Ricker and others.

The schoolhouse in No 7 known as the Gibson District, organized Nov. 23, 1820, stood at the gate where the road leading to "Rock Rob," Gibson’s, now James Liddle’s, turns off. It was moved to its present site in 1856.

At South Ryegate, No. 8, a log schoolhouse which was built about 1821, was burned, and was succeeded by another, also of logs, on the same site on a knoll near Mrs. John R. McAllister’s house. Mr. Miller was in one of them about 1835. "It had a row of writing desks around the walls of the house, with loose movable benches made of slabs with the flat side up. Donald Cameron was the teacher that winter." The schoolhouse in which Mr. Miller taught was what was then called a "plank" house (with walls of plank) twenty feet square, and stood where the quarry road now turns from the main road. The house now occupied by Luther Crow was a schoolhouse before 1888, and stands on

the site of a former one, which was probably the one in which Mr. Miller taught. There were only five houses where the village stands, and there were five log houses in the district. The present school building at South Ryegate was erected in 1888 at a cost of $2,800. In 1907 another story was added, costing about $1,000.

District No. 9, often called the Miller District, was organized in 1840, with eight families and 28 scholars, of whom Edward Miller, Sen , had nine. The first schoolhouse was a little further west, and on the other side of the road from the present one, built in 1874. The first school was taught by Ann Cameron for five shillings (83 1-3 cts.) per week. The first three terms of school were taught in the kitchen of the old Craig house.

The population of the town with the number of heads of families and the children of school age at each census is as follows:

* In the census of 1850 about 400 persons who were working on the railroad with their families were included leaving the real population about 1200.

One thing must be kept in mind that the law regulating "school age" has been several times altered. In 1800 and for some decades after, "school age" was from four to 18. The term has been gradually contracted till it is now from five to 18, which will account for part of the decreased number of scholars.

The records of District No. 1, show that a century ago the teacher was chosen by vote at school meeting. Later, candidates for the office were invited to appear at school meeting. About 1815 it began to be the custom "to leave the choice of master or mistress with the committee."

There seems to have been no legal supervision of schools, and no superintendent was chosen till about 1831. A few years later the custom fell into disuse, and was not revived till about 1846. Since then there has been supervision. In old times the ministers used to look after the schools. In Barnet it was Rev. David Goodwillie’s custom to visit all the schools at least twice in each year. Mr. Goodwin remembered that Rev. Mr. Milligan visited the schools regularly, as did Rev. Mr. Pringle. There seems to have been no examination required by law of teachers till about 1850.

By a law passed in 1892, the school district system was superseded by the "town system," through whose operation all the schools in town were placed under the supervision of three directors. The change was attended by some added expense. Thirty weeks of school were held in each district in which a school was maintained. The total expenses for schools the first year were $2,449.

By a law enacted in 1906, a number of towns were permitted to unite, and elect a superintendent who should give all his time in expert supervision of schools. After considerable hesitation the directors decided to join with Newbury, Groton and Topsham in a union known as the "Connecticut and Wells River District." Mr. John S. Gilman of Newbury, a graduate of Dartmouth, was elected superintendent at a salary of $1,200, of which $1,000 was paid by the state, the balance and necessary expenses being paid by the towns in proportion to their grand list. Mr. Gilman was re-elected in 1908, and 1909, but resigned before the end of the year to take a similar position at Lisbon, N. H. Mr. Waldo H. Glover of Massachusetts, a native of Groton, was chosen his successor. In this year Topsham withdrew from the union and Bradford came in. Under Mr. Gilman’s supervision the schools were graded, and all working in union. The expense is greater, and, while somewhat of an experiment, it is believed that the results will be satisfactory.

There has never been a high school or an academy in Ryegate, and those in search of a higher education have had to go elsewhere. Peacham and McIndoes Academies have drawn many, and the superior advantages of St. Johnsbury Academy have attracted an increasing number of late years. An examination of the catalogues of Newbury Seminary from 1840 to 1860, shows that an average of about 12 students from Ryegate attended that institution in each year.

There have, however, been private schools in town. Mr. Gibson gave lessons to private pupils, as did Mr. Milligan, and Mr. Goodwin remembered the latter teaching a select school, probably about 1828, in the old meeting house. Abigail Whitelaw taught a select school before and after her marriage. Her advertisement appears several times in Spooner’s Vermont journal for 1813, by which she undertakes to teach 15 or 20 pupils for $15 per quarter.

When we contrast the wages paid to teachers in early days with those paid at present, we must bear in mind that not much was expected of teachers then, consequently a less expensive preparation was required; they were not compelled to pass a rigid examination, and compared with the wages received for all kinds of employment the pay was not so low as it would seem.

It is not claimed that the following list of college graduates who were natives of Ryegate is complete, but embraces all who can be found.

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