SOUTHINGTON — The West Street School is approaching its 259th year and stands as one of the most historic buildings in town.
Perched on a hill approximately 12 feet above West Street, the building dates back to 1760. The original schoolhouse at the same location was actually built in 1750 but burned down, according to Record-Journal archives. The 1760 schoolhouse that replaced it is one of 34 Southington properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
From the 18th to the mid-20th century, children as young as first grade would pack inside the schoolhouse’s single room. Eight windows provided daylight inside the white structure with white shutters.
A pot-bellied stove kept teachers and students warm in the winter. The older children, usually seventh and eighth graders, would be in charge of fetching wood to feed the stove.
Children often got to school by horse, picking other students up along the way. Water was retrieved from a well outside. Toward the end of the school’s run in 1945, the well apparently became contaminated.
Carol Edele Sheffs, a student during the school’s last year of operation, believed the water contamination was a factor in the school’s closing, according to Record-Journal archives. Sheffs was relocated to Plantsville School after the West Street schoolhouse closed.
The Southington Historical Society could not confirm contaminated water was the reason for the closing, but notes from former students kept by the society include a description of the process of collecting drinking water. Students would scoop out water from the well into a pail while “avoiding frogs and other animals that might be in the water.”
A majority of the notes described an enjoyable school experience. Children chronicled playing outside the school, primarily football, baseball and “kick the can.” When horses went out of style as a mode of transportation, kids walked or rode their bikes.
Teachers remembered the challenges of educating eight different grade levels in one classroom, where students students had to squeeze onto small benches and share double desks. Students would move to the front of the room when it was time for their scheduled class, while the rest remained in the back engaged in their studies mentored by the older classmates.
One note entry described the school as “one big happy family.” Sometimes, the older students were heavily outnumbered — one noted being the the only eighth grader in his class at one point.
Even the maintenance of the school, like cleaning the floors and washing the windows, was done by the students. This continued even after the school’s closing, as former students and teachers formed the West Street School and Community Association.
The group signed a 99-year lease for $1 in 1947 and covered upkeep costs with events, including an annual auction.
The Historical Society eventually took over the building, which has undergone few changes. The only alteration has been the building’s location. It was moved back on the site in a 1977 project to lower and widen West Street.