Friday, November 5, 2010

School No. 6

Schoolhouse Number 6 - The Revere School

Just as you are about to leave Canton, heading for Norwood, you will pass Chapman Street on your right. To gain your bearings, today there is a traffic light at the intersection of Neponset and Chapman streets; a slight hill to your right in front of you is a small service station, and the scene in this photograph is the original Revere School, or Schoolhouse Number 6. Built in 1827 at a cost of $600, it would serve Canton children for over 87 years.

This building is lost to time. The photograph is taken from a glass plate that I recently found in a box in the basement of the Canton Historical Society. I have long had a keen interest in the Revere School, and finding this relic of a previous incarnation of the original Revere School proved useful material for this lesson. The photograph is almost 125 years old and looks as crisp as the day it was taken. Behind this photo is a story that perhaps could be told by many of the early schoolhouses in Canton. 

The construction of School No. 6 coincided with the establishment of the Boston Manufacturing Company, a large, sprawling complex that was begun in 1824. Three entrepreneurs erected a stone mill that would stand on the corner of Walpole and Neponset streets for 183 years. This area came to be known as the Stone Factory section of Canton. The young owners knew that in order to be successful, labor and amenities that supported labor had to be close by. 

The town of Canton opened up a road across Fowl Meadows in order to shorten the route for teams of horses to reach Boston. As part of the neighborhood, the industrialists built a small chapel, comfortable boarding houses, large barns, and this one-room schoolhouse. The population exploded around the Stone Factory District, and so successful were the early company days that the monthly payroll exceeded more than $7,000. Unfortunately, many of the workers in the mill were children.

Along with boom came bust, and the attendance at School No. 6 would rise and fall with the fortunes of the company. An early report on the school laments the fact that “a great evil in this school is the irregularity of attendance. Children who are in school to-day, and in the Mill at work to-morrow, cannot, in the nature of the case, make any progress in their studies.” Along with tardiness was an issue with retaining adequate teachers. In one year the school reported “energetic and persevering” teachers, and in the next a new teacher was described as “deficient in energy, decision and firmness.” As the school committee saw it, the old settlers sent their children with regularity, and the “floating population” — those who worked in the mill — would ebb and flow. 

The public descriptions of the teachers who taught in the summer and winter terms at School No. 6 were often quite severe. In 1847, describing the teaching style of Mr. Isaac A. Parsons of Maine, the school board writes, “There was a want of dignity in manner, of correctness of language which should characterize a teacher of youth. Children cannot be expected to have good manners and refinement unless they witness them in example and copy they are taught to imitate in school.” Parsons was also marked down for his lack of keeping the register and “exhibiting a culpable deficiency of neatness and accuracy.”

The payroll for School No. 6 also reveals issues that marked the time. In 1857, for example, the salary for a female teacher was $18 per month and for her male counterpart $34. The school at that time was called backward and difficult to govern, and given that on one week 50 to 60 children would attend, and then the next 20 to 30 would be in their seats, there is no question that challenges abounded. 

In 1854 the small building was enlarged, but problems persisted. Again, parents needed children in the mill to assist with the labor pool. In fact, most children would leave this school by the time they reached age 11 or 12, as a job working in the mill or laboring in a field would be their lot in life. 

By 1865 the stream of immigrants brought new challenges to School No. 6: “The foreign population for the most part are ill educated, or not educated at all. Some pretend to speak the English language; others do not; and some speak vulgar, local dialects.” Joseph Wattles, who wrote the school report that year, ended his missive with a quote by Alexander Pope: “Words are like leaves, and where they most abound, much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found.”

By 1870, the schoolhouse became known as Neponset School in recognition that the Neponset Woolen Mills had taken over the old stone factory. Harrison Gray Otis had taken over the mill, and measured success returned to the area. Finally, in 1881 the school was officially named the Revere School in honor of the close connections in the general area to the patriot Paul Revere.

Things gradually improved at the Old Revere School. The general observation in 1886 was that the superintendent of schools met with “cheerful faces, clean hands, clear voices, bright smiles,” all of which went along with “swept floors, well dusted desks and clean windows.” Within 30 years a new modern school on Chapman Street would replace this building. Until that time, however, the two-room schoolhouse would continue to serve Canton until 1914.

This story appeared in the Canton Citizen on November 4, 2010.

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