School House #3

The motto for School #3 written by David Seward still hangs over the entrance to the school room.

Geographically District #3 was the northeast corner of Sullivan. The border to the west was the Masonian Patent Line. The boundaries with Stoddard and Nelson formed the northern and eastern borders. The southern border was a line that ran from the Patent Line east across Spaulding Brook, to the south of Wilder Hill, and on to the border with Nelson. The district included all of the farms that were settled along Bowlder Road, Kendall Lane, and Wilder Hill. Its geographic center was Bolster Pond. 

It is not recorded where schools were held in the district prior to 1792, but it seems likely that, like other districts, school sessions were held in barns. Samuel Seward’s place (now Seward Mountain Farm) seems the most logical location as it was about halfway for most of the other farms in the area. In 1792, the first school house was constructed south of Samuel Seward’s place. Around 1825, the building was moved further south to a point close to the modern-day southern entrance of Seward Mountain Farm. Josiah Lafayette Seward described the building as a “…rude affair with old-fashioned long benches upon which the children were most uncomfortably crowded.” The accuracy of his description was due to the fact that he was a student at the school during its last years of use. 

For several reasons, district #3 was unique among Sullivan’s schools. The first unusual event occurred in the late 1840s. In 1849, the district meeting concluded that a new school was needed. Unlike the other districts which tended to build shed or barn-like buildings, district 3 decided to form a committee to study what other schools in our region were doing and incorporate the best ideas into a new school house. Dexter Spaulding, David Seward, and Thomas Wetherbee formed the committee. Each man brought a certain perspective to the work at hand. Dexter Spaulding was a member of a skilled family of carpenters, joiners and cabinet makers who could provide labor and expertise to build a solid building. David Seward (Josiah’s father) was a prosperous farmer who highly valued education. Captain Thomas Wetherbee was a farmer, blacksmith, and highly respected member of the community. The committee presented a design that reflected the latest ideas about school construction and the building was built accordingly. The benches of the old building would be replaced by spacious desks to house each student’s books and supplies. The desks were staggered so that the tallest were in the rear of the building. This meant that each student would have a good view of the teacher and lessons regardless of their size. The building would have windows on three of its four walls so that light would be abundant. The fourth wall was devoted to blackboard space. The entry way provided adequate space for bookcases and storage. 

The school district approved the plan even though it was somewhat expensive. The only economy was the use of some of the timbers and boards from the old school. The final touch was a motto provided by David Seward and painted on a large board by Dexter Spaulding. It said, “Common Schools, the Nursery of Liberty.” To this day, the sign continues to hang over the doorway into the classroom. 

Enrollment was steady at 10-17 students through out the 19th century. However, as the farms around Bolster Pond began to decline, the student population dropped to only 8 students by 1905. The decision was made to close the school. It was reopened in 1908 largely due to an agreement with Stoddard. Sullivan and Stoddard agreed to pay ½ each of the costs of a teacher and fuel in exchange for Sullivan allowing Stoddard students to attend. Even with the extra students, however, the enrollment averaged around 9 pupils for the next ten years. The agreement ended in 1917 and with the exception of a fall and winter session in 1920, the school remained closed until 1924. It was reopened in that year, but probably would have closed again were it not for another unique event. 

In 1909, the state established a second normal school in Keene. The school later evolved into what is now Keene State College. A major part of the curriculum to train new teachers was called the cadet program—what we call student teachers today. For many years, Keene Normal School ran the school system for the city of Keene as part of the program. Recognizing that far more New Hampshire school districts were rural, the college began a program to place cadets in rural schools. The college catalog from the period noted, “Many students spend a part of their practice period in one of these schools and some major in them. The latter are sure to secure positions at the best salaries.” According to the catalog, student teaching in a rural school had another major advantage. “These students in addition to gaining independent practice, save the expense of the board for nine weeks.” In the mid-1920s the program began growing under the leadership of Idella K. Farnum. Ms. Farnum provided instruction and supervision for the cadets as well as placement. By the late 1920s as many as 80 students were signed up to teach in the 13 cooperating school districts. Sullivan was one of those towns. 

Many of the cadets were placed in district #2 under the supervision of Sullivan teachers. However, the Sullivan School District made an agreement with Keene Normal in 1926 to reopen School #3 under the college’s supervision. In other words, the town paid for the upkeep of the building while the college provided cadets and supervising teachers in a kind of rural laboratory school. The program lasted until the fall session in 1930. Again, declining population in the district made operating the school uneconomical—even without having to pay for a teacher. It was probably just as well, because the rural schools program at Keene Normal peaked a few years later and declined until it was abolished in 1939. Ms. Farnum continued to teach at the college until 1947. 

In 1931, Sullivan was faced with what to do about the defunct school. Again, something unique happen. On 14 March 1939, Robert Calef purchased the building. He was the owner of Seward Mountain Farm and ownership of the school was stayed with the farm ever since. Further, Mr. Calef did not use the building as a shed or outbuilding, but chose to preserve it exactly as it was when it closed. Subsequent owners have continued the practice. In the 1970s, Virginia Turner who owned the farm after the Calefs had the building moved from its original location to its current location near the farm—largely to prevent vandalism. The Turners and the current owners—John and Jean Hoffman—have also hosted gatherings at the school house for the community. Both families have hosted Sullivan School students as part of their New Hampshire history studies. Sometimes this has included spending an entire school day and experiencing life in a one-room school. 

School #3 has a number of unique things in its history. It was designed by a committee that studied how best to construct a school. It served as a training school with student teachers learning the specific problems and issues of rural schools. Finally, thanks to its subsequent owners, it is the only school house that has been preserved exactly the way it was when it was a school. School # 3 is one of our town’s historical treasures. 

Sullivan School # 5
The interior of School #3 in the summer of 2008. The bright interior, adequate desks, and ample space were all the result of the building committee’s work. While Sullivan still has 4 of its original 6 schools, only #3 has been preserved exactly the way it was.