The Muddy River Schoolhouse

At the foot of Whirlwind Hill, where the MacKenzie reservoir now beckons ducks, geese, swans, turtles, and hopeful fishermen and women, there was once a school. In 1810 the Muddy River Schoolhouse was built in the Wallingford, Connecticut School District No. 8, and the one-room building sat on this same spot until 1932 when plans were made to dig the new reservoir.

MacKenzie Reservoir, spring, 2014

MacKenzie Reservoir, spring, 2014

For a hundred and twenty-two years this one-room school saw Wallingford schoolchildren come and go. As many as thirty students at a time from kindergarten to sixth grade spent their days in the company of one hard-working teacher, learning to read and write and cope with all the hardships and joys of wooden desks, chalkboards, and a single stove to provide heat in the winter. For at least a year my mother was one of those students. In a 1923 photo of the school, teacher, and students, she’s the sixth child from the left, her dark hair framed by the school doorway.

Muddy River Schoolhouse with teacher and students around 1923, Janet Hall sixth child from the left

Muddy River Schoolhouse with teacher and students around 1923, Janet Hall sixth child from the left

I don’t know for sure how many of my ancestors started their educations there, but in 1861 or 1862 my great-grandmother Lydia Jane Hart came over the Totoket Mountains from Durham, Connecticut to be the teacher. Because the Hall farmland was on the uphill slope above Muddy River, I imagine my great-grandparents meeting for the first time somewhere on Whirlwind Hill. William and Lydia married in 1863, ending Lydia’s career as a teacher but beginning another generation of Muddy River schoolchildren.

In a 1998 Meriden Record article about the school, my mother, Janet Hall Crump, says, “I was pretty young, but I remember the fun things like Christmas time when we would decorate and all the parents would come,” she said. “I’m so glad I had that one year. It’s a rather interesting experience when you’re in a one-room schoolhouse. I am so glad I had that experience.”

But the year at the school that my mother remembers was a short-lived one. In January 1924 my great-grandmother Lydia recorded news of Janet and school.

Friday, January 4, 1924 – “A nice bright morning. Snow gone – no more sliding until more snow and ice come. Agnes has taken the children to school. Janet is at home. She has taken a notion she doesn’t want to go any more. Her mother is going to let her stay home until Spring.” – Lydia Jane Hall

Monday, January 14, 1924 – “Nice bright morning. Quite spring-like, tho we do not hear the birds. Children at school. Janet at home, cutting paper, etc. singing by herself.” – Lydia Jane Hall

Thursday, March 6, 1924 – “A very nice morning. Agnes taking the children to school. Janet outside with her daddy whom she likes to talk with, in the house playing with her dolls, coming with books for Grandma to read to her.” – Lydia Jane Hall

Wednesday, March 19, 1924 – “Nice day – warmer, more like spring. The children have been to school. Agnes has gone to bring them home. Janet is at home this winter. Goes to school next fall. She is as quick to learn as the others. She likes her daddy and likes to be out of doors with him.” – Lydia Jane Hall

Janet Hall with doll, around 1924

Janet Hall with doll, around 1924

It must have been hard for my grandmother Agnes, who made such effort to get her children to school, dance lessons, music lessons, etc., to just let my mom stay at home for this half year. But it was such an important time for Janet. She never forgot the joy of being the “only child” for a few hours each day, of having her daddy all to herself, and of being a part of the daily farm routine. Later on, as a mother herself, she occasionally let my brother and me stay home from school when important things happened on the farm. My brother remembers being allowed to take “sick” days when heavy equipment was working nearby so he could watch the machines in action. And I often begged to stay home so I could go to the farm kitchen to watch my grandmother do the washing.

My mother did go back to school, but not to this little building at the foot of the hill. In the fall she joined her brother and sister at the school in town. She was a good student, and she graduated from Lyman Hall High School. In this high school photo I can still see the little girl who liked to follow her daddy around the farm.

Janet Hall's High School photo

Janet Hall’s High School photo

In 1932, instead of tearing the school down to make way for the dredging of the reservoir, the town of Wallingford gave it to Oscar Williams, a farmer living on nearby Williams Road. Oscar hired Fred Audisio (who was paid in eggs since Oscar Williams raised chickens) to put a chain on the building and drag it up Williams Road to his farm where it sat mostly intact until 1998. It was then donated to the Wallingford Historic Preservation Trust and disassembled for storage. It was supposed to be moved and reassembled on another site, but as far as I know, that has never happened. The Muddy River Schoolhouse may still be in pieces in a barn on Williams Road. It’s another mystery for me to solve, and if I find out anything, I’ll let you know.

The earliest depiction I’ve seen of the schoolhouse is a watercolor by Mary E. Hart (or possibly a copy of her painting made by Melissa Hall) that hangs in my parents’ dining room on Whirlwind Hill. Until a few months ago I thought this was a painting of the Hart Homestead in Durham, but my brother told me its subject is the Muddy River Schoolhouse. I was amazed that I’d looked at this picture for so long without really knowing what it was. For me this discovery was like having a ghost step out of the past and say “howdy!” In the painting, done around 1860 or 1870, the school still has white clapboards. Next to the schoolhouse is the bridge over the river at the bottom of Whirlwind Hill. In the background, on the far side of Muddy River, the painter has brushed in the lush spring blooms of the Hall orchards.

"Muddy River Schoolhouse," Mary E. Hart, watercolor

“Muddy River Schoolhouse,” Mary E. Hart, watercolor

On Wednesday:  Painters in our Family

 

19 thoughts on “The Muddy River Schoolhouse

  1. Netzy

    Hi Carol, I am also sad about the little school sitting disassembled in a storage facility. Your writing really touched my heart.

    Reply
  2. Michael Foster

    This is great history to add to my understanding of “the hill.” I had heard about the schoolhouse growing up but never saw pictures of it or understood how it operated. How fortunate for your family that the school was there to draw Lydia from Durham.

    Reply
    1. Carol Post author

      And I’m sure she was a very good teacher. She certainly did well with her own children. I have a feeling that she may have boarded with the Halls when she taught at the school.

      Reply
  3. Margaret Norton Campion

    So, Carol, is the road passing in front of the shingled school house (in the photo with the line-up of kids, including Janet) and the white school house in the painting … is that road Whirlwind Hill Road?
    And this location would be … how much below where your (the Crump) driveway turns in off of the road?

    Such a loving and understanding mother, was Agnes, letting Janet stay home. Wonderful.
    And I love that there’s no harsh judgement in Lydia Jane’s journal entry about that decision.
    She reports just the facts: “Janet is at home. She has taken a notion she doesn’t want to go any more. Her mother is going to let her stay home until Spring.” Lovely.

    PS: Hi, Netzy!!! xoxoxo

    Reply
    1. Carol Post author

      Hi Margy!
      The road running in front of the school would be where the present road now goes to the left at the bottom of the hill and around the reservoir. If you stand at the bottom of Whirlwind Hill looking up towards our house, the school would have been to the left. Sometimes, when the reservoir is low, you can see the stumps of the trees that surrounded the school.
      I think my grandmother and great-grandmother were very understanding, but I also think my mother was probably pretty adamant and persuasive about staying at home.

      Reply
  4. Katy Gilmore

    What a fun post to read – Janet, ever strong of mind! And to me she looks so much like Mara in that photo with her doll – the shape of her face. It’s hard to even imagine a room with all those ages and one teacher, people were made of sterner stuff. Maybe it was too much chaos for your mom – a lot calmer at the farm.

    Reply
  5. Carol Post author

    I think my mom probably didn’t mind the chaos, but I’m afraid much of the chaos was controlled – or attempted to be controlled – with corporal punishment. She told me that the hardest thing for her was to watch her very mischievous older brother get his knuckles “rapped” with a ruler. He just laughed at the teacher’s efforts to control him, but my mother cried on his behalf. They were all lucky to eventually advance to the very beloved teacher at Simpson School – Miss Martin.

    Reply
    1. Margaret Norton Campion

      Miss Martin! I remember Dad talking about her! (but would he have been too young to have known or had her as a teacher?) She must have been a wonderful woman and teacher.

      Reply
      1. Carol Post author

        I think that he probably did have her. She taught for many, many years and lived a long life, at least that’s how I remember it. It seems to me that she was still around – although maybe not teaching anymore – when I was growing up.

        Reply
  6. Pete Foster

    At one time, long ago, when I was at Oscar Williams for some purpose, I overheard a conversation about the dismantled old schoolhouse starting with the transport of it up from the reservoir. It was reported then that someone, interested in saving the memory of the building and of the historic value of it, arranged to have it reassembled at a site near the intersection of route 68 and I91 where much construction was going on.
    I remember that I viewed what could have been that building, in an unused condition, at that site but have no firm knowledge that all of this was true. A person who may have some fill in facts about this might be Bob Beaumont who has followed all sorts of historically related events in the town.

    Best wishes with this most interesting report.
    Pete

    Reply
    1. Carol Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Pete. And you’re right about all those things. That’s exactly where it was supposed to be reassembled – near 68 and I91. I’ll check on it next time I’m in Wallingford. I’m sure what you saw was that building. My mother pointed out the barn it was in every time we drove by there. I remember when it was sitting there in one piece, another sighting that prompted her to tell me more stories about the old school.

      Reply
  7. Janet Alexander

    Somehow I missed the Muddy River Schoolhouse blog post until now. I was struck by your comment about not “recognizing” that a familiar painting was of something other than what you had thought all those years. It’s startling to suddenly develop a different perspective and seems to provide impetus for a whole new approach to a related problem. Now, if only I could make it happen with one of my brick wall ancestor searches……

    Reply
  8. Carol Post author

    These searches into family history can be very frustrating. The most fun thing is to just “come across” information when you aren’t looking for it.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *