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.
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.
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
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.
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.
On Wednesday: Painters in our Family