The West Ward Schoolhouse

by Nancy Bertrand


(excerpted from Wakefield: 350 Years by the Lake, copyright 1994 by Wakefield 350 and updated.)




In 2017, the West Ward School will celebrate its 170th anniversary. This may not seem to represent great antiquity to a state that can boast the Boston Latin School, founded in 1634 and still in operation. But the Boston Latin School is an institution; it has relocated many times. Its 147 years of operation give the little schoolhouse on Prospect Street a unique distinction; for many years it was the oldest two room public schoolhouse in continuous use in Massachusetts.

The history of a public building, particularly that of a school, is created from the historical fabric of the community which it serves. It is patterned on its values, tailored to its needs, seamed with its tragedies and triumphs. That of the West Ward School is no exception. Consequently, it seems appropriate to begin the story with a brief look at the town for which it was built.

The population of the town of South Reading at its separation from Reading in 1812 was about 800. It was, by all accounts, a sleepy agricultural town, with only irregular stagecoach lines. Its growth was slow but steady, doubling its population by 1844. But in 1845, the Boston and Maine Railroad was extended to Wilmington, Massachusetts. In 1850, the South Reading branch line opened connecting service to Salem. Almost immediately, Boston businessmen began moving their families to the country, building large single family homes on newly laid out streets near the station. Old industries were given new impetus by the railroad, and new ones came into the town. The quick rail service helped establish the importance of the town’s burgeoning ice industry. The shoe industry was strengthened. The population leapt from 1600 in 1844 to 3200 by 1860. South Reading would change from a sleepy agricultural village to a manufacturing center a comfortable distance from Boston.

The large increase in population put pressure on existing school facilities; South Reading needed to reorganize its school system. For the sake of convenience the town had, in 1799, divided itself into four geographic school districts or “wards,” and erected a school building for each one. The East and West Ward buildings were replaced in 1822. These buildings were soon found to be inadequate.

In their March 1, 1847 report, the School Committee wrote:

As the question of enlarging the school-house in the East District was referred to your Committee, we would say on this subject, that we think that the East, West, North and South Schools need larger and better accommodations than they now have. Instead of enlarging their present houses, we think it would be better to sell those houses for what they are worth, commencing with the district most needing a speedy change, and gradually replace them as the town may feel able to meet the expense.


The four schoolhouses were built soon thereafter. Longtime local resident Elwin Purrington, in an historical lecture in the 1930’s, remembered all four structures: “…they were all alike. The frames were all laid out and cut to the required lengths, on the town common by Peter Wiley. (I was once told by his son, Peter B.) After these frames were cut, they were transported to the four outlying wards and used in the construction of the school buildings.”


The four schoolhouses had been built in the Greek Revival style of architecture that had became popular in the United States following the publication of the results of archeological excavations in England between 1762 and 1816. The United States, seeking a new identity for its democratic institutions, identified with the classical democracies of Greece and Rome and happily adopted adaptations of the images of these ancient nations in forging a new national architecture.


The School Committee, well pleased with the structures, congratulated itself in their report of March 6, 1948:

The committee cannot forego the pleasure of improving the present occasion to congratulate their fellow citizens upon the improvements in School Houses, which have been effected during the past year … the four suburban districts of the town have been enabled to take their schools from the small and inconvenient buildings, they have been wont to occupy, and to place them in large, commodious and noble edifices — edifices, which, while they will serve the promote the physical, intellectual and moral health, comfort and progress of the rising generation, will also afford additional literacy, civil and social privileges to the people of those districts; will stand as bright and imposing ornaments to the Villages in which they are located, and will shed upon our municipal historic page for the year 1847 a lustre, more brilliant and desirable than ever sparkled from the costliest diamonds that Kings have ever purchased.


Listed in the Town Report of 1848 were the construction expenses:


Extraordinary Expenses

Foundation of 4 School Houses 290.00
Wiley and Whiting for erecting four schoolhouses, per contract 7502.44
For removing old school houses 125.00
Pointing and grading around new School Houses 82.03
Fixtures for School Houses 184.94


The former schools were sold and removed; the town received a sum of $336.00 for their sale. The Building Committee was paid as follows:

Lilley Eaton – 20.00
Aaron Foster – 6.00
Jonas Cowdrey – 6.50
Stillman Jewett – 6.00
Jonas Evans – 14.84

In total, the town had paid $7940.22 for the four school houses or a total of $1985.05 per structure.


The West District School, as it was originally called, replaced the 1822 building that had been erected at a cost of $600 and stood to the east of the 1847 building. An 1859 School Committee report indicates that this area was the site of the original West District School building erected in 1799. This structure (“18 feet by 15 feet — 7 1/2 feet stud”) stood on Elm Street and was moved away to make room for the 1822 West District School. It would ultimately become a woodshed on Lafayette Street.


Although the school had been built as a two-story structure, only one floor was completed in 1847. By 1852, one instructor was teaching 54 children in this room. The second floor was completed in that year, after which, a Senior and a Primary Department were formed with 37 pupils initially in the Primary Room and 7 to 14 in the senior, with one teacher for each department.


Originally, the school rooms were heated by large stoves, one on each floor, which were located in the southwest corner of the rooms. Long black funnels or stove pipes ran along the top of each school room, giving off extra heat on their way to the chimney in the northwest corner of the building. Two unheated outbuildings were located in the rear of the school, one for the boys and one for the girls. There was no water supply for the school until 1891, when lake water was piped in. The Town Report of that year noted that the school’s well was so polluted that the water was “offensive in both taste and odor.”


In 1863, the building was nearly destroyed by fire. Ruth Woodbury quotes Edward Mansfield in the South Reading Column of the Middlesex Journal:

defying the opposition of the Fire department, another cry of fire was heard, and it was found that the West District School House was on fire. This is situated a few rods South-West of Mr. Eustis’ barn, on another street, and it was discovered that straw had been carried from the bar across the field. An entrance had been effected into the lower School-room by breaking a window, and a fire kindled under the desk or table of the teacher. The desk and records, register, and all the books kept by the teacher were consumed, and a large space of the floor was burned through, when the progress of the fire was stayed. A little more headway would have rendered it very difficult to prevent an entire destruction of one of our valuable Public Buildings.


A glance at nineteenth century enrollment figures of the West District School reveal the heavy use it received. A sampling of these figures are as follows:

Year Average Number of “Scholars”

1847 …………………………………. 47 (summer)
1847 …………………………………. 40 (winter)
1852 …………………………………. 54
1858 …………………………………. 64
1861 …………………………………. 82
1862 …………………………………. 85
1863 …………………………………. 89
1867 …………………………………. 92
1882 …………………………………. 75
1885 …………………………………. 103
1890 …………………………………. 113
1895 …………………………………. 47 (Warren School opens)
1898 …………………………………. 70


Teacher salaries remained constant from at least 1854 – 1861 at $5.00 per week ($210 per annum); the senior level teacher receiving $6.00 per week ($252 for the 42 week term). By 1867, salaries had been raised to $8.00 ($336 per annum for the primary teacher), $8.66 ($363.72 per annum) for the senior teacher By 1910, a West District Teacher earned $13.10 per week, or $550.00 per year.


A view of the nineteenth century West Ward School was written by the prominent American architect, Louis H. Sullivan. (See his biography in Wakefield:  350 Years by the Lake.) Born in Boston in 1856, Sullivan was sent to live with his grandparents on a farm in South Reading in 1862. Because his grandparents lived in the Prospect Street area, it is generally assumed that it is which the West District School that is described in his book Autobiography of an Idea:


Halfway down, to the left, and set well back, was found not the little red schoolhouse of romance, but a rather large white one, clapboarded, green blinds, gabled, a bell, a well with force-pump, trampled playground, and so on.

The school room was large and bare with two wooden posts supporting the roof. The teacher sat at her desk on a raised platform at the wall opposite the entrance. The children sat at rows of desks (a row per grade) at right angles to the rear wall; in front of them an open space for recitation by class; blackboard on the wall and so forth. There were five grades in the single room.


The school as it was in 1886 was remembered by Morrison Merrill, Curator of the Wakefield Historical Society, in an article written in 1950:


The building looked about the same then as it does now, with the exception of the covered entrance, which was added in later years. The school rooms were heated by two large stoves, one on each floor – they were located in the southwest corner of the rooms. The larger boys used to bring up the wood and coal from the basement for the fires. The drinking water was obtained from a spring which flowed from the ledge on the opposite side of the street. At recess, one of the boys would draw a pail of water from the spring, take it into the school room and place it on a shelf, in the corner. A tin dipper was used by one and all to drink from.


As Wakefield approached the twentieth century, the town continued to grow and flourish. With the shoe industry, the Smith and Anthony Forge Company and Cyrus Wakefield’s rattan factory already established, two major new boosts were given to the town’s economy with the coming of the Miller Piano Factory and the Winship-Boit Company (Harvard Knitting Mills) in 1889. The town achieved telephone service in 1894, water service to houses in 1883, and a daily newspaper, the Wakefield Daily Item in 1894. Gas for lighting streets and houses had been introduced in the town in 1860 by the Citizen’s Gas Light Company. Civic amenities and improvements to public buildings continued as well. The West Ward School was no exception. Plumbing (probably the cold water hand basins) were added in 1905; “bubbling drinking fountains” were added to these in 1910. A covered wooden outdoor stairway used as a fire escape was built in 1918. The School Committee Report of 1924 notes the addition of “new type sanitary toilets” (probably the so-called “chemical toilets”) “which eliminate the necessity of children going out of doors in winter.” The question of when electricity was introduced to the school is unresolved. It is believed to have been added during the course of “extensive repairs” in 1912. Certainly it was in existence in 1921 when a Parent-Teacher Association Meeting was canceled because of “our inability to obtain proper lighting service due to the great sleet storm.”


Clarence Purrington, an alumni of the school remembered the stove was still located on the side of the room: “And I remember Johnny Ardill was the janitor, and it was his job to get there early enough in the morning. And they didn’t use coal, they used wood — chunks of cord wood that had been split and they used to piled it up in the hallway, I think. And he tried to get the place warm and the same for downstairs.”


Parent-Teacher Association journals reveal that the school had its own garden, well tended by children, teachers and parents. Produce from the garden was sold during World War One, becoming one source of the income that enabled the “Prospect Street School” to become the first in town to purchase a Liberty Bond. During this period, the PTA was called on to purchase paper towels for the children, and was able to supply victrolas for the classrooms. Speakers at the meetings voiced current concerns. In 1920, a representative from the state federation of Parent Teachers Associations reported that the state convention had discussed the effects of high heels and motion pictures upon the children. Later that year, the association voted unanimously to endorse the action of the School Board regarding “clean motion pictures for Wakefield.” Superintendent of Schools W. B. Atwell in 1922 favored parents with a lecture entitled “The Little Red Schoolhouse Versus Modern Education.” In discussing the School Department’s finances, the Superintendent told the assembly that “Wakefield teachers’ salaries were comparatively less than other places, and it is very difficult to obtain competent teachers.”


In the 1920’s, the town’s industries began to falter. The flourishing ice harvesting industries closed as electrical refrigeration replaced ice boxes. The Smith and Anthony Foundry reduced production, as did the Harvard Knitting Mills. The Wakefield Rattan Works ceased production in the 1930’s. As the Depression struck the town, rumors began to circulate that the West Ward School would be closed for economic reasons. The town did repair the school’s roof in 1931. It is believed that the original cupola was removed at that time since no non-essential repairs could be considered at that time. The school’s art instructor was let go in 1933 as an economy measure. The school’s Parent-Teacher Association, however, tried to remain optimistic, featuring, on February 10, 1932, a speaker named Mr. Donald White, who took as his subject “The Sunny Side of the Depression.” Bridge and whist parties (admission, 35 cents) were held to raise funds; expenditures were made on “two rubber association balls and one leather one” among other things; a special meeting was called in March of 1933 to pay the telephone bill. The school’s playground received special attention from the ERA in 1934; the Kosmos Club and the PTA contributed playground equipment and landscaping to it. (The swings were sold in 1936.)


Through the years, trees have been donated to the schoolyard in memoriam of former students. A particularly poignant note was the donation of three Norway maples to the yard in memory of Mrs. Samuel Horovitz, Mrs. Bessie Horovitz and Seba David Horovitz, who were victims of a plane crash. Seba David was killed the year before he would have started the first grade at the West Ward.


The 1930’s and 1940’s Parent-Teacher Associations were particularly well organized, often sponsoring guest lecturers to promote attendance. A look at a sampling of these lecture topics illustrates the history of these years. In 1934, Malden boy scout leader Howard Copeland spoke on the Boy Scouts of America, noting that “It is non-political, in that way differing from Youth Movements in some European countries.” Wakefield Park attorney Mr. Richard Dellinger spoke of his 1937 European trip. The Daily Item reported that “Italy, he felt, was behind Mussolini to a man. In Germany, he did not sense a loyalty as sincere to Hitler.” Secretary of the School Committee Mrs. W. S. Ripley on March 10, 1941 spoke of the necessity of training Wakefield’s boys and girls for honorable citizenship in the American Way.” In October, 1942, Mr. Howard J. Heavens of the High School faculty urged a well-trained defense in his lecture entitled “Air Raid Work in Wakefield.” “This war,” stated Mr. Heavens, “is a game of keeps.”


The parents, teachers and children of the West Ward School joined in supporting the war effort; war stamps were sold, war bonds were raffled off and volunteers were sought for the great Boston Community War Fund. The tenor of children’s programs became highly patriotic. One afternoon’s entertainment featured recitations of the poems “I Am An America,” and “Tony is a Good American,” and the songs “Be Glad You’re An American,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Grand Old Flag,” and “Star Spangled Banner,” “among others on a related theme.” The first to fourth grade children, led by Miss Mabel Kernan, knit squares which were joined together into afghans to be donated to the Junior Red Cross.


No account of the history of the West Ward School would be complete without a mention of Miss Mabel A. Kernan. Miss Kernan began her career in 1899 teaching at the Warren School; two years later she was transferred as teacher and principal of the West Ward School, where she remained until her retirement in 1948. Miss Kernan was almost universally well-regarded. Her former student Clarence Purrington remembered her:

Miss Mabel Kernan — she was a wonderful, wonderful teacher. I can’t say enough good about her. And we had adventures up there, I’m sure of that. One time I was sitting in the third grade on one side of the room, and a bullet came through the window on the west side, zipped across the room, and made a hole in the window on the east side. Somebody, and I know who, but won’t say, had a little 22 rifle and he was a mighty hunter, so he thought — he wasn’t even in his teens then. And he was the one that was responsible for it. But luckily no harm was done even though the bullet didn’t go that far from my head. But I think Mabel Kernan was quite put out.


In 1954, scores of her friends and those of her sisters, Miss Marion and Miss Alice, gathered to establish the “Kernan Scholarship Fund” to assist deserving Wakefield students. The fact that the second floor of the West Ward School is dedicated to Miss Kernan is appropriate: many of her former students retained vivid memories of Miss Kernan leaning out the window on that floor to ring the schoolhouse bell.


During the 1940’s, the systems in the school were found to be antiquated. The West Ward School in 1941 was the only one in Wakefield not heated by steam. The teachers added the stoking of stoves to their daily duties. In addition, chemical toilets were still in use. In 1942, the School Committee again discussed closing the school as a war economy gesture. A PTA delegation successfully argued against the move, but were warned by School Committee Chairman Tenney that “There might be a war emergency” which would necessitate closing the school.”


Barbara Abramoff Levy’s Historic Structure Report of the building recounts the PTA’s 1945 battle for updating the school:


In January of 1945, a delegation of West Ward parents went to the School Committee and asked for a heating system and modern plumbing. The School Committee refused this request on the grounds of war economy and lack of value in the building. The West Ward parents decided to try to raise the necessary funds by putting an article in the warrant of the annual town meeting to raise $15,000 to repair and update the school (March, 1945). The School Committee appeared before the Finance Committee opposing the expenditure and the Finance Committee recommended against it. The town, however, supported the measure and voted to raise and appropriate $15,000 for the West Ward School. The School Committee application to do the work then went to the War Production Board, who turned down the project as non-essential. The West Ward PTA wrote the War Production Board requesting a review against the wishes of the School Committee. The request for review was apparently not successful, but the work was eventually authorized in a piecemeal fashion.


The new staircase was added in 1946; a new heating system in 1947.

The late 1940’s found the PTA still very active. Guest speaker W. Harold Rood, in charge of physical education and football at the High School, exhorted parents in an April 1946 guest lecture that “we need more kids to pass the ball and buck the line than to pass the buck and throw the line.” Soon after this, PTA records grow sketchy on the subject of guest speakers.

In 1954, the school achieved its present image when it was painted red. John B. Hendershot, Superintendent of Schools, has been called the “Father of the Little Red Schoolhouse” since it was at his direction that it was painted.

Other changes to the school include the relocation of the rear exit in 1966 and major “restoration and preservation” work done in 1966. New furnaces were added in 1985. The necessity of adding a sprinkler system caused some controversy during the 1985-1986 school year.


Over the years, the population of children whom the school served had shifted. From the original grades 1-8 in 1847, the school would serve grade 1 – 4 until 1948. In that year, grades 3 and 4 were transferred to the Warren School. In September, 1977, the school began serving kindergarten and first grade; in September, 1984, the school reached began housing only kindergarten students.


Fire regulations demanded that without the addition of a new sprinkler system on the second floor, that part of the facility be closed in 1985-86, reducing the number of kindergarten classes. Due to parental concerns at the overcrowding in these classes, new sprinklers were added and a third kindergarten class re-established.


During its last thirty years as a school, the “Little Red” has continued to be favored with an active, energetic PTO. PTO records show innovative fund raising attempts ranging from the 1930’s bridge and whist parties to 1940’s “Penny sales” through fashion shows, and sales of everything from food to fudge to t-shirts to white elephants. A very successful “Harvest Fair” took place in the fall. Over the years, the PTO has joined together to protest (as in a 1954 letter-writing campaign against TV violence) and to support (as in the 1953 genesis of channel 2 and yearly contributions to the Citizens’ Scholarship Foundation and the Kernan Scholarship Fund. Social events for families and children have been supported; the Christmas Party with an ‘illuminated Christmas tree’ has been an annual event at least since the turn of the century (although fire regulations in the 1940’s necessitated the substitution of a fireplace for the Christmas tree.)   Over the years, the PTO has supplied equipment for the children, ranging from a stereopticon screen and two hexagraphs in 1935 to radios and folding tables and record players in the ’40’s and ’50’s to the modern purchases of video-camcorders, computers and copying machines.


Since the 1930’s, the spectre of closing has haunted the little school. This possibility has been raised seriously again in 1942, 1946, 1976, 1978, 1982, 1983 and 1988. The school was almost closed for the winter season per order of Governor Edward King during the energy crisis of 1981.


In the fall of 1994, an accident took place that put an end to the West Ward Schoolhouse’s work as a working public school building.  The ceiling on the second floor failed and began to fall, rupturing the sprinkler pipes on the second floor and causing the fire alarm to be sounded.  In addition to the damage to the second floor from the fallen ceiling, water from the ruptured pipes caused damage throughout the building.


The accident which caused the ceiling on the second floor to fail sealed the fate of the West Ward School. No matter how much affection parents felt for the building, no one was willing to place his or her child in an unsafe environment. With the building labelled unsafe, the school administration promptly relocated the children, and closed the building.

Subsequently, the Wakefield Historical Commission received a substantial grant from the Massachusetts Historical Commission to remedy some of the immediate issues confronting the building.  Since the building was closed as a school, a nonprofit organization, working with the Wakefield Historical Commission, has been working to stabilize and restore the structure.  After examination by an architect and structural engineer, work remedied the structural damage, reinforcing the building with steel beams.  In addition, work on the foundation  and the sills remedied a problem with carpenter ants.  The exterior of the building was restored to its original appearance when four windows were added to the front façade.  A dilapidated fire escape was removed and handicapped accessibility was assured with a ramp.  Later, after the building’s systems were restored (plumbing, heating, hvac and electric), the building was restored as the town’s museum, housing the collection of the Wakefield Historical Society.  School visits let the building function as a continuing classroom, allowing Wakefield’s children to imagine what life was like for chidren in the mid-nineteenth century.  In its function as the town’s museum, the West Ward School will continue in its 150+ year mission of educating Wakefield’s young.  As a working museum, the schoolhouse will be educating adults, too: for the ten months of the year that the living history classroom is not in use, the schoolhouse will be used as a museum of Wakefield’s history, hosting exhibits of the Wakefield Historical Society’s extensive collections of images and artifacts relating to the town’s past.

Throughout its future uses, the fact remains that the West Ward School is structurally an important building in both our local and national architectural heritage. But though its form is important, schools like the West Ward represent so much more than that. In 1847, when the West Ward School was built, James K. Polk was serving his second year as our eleventh president; war with Mexico had been declared in May, 1846; gold had yet to be discovered in California. Our town, our nation and our world are vastly and emphatically different now. But by its years of hard, continuous service to the community, Wakefield’s Little Red Schoolhouse provides a link to our shared past and, through its use as a working museum, a bridge to our future.

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  1. Pingback: David Dellinger | Wakefield Historical Society

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