Town of Bethlehem Connecticut


Early Bethlehem


Early History of Bethlehem

Looking Back at Bethlehem District Schools

1922 Why and How Bethlehem Consolidated its Schools

Back to School, 100 Years Later

How Tall was Floxie Box in 1896?

Noted Bethlehem School, Hazardous, Torn Down
History of the First Church of Bethlehem, UCC - established 1739
1807 Episcopal Society of Bethlem
1821 Bethlehem Methodist Episcopal Church
1909 Dr. Bellamy Lies in Neglected Grave
1916 Church of the Nativity

1923 Christ Church Rector Resigns

1923 Meteor Lands in Bethlehem
1923 The mystery of Elias Booth

Underground Railroad

Personal History - One Family
Walter P. Lake Article



This article appeared in Waterbury Republican-American, Thursday, January 28, 1999


        At age 105, Amy Blakeman walked into Bethlehem's restored District 1 Schoolhouse a century after she stated school in the same building.  On the walls are pictures of classes from the 1890s and early 1900s when the single-room schoolhouse was one of nine servicing the small agricultural community.  As Blakeman studied the young faces in the photos, she recounted the joys and sorrows that she knew each would encounter in adulthood.  But for the moment, as she touched the glass over the picture of her late sister at age 10, in 1896, she could only say, "Oh, how happy and beautiful she was then."

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        For the dedicated volunteers of the Old Bethlem Historical Society who had spent four years restoring the building, this kind of moment is their reward - as well as a distinguished achievement award from the Connecticut Association of Historical Societies.

        Under the direction of former society presidents Doris Nichols and Doug Tolles, the circa 1865 schoolhouse was bought in 1991 for $1 from the town of Bethlehem.  Used as a library, a Sunday School and finally as a storeroom the building on the south end of the Green is now a museum.  Each spring, however, Bethlehem Elementary School's fourth-graders and their teachers in period dress walk up Main Street, as many of their great-grandparents did, and the building becomes a living museum.

        The children sit in original desks, write their lessons on slates and read from turn-of-the-century texts and dictionaries.   They see that in 1892 Flossie Box wrote her name on one wall, future philanthropist Argall Hull etched his name on a window pane.  Their teacher had left a math problem and a grammar lesson on the blackboard, unerased for decades until volunteers broke through the paneling.  The surprises continue as the society restores the windows and prepares to landscape and paint the outside of the schoolhouse.  Funds to continue the restoration work come from donations and sale of a 1999 calendar of archival Bethlehem photographs.   The society is planning a special year 2000 calendar which will go on sale at the 75th Bethlehem Fair in September.

        In addition to the schoolhouse, the society owns and maintains a small museum at the intersection of routes 61 and 132 opposite the Bellamy-Ferriday House and Garden.  The conversion of the former town office building and fire department to a museum was the first project undertaken by the society after its founding in 1968.  The use of the word "Bethlem" commemorates the original spelling from the 1700s

        First society President Victor Allan and his wife, Kathleen Ankers, directed the alterations to the building, which now houses a collection of farm implements, costumes, antique quilts, and area photographs and paintings.  In addition to its permanent collections, each summer the society features a special exhibit, which  in the past has included the artwork of local residents such as the late Ralph Nelson and the late Henry Gros, a political cartoonist for the Sunday Republican.  A unique exhibit this past summer was the milk bottle collection of Robert Parmalee.  With his mother, Adele Parmalee, he researched the histories of local dairies from town records and diaries.

        The society also sponsors various programs during the year.  With the aid of the Connecticut Gravestone Network, the society hopes to continue its research of the town cemeteries.  The research began in September at the town's oldest cemetery, located on Bellamy Lane off Route 61.  Using a mirror, because rubbing damages the inscriptions, network members identified an illegible broken stone as that of Dr. Ebenezer Thompson, who died during the "great sickness" of 1750.    In the fall, the cemetery on Carmel Hill Road will be the focus of study as the network again helps to read and identify artisans and motifs as well as names and epitaphs.

        Staffed by volunteers docents, the museum is open from June through August on Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m.  The District 1 Schoolhouse is open during the Christmas Town Festival in December and for school groups in May and June.  The museum and schoolhouse are open to individuals and groups by appointment year round.  For appointments or to join the society, call 266-5188 or 266-5196.

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This article appeared in The New York Times, Sunday, September 17, 1995


        Flossie Box wrote her name on the wall of her classroom along with Florence and Albert and Melvin and Margaret.  It was Sept. 12, 1892, and the children were students in District No. 1 schoolhouse in the center of Bethlehem.   Four years later the school was modernized and the walls, covered with children's names and chalkboards bearing English and mathematics assignments, were covered over with wood lathing.

        There they remained while the building went through a series of uses.  In 1914, Bethlehem's nine schoolhouses were consolidated into the Legion Hall.   In 1926,  a new four room elementary school was built on East street.  In the meantime, the town library established itself in the little clapboard schoolhouse that had served District No. 1.  The attic and storage space were filled with school books, library books, maps and pictures of the Presidents.  Then in 1968 the library moved into a new structure, and the Episcopal Church took over the building, using it for their summer fair and other events.

        It was in 1991 that the Old Bethlem Historical Society made the decision to invest $1 in the purchase of the 1865 schoolhouse, did invest and then began to figure out how best to set about restoration.  Doris Nicholls, president of the Old Bethlem Society for 17 years, until 1994, had proposed buying property from the town, also for $1, in 1976.  On that stands the Historical Society Museum.  When the schoolhouse, which lies diagonally across the main intersection from the museum, became available, she again went on the acquisition trail.  "We were worried that the building might be destroyed or changed.  A couple other groups wanted it," she explained, "but it is in the historic district and it is important that it remains as it is."    Volunteers started restoration in a spurt of energy, said Douglas Tolles, current president of the Historical Society, "but when we uncovered that graffiti we quickly slowed down and tried to preserve as much as we could."   They also uncovered pencil marks indicating the height of both Flossie Box and Raymond Thompson on Dec 18, 1896.

        The society also asked for donations.  Duracell gave $1,000 and Bankers Trust, $850.  Townspeople donated goods, services and cash, in amounts as small as $3.  Ella Box, daughter of Flossie Box, gave two children's school desks that she said had once been in her mother's classroom.  A teacher's desk was donated, plus an assortment of other desks and chairs.  Behind lathing. in the attic, volunteers discovered one strap-on ice skate, and two pairs of rubber overshoes, one made by the Goodyear Shoe Company of Naugatuck, patented 1868.  Also under the 1896 wood walls was horsehair plaster from the original construction.

        Nowadays, last century's graffiti is displayed under glass and copies of original attendance records from that schoolhouse sit on the teacher's desk.   "Some kids would miss entire terms," Mr. Tolles said.  "It was just too hard to get here in the winter if you lived far out of town, or farmers' children missed the summer term."

       Argull Hull, who started the Argull Hull Fund for the First Church of Bethlehem, United Church of Christ, etched his name into a pane of glass at the old schoolhouse.  This wasn't discovered until Mr. Tolles was standing in the classroom when the light hit the glass at such an angle that the letters became legible.  The restoration project took four long years to complete.  "We did most of the work, except plastering and lighting, and we had to start with getting rid of thousands of books left from when the library moved in 1968," Mr. Tolles said.  It was that careful attention to detail, and the grass roots effort that impressed the Connecticut League of Historical Societies and prompted the nomination of the Old Bethlem Society for an award of merit this spring.  "This project fits into the Old Bethlem Historical Society's mission, but they also did it by raising money through community support," said Amy Trout, the 1995 chairwoman for the awards committee.  "The whole project came in under budget.  They may not have lots of resources, but they talked to others about how to restore this building, networked, and gave it lots of time and effort.  Even the decision to leave the chalkboard and student writing intact, and preserve it behind glass shows sensitivity to the historical and architectural integrity of the project.  This project is a model for others to emulate."

        As Mr. Tolles explained it, "When we started out we didn't have a good idea of budget.  We found some wood rot, and other problems, and if you added all the items that we donated, the total price of this project would go through the roof."  The volunteers raised about $15,000 to pay actual expenses on the project.  Budget problems are ongoing, he added, since the society now has insurance, maintenance and other expenditures for two buildings, and one corner of the schoolhouse was damaged when hit by a school bus earlier this year.

        Once the restoration was finished,  volunteers began showing the schoolhouse, mostly to tours by Bethlehem school children.  One group, dressed in turn-of-the-century costumes, posed for a picture in the front door, just as the class in 1896 had posed, in a picture now hanging by the teacher's desk.

        The Historical Society is open Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., from May to October, to match the hours of the nearby Bellamy-Ferriday House, an Antiquarian and Landmarks Society property.  The schoolhouse is open by appointment.  The tiny museum was once the town office, and in the town clerk's vault is a display of clothing from the late 1800's.  The museum also houses a first edition of "True Religion Delineated" by the Rev. Joseph Bellamy, pastor of the First Church of Bethlehem, a 1750 friendship quilt, old town signs and photographs.   "We collect anything, old and new, as long as it relates to Bethlehem," explained Mr. Tolles.  Pewter Christmas ornaments, a product of the town's annual Christmas festival, lie in one glass case.  The basement is given over to ice tongs, farm plows, grindstones, butter churns and other tools.  "We try to teach the children what it was like to harvest ice, churn butter and live without electricity," Mr. Tolles said.

        Ms. Nicholls, who is now curator of the museum and has been appointed chairwoman of the Historic District Commission of Bethlehem, echoed the importance of using the schoolhouse to teach children about early lives in Bethlehem.   "They didn't have many books," she said.  "If you sat close to the wood stove, you burned up.  If you sat by the window, you froze.  The expression 'toe the line' came from strict teachers in schoolhouses like this.   Restoring this building was something we felt was important to do." 

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1972   Noted Bethlehem School, Hazardous, Torn Down 

- by  Paul Johnson

        The Hard Hill School, a Bethlehem landmark erected well over a century ago, has been torn down by town workmen under orders of the building inspector because of its hazardous condition.

        The building was the most picturesque and historical of the more than half dozen one-room district schools which once represented the educational system of the rural community.  On top of Hard Hill it had a commanding view of the community.  The location in Civil War days is referred to as "Rebel Hill" in town records, a name derived from the fact that several families of the section were regarded Confederate sympathizers.

        The school was constructed of locally produced brick, turned out by a kiln from a bank of red clay on the nearby Magnolia Hill.  The brick is distinctive by being considerably smaller than standard and production was limited to a few years.  Christ Episcopal Church was built of similar brick, and is the only remaining structure made of the material.

        The small one-room building was used for school purposes for well over a half century, its classes being moved to the two-room "Center School," which is now the American Legion Hall, shortly after 1900.  Like other district schools of the town the Hard Hill school was administered by a district committee, formed of residents of the immediate area, who met its full cost and had full autonomy over its operation.  School costs were met by distribution among district "subscribers."  Compensation to the only teacher required was $1.50   weekly if board was provided by a district subscriber, or $5 weekly if the teacher was self-sustaining.  A fringe benefit was an agreement by parents of the district to provide firewood to the teacher.   Hard Hill School land was limited by deed to that occupied by the building.  The deed carried a provision that the school had the right to maintain an outdoor privy on adjacent land so long as the building was used for school purposes.

        The building stood idle for some years after classes discontinued, with the school district holding a final meeting to turn over the property to town administration.  Selectmen held a sale of the one-room schools, with the Hard Hill School being acquired by its present owner, Joseph Famiglietti, Waterbury, who has not made use of the structure in recent years.  Building Inspector Earl Meister said orders to raze the school were issued after many months of negotiations with the owner.   The inspector has endeavored to obtain repairs to the structure without success.

        In its final years the old school has not been entirely friendless.  Offers to purchase the building and restore it as a museum or for some similar use have been made by individuals and by the town historical society, but the negotiations proved unsuccessful.  After more than a century of withstanding the elements, including the high velocity winter winds that sweep the hilltop, the school building has entered a period of rapid deterioration.  Windows, some installed only a few years ago, became victims of vandals who are attracted to unoccupied buildings.   A portion of a wall collapsed several years ago, and the roof of the structure shortly thereafter.

        Town officials expressed concern for safety of children at an adjacent bus stop, who sometimes visit the building.  The end is obviously not far distant for the historic structure.  Arrival of the end has produced expressions of regret that it could not be avoided and that memories of the school's service to the community will hereafter be restricted to written history.

        Residents include a number whose knowledge of the three R's was obtained as pupils of the school.  Meister said that he has notified the owner that the rubble from the building must be cleared away, and that this work will be undertaken by the town at the owner's expense.

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This article appeared in The Lure of the Litchfield Hills (date unknown) 

by Walter P. Lake

Note - Walter P. Lake's father was a member of the Bethlehem Board of Education when the Editor began to supervise the school of that town in the fall of 1908.  He was a very able member with the best interest of the schools at heart.   Walter P. Lake's sister, Elsie, taught in the Kasson School for the three years the Editor supervised the schools of the town.

Elsie A. Lake and Pupils at Kasson School

        The first public education in Connecticut was, I believe, the district school where a group of citizen living near together organized, build their own school, hired the teacher and ran  the school according to their own standards.  The size of the district varied according to families rather than distance, sometimes overlapping town boundaries.

        The next district to the east of Kasson, Hard Hill School constructed of native brick, was only one mile distant, while the schools in the other three directions were several miles away.  The following is mostly taken from the records of the Kasson District going back to 1794.  The district was originally called East North Middle, but later changed to Kasson in honor of a prominent family by the name of Kasson.  This family was much interested in having a good school.

        "Bethlehem, March 23, 1794.  At a proprietor's Meeting holden at the home of George D. Kasson, a subscription was opened and $146.00 subscribed."

        "April 6, 1794.  Voted to build a school house 24' x 16'.  Voted to set up the building of said house to the lowest bidder.   Bid off by Deacon Richard Gamsey at $50.00.  Voted to dissolve the meeting."

        "Nov. 5, 1794.  Voted that writing tables (desks) shall be built next the outside of the house, and the benches within the tables."

        Building the desks continuously around the outside of the school room with backless benches for the children seemed to be the original way.   The advantage would all be with the teacher in keeping watch of her charges.

        "Voted (at the same meeting) to lay a tax sufficient to paint the house, build the tables, seats, and to purchase shovel, tongs and irons."

        "Bye Laws."

If any person or child shall break any glass they shall replace it inside of 24 hours or pay a fine of 12 1/2 cents.  For the least cut or mark inside or outside, a fine of two cents.

        "Voted to lay a rate of one cent and three mills on the dollar of the property list.

        "Voted to exhonerate Clem Beardsley from paying any of afore rate."

        "Oct. 29, Voted to engage Nathan Hawley to instruct the school four months beginning the first Monday of December next, and  to give him $11.00 per month.  Voted to allow $1.75 for a cord for good wood for the fire and piled to be measured by the instructor."  (Apparently, the room was heated entirely by fire place until 1834.)

        "Dec. 13, 1794. Voted to have Mich'l Chapman make fire seasonably and have for his trouble the ashes which shall be made in that time."  (This shows how highly the potash content was valued.)

        "April 30, 1799. Voted to direct the school committee to engage Mr. Charles Hull to instruct a school in the district for one month and then, if general satisfaction is given, three months longer, or more at $9.00 a month."

        "April 30, 1799.  Voted to set up a school the ensuing season for five months, in case an instructor can be engaged reasonably, also if  Nathan Hawley can be procured to instruct the school to give him $12.00 per month.  If not, voted to give Mylo Gamsey $9.00 a month if he can be procured for that.  Nathan Hawley kept the school four months.  Closed March 1800.

        "April 3, 1800.  Voted to [    ] a Ma'am School the ensuing season if an instructor can be procured cheap to the satisfaction of the respecting committee  if they approve dame schools.   Voted to give (?)  Kasson $1.00 per week to keep a school this ensuing summer   [   ] will accept. 

        "October 20, 1800.  Voted to engage instructor for $12.00 a month if he boards himself, $9.00 if board is furnished. [    ] proprietor sending one child furnish 1/2 cord wood and one cord for 3 children.



        "Jan. 23, 1843.  The building committee stated that they had made contact with Dan'l B. Jackson to build said house for $222.00 including small house in the back.  Voted to tax ourselves 13 cents on the dollar."

        The contract is so definite and affords such a fine description of the construction of a one room school that it is included here in full.  As we read the contract, let us study the picture at the head of this article.


          "Know all men by these presents that I, Daniel B. Jackson of Bethlehem in the County of Litchfield, am held and firmly bound with George Kasson, treasurer of the Sixth School District in Bethlehem and to his successors in office in the penal sum of three hundred dollars to be paid to the said Kasson or to his successor in office to which payment will and truly to be made and done I bind myself, my heirs, executors and administrators firmly by these presents signed with my hand and sealed with my seal dated at Bethlehem the 31 day of January, 1843.

        The condition of this bond is such that whereas the above named Daniel B. Jackson has contracted to build a schoolhouse in the Sixth School District, Bethlehem, on a plot of ground a little west of the old school house in District according to the following specifications to wit;

        The house to be twenty-six feet long and eighteen feet wide with recess in the front end 6 ft. wide and 4 feet deep.  A trench to be dug all around down to the hard pan and filled with stones to set the underpinning on.  The underpinning to be handsome split stones 11 inches wide.  A handsome stone to be laid in the recess 6 ft long and 4 ft. wide.  The posts of the house to be 10 ft. the lower timbers of the frame to be of good chestnut or white oak.  The other timbers to be chestnut or oak.  Outside to be covered with first rate white chestnut clapboards, roof of boards to be good chestnut or oak and joints covered with scale board or some other material before shingling.  Shingling to be first rate chestnut smoothed on one side if sawed.  A handsome cornice to be put on all around proportioned to the size of the house.

        Pilasters by the recess of suitable width and cap over head.  Cornice castings corner boards and ridge boards all to be of good merchantable pine.  Two doors one on each side of the recess to be framed with at least four panels.  There is to be seven 14 light windows 6 by 8 glass lock sashes to be let down from the top.  Doors, sashes and window-stools to be of good pine.   The lower floor to be laid double, upper boards to be good oak not exceeding 8 in. wide.  A floor to be laid in chambers.  School room to be the width of the house and twenty ft. long, lathed and plastered down to the floor and ceiled with good chestnut boards as high as the bottom of the windows.  Overhead to be plastered with two good coats.  The lobbies to be lather and plastered over head and ceiled on the sides.   Inside doors to be batting doors to be hung with good strap hinges.  Thee is to be 12 double desks with lids hung with butts for each scholar and one for teacher.   The desk to be fashioned similar to those in the school house in Middlebury near Mr. Stone's with the exception of the seats and desks being at different heights for different sized scholars and the fronts to rise four inches above the level part of the desks and a groove be cut by the side of the fronts for slates.  The seats on the sides of the room to be attached to the walls to be made of chestnut plank also short sets in front of the desks for small children with shelves the underside for books.  The lids of the desks to be of good merchantable pine.  There is to be a place for ventilation in the top of the school room, and a trap door over one of the lobbies to enter the chamber.  A lock is to be put on one front door and a hook or slide bolt on the other.  Outside of house is to be painted white or red with white trimmings with three good coats.  Inside to be painted two coats.  Also a chimney to be set upon a flat stone on the upper floor and carried out at the ridge.   Also to build an out house 9 ft long and 4 ft. wide, with two apartments and seats accordingly and to be painted in manner to correspond with the school house.  All the boards for the school house to be thoroughly seasoned and the whole of the work to be done in a handsome, substantial  and work man-like manner.  And to be completed by the 15 of June next for which job D. Jackson is entitled to the sum of two hundred twenty-two dollars.  Now if the above named Jackson furnish all the material and cause house to be built in all respects agreeable to the above specifications then the obligation is to be void and of none  effect, or else to be and remain in full force and virtue.

        Signed sealed and delivered in the presence of Orrin H. Addes and Herchia Brucker."

       School term opened from middle of April to first of May for 5 or 6 months and from middle of November to December first for 4 months.  Oct. 15, 1852, voted to allow 7/6 per week for board."

        "Voted to adjourn two weeks to Nov. 9 and when that evening arrived it proved a very rainy night and none attended and of course nothing done."

        The town took over the financing of schools some time towards the end of 1810.

        I remember attending a committee meeting around 1900 with my father by lantern light to elect a committee man for the year, but soon after that State Supervision came and there was a definite improvement in the educational program for the small towns of the state.

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