School Children & Teacher

Back to School, 100 Years Later

This article appeared in Waterbury Republican-American, Thursday, January 28, 1999
Back to School, 100 Years Later.

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."

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.