Center School 6th, 7th, & 8th grade Students

How Tall was Floxie Box in 1896?

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."