Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Diamond Rock Octagonal School, 1818

Tuesday, October 24, 2017
Susan reporting,

Education was important to the first generations of Americans after the Revolution. True, there were a great many things to be sorted out by the new country - everything from minting money to debating a standing army to creating public works for safe drinking water. But the ultimate success of the Revolution and the new government that followed would depend on citizens who could think and make important decisions for themselves. Literacy was key.

Among those who recognized the need for education was John Adams, who wrote the following in a 1786 letter:

"But before any great things are accomplished, a memorable change must be made in the system of Education and knowledge must become so general as to raise the lower ranks of Society nearer to the higher. The Education of a Nation, instead of being confined to a few schools & Universities, for the instruction of the few, must become the National Care and expence, for the information of the Many...."

The same belief was expressed on every level of early American society, and not just in the affluent and sophisticated coastal cities. While only twenty miles from Philadelphia, the Great Valley region of Chester County was still farms and forest in 1818. Yet in that year, a group of thirty-four individuals from the Great Valley came together to subsidize the creation of a school for the local children.

To be sure, thoughtful citizenship wasn't the only reason for the school. Being able to read, write, and cipher were important skills for farmers, too, and being able to read the Bible was as important as reading newspapers. Education was also seen as "improving," a way to better one's self and rise higher in the world. What parents - then or now - don't want that for their children?

None of these individuals founding the school would have been considered wealthy. The original subscription list shows that only one contributor paid thirty dollars, with the majority offering between three and five dollars, and one subscription of only fifty cents. But together, they raised the amount necessary to build a single-room schoolhouse: $260.93. Members of the community continued to contribute, whether in money to pay the teacher's salary, or by offering a spare room for the teacher's lodgings, or by cutting wood to burn for heat during the winter months. From the beginning, the school was considered a "free school", without a religious affiliation, and open to all boys and girls in the area.

The little schoolhouse still stands today, upper left, and is known as the Diamond Rock Octagonal School. Its single room is in fact an octagon, a forward-thinking design for schools at the time. Windows supplied light from every direction, and heat came from a wood-burning cast-iron stove, lower left, in the center of the room. The teacher's tall desk, upper right,  stood nearby, where he or she (the list of teachers between 1818 and 1864 shows the post was nearly equally divided between women and men) could survey the students.

And what a task that must have been. Students sat on backless benches, divided by age and ability into groups that faced one of the eight walls for study and assignments. When it was each group's turn to be taught, they would swivel around on their benches to face the teacher. Their ages ranged from small children to young adults, and during harvest and planting seasons, the older students would be kept home to help with crops. Tradition says that at its greatest capacity, the school could accommodate sixty children - a staggering number in a single room, and a testament to the dedication and adaptability of those early teachers.

The schoolhouse remained in use until 1864, when newer, more modern schools were built nearby. Over time, the little building fell into disrepair, and late 19thc photographs show that it had deteriorated into a roofless shell. Around 1915, the  artist Wharton Esherick became involved in the restoration of the school and used it as his studio for several years. He added the concrete floor, and was also responsible for the diamonds in the shutters and the iron work on the windows and door.

The school soon found another savior in Emma W. Wersler, a local woman whose mother and sister attended the school and was a descendent of one of the original subscribers. She supervised the school building and its restoration, and arranged for original artifacts - books, the teacher's desk and chair, the wooden buckets for drinking water, lower right - that had been scattered when the school closed to be returned for display. In 1918, the school reopened as a museum and historic site.

Overseeing the maintenance of the school was the Diamond Rock Old Pupils Association, which also served as an alumni group for former students. These included three physicians, two ministers, and a congressman - ample proof that "improvement" could in fact take place in a one-room schoolhouse.

For more information about the Diamond Rock Octagonal Schoolhouse, including hours when it is open to the public, visit the website here.

Many thanks to Susanna Baum for her assistance with this post.

Photographs ©2017 Susan Holloway Scott


Hels said...

After WW2, when there were squillions of baby-boomers requiring primary school education, two grades were sometimes combined with the one teacher in the one room. The blackboard would swing back and forward with, for example, Grade 1 material on one side and Grade 2 material on the other.

But imagine more than two classes in the one room at the same time! The teacher must have been a genius

History Underfoot said...

Awesome little building - love it. Great post about its history too.

Annette Naish said...

What a wonderful post. This is a reminder of how the original citizens felt about education. Thanks so much.

Jo Bunce said...

When my brother and I were in the 3rd and 4th grades we attended a one room school. The teacher taught every other grade every other year. So my brother ended up in my class. 1950-51. This was in Southern I'LL.

Unknown said...

Octagonal houses were a peculiarly American invention, popularized by one Orson Squire Fowler, but I've never heard of an octagonal schoolhouse, particularly one with such an inventive teaching method.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Michael - Octagonal designs were also considered a modern plan for prisons at the time; I believe Thomas Jefferson had seen one in France, and had promoted the concept for a prison in Virginia. Not that I want to make any connections between schoolhouses and prisons - !

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