NH Humanities Council talk on Hollis’ one-room rural schoolhouses

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HOLLIS – Step inside the front door of Pine Hill Schoolhouse on Ranger Road in Hollis, and you are immediately transported back in time to a much simpler era.

Built in the early 1800s, the one-room schoolhouse educated students until 1916. The building and the land it sits on have been in Sharon Howe’s family for decades, and although it has had numerous uses over the years, she has restored the schoolhouse to resemble its original purpose.

On Thursday, April 17, Steve Taylor, of the New Hampshire Humanities Council, will present a program on the history of one-room school houses, sponsored by the Hollis Historical Society. The program begins at 7:30 p.m. at Pine Hill School, 69 Ranger Road.

In the olden days, traveling to the center of town to attend school was not practical, so children were educated in rural schoolhouses spread throughout the area. In 1818, there were 12 districts in Hollis, which later expanded to 14. One of the original one-room schoolhouses still standing today is District No. 3, the Old Pine Hill Schoolhouse, which stood at the fork in the road on the north side of Pine Hill Road, at the intersection of Nartoff Road. At some point, the 22-foot-by-22-foot building was widened to become 22-foot-by-28-foot.

When District 12, East “Brimstone” School, merged with District 3 in 1874, Schoolhouse No. 12, at Parker Lane and Rideout Road, was sold and Pine Hill Schoolhouse was moved over the hill to the west side of Ranger Road to be more centrally located. In 1916, the town voted to build a new, larger school for District 3, and the two-room New Pine Hill Schoolhouse opened in January 1917. The new school was used until 1934. It was converted to a residence in the 1940s, and is currently lived in by Howe’s cousins, John and Linda Seager.

Born in 1910, Sharon’s father, Clarence Howe, was the last family member to attend classes in the Old Pine Hill Schoolhouse. He spent the 1916 year there, just prior to the opening of the new school.

Sharon Howe’s grandfather, John Howe, lived in the farm that bordered Ranger Road and Howe Lane. Since the old schoolhouse was no longer needed, he purchased it for $25, rolled it across the road and set it on a fieldstone foundation at the edge of his cornfield.

“My grandfather built a basement, and used it for storing apples,” she said. “His cows got tuberculosis and had to move to a new, clean building, so he built an addition onto the schoolhouse in the 1930s.”

At some point, the schoolhouse was used as housing. There was a privy and a small shed for a carriage. Howe chuckles as she talks about the outhouse used by the kids – it was held together with poison ivy, and she and her cousins had to be very careful.

Following John Howe’s death in 1945, his sons took over the farm, including Sharon’s father.

“It was a very secure, loving, safe environment,” she said of her childhood. “My dad was on the farm, my grandmother was always home, my uncles were there – there was always family there, you were never alone, everyone looked out for each other. We wore whistles when playing and could blow the whistle if we needed help.”

The 150 acres owned by her grandfather still remains in the family, although it was eventually subdivided by Howe and her cousins. Her aunt, who was born in the farmhouse and loved it, took over the property with the farmhouse, and Howe chose the old schoolhouse that was a happy part of her childhood and a favorite place to play.

“By the time we were playing in it, people had lived in it and it was loaded with debris. There were plows, cultivators, pieces of iron and pieces of brick from the chimney that had collapsed. There were household things, trunks of letters – we would go through the trunks thinking we would find love letters from the Civil War, but of course we could barely read the handwriting.”

The old schoolhouse had fallen into disrepair by the time Howe took it on in 1992, and she invested a great deal of time, labor and money into restoring it.

“I didn’t know what I was getting into,” she said, with the wisdom of hindsight.

She moved the building from the edge of the cornfield to its current, fourth location at 69 Ranger Road. It was dismantled, turned 180 degrees so it would face south, and reassembled on a granite foundation with a replica of the old chimney. The original wainscoting is still there, and several original windows have been restored. The original floorboards are still there, too, except for a few that were too rotten to use. Howe managed to have the restoration completed in time for the tours and teas that were held in 1998 by the Hollis Historical Society.

Today, visitors can see the old windows, and “ghost” outlines of desks that are long gone, but leave their mark where they were painted around. Graffiti, in the form of carvings, is also plentiful, everything from initials to a pocketknife rendering of a house. A new, sturdy wooden teacher’s platform stands where the original would have been, and some benches have been added. An old woodstove, donated by Hilda Hildreth from the school that used to occupy a part of the Worcester block, sits where the original stove would have been. The privy still is tucked away in the far corner of the hallway.

The original, narrow storage cupboard still stands in the doorway, and Howe has an official inventory list from 1886, that included two blackboards, a map of New Hampshire, a bell, one clock, one Webster Dictionary, and a very limited number of readers and arithmetic books. Howe hopes to acquire some authentic books to help with furnish the schoolhouse.

Those who attend the presentation on April 17 will learn how the rural one-room schoolhouses were the backbone of primary education for generations, but they also faced challenges, such as variations in districts’ ability to finance education, finding qualified teachers, curriculum, discipline and community involvement – issues that still are relevant today.