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By Jim Ignasher
Everyone’s heard the old story about the father who tells his children how hard life was when he was young; “When I was a kid, we had to walk to school barefoot, in the snow, uphill, both ways!” We laugh at it today, but there was a time when such a statement wasn’t that far removed from fact. In the days of the iconic “one-room school house”, youths of all ages walked to school, or if they were lucky, rode a horse. They probably weren’t barefoot unless it was summer, (yes, school was sometimes held in summer.) but it’s likely that some weren’t adequately clothed for harsh weather. It was a time before electric lighting, central heating, air conditioning, and indoor plumbing. The classroom was lit with oil lamps, heat came from a pot-bellied stove, AC consisted of open windows, and the outhouse was just a short hop, skip, and a jump through the schoolyard. Perhaps that’s why the father who first uttered those words began with, “Kids today have it too easy!”
It’s September, the month that signals the end of summer and the start of a new school year, so an article about early schools in Smithfield seemed appropriate. In the archives of the Smith-Appleby House Museum is a lengthily research paper written by a former Smithfield teacher, Thomas B. Davis in 1933 titled “District Schools of Smithfield, R. I. Before 1871”. Part of the information in this article was derived from his research, and some from other sources.
From 1730 to 1871 the town of Smithfield included the present-day municipalities of Central Falls, Lincoln, North Smithfield, and Woonsocket south of the Blackstone River, and by 1871 Smithfield had no less than thirty-six separate school districts. (The boundaries of each district can be seen on the Beers 1871 map of Smithfield, found in the Beers Atlas, at the Greenville Library.) Space does not permit mentioning all of them, so this article will only focus on those seven districts that were within the boundaries of present-day Smithfield.
As a point of fact, the “one-room school house” commonly depicted in art and literature didn’t become a common part of the American landscape until the early 1800s. Before then, school was generally held in comparatively informal settings such as homes or businesses. And although many tend to picture a “little red school house”, photographic evidence from the 19th century indicates schools were just as likely to be painted white, and in some cases, made of brick.
District 13 was the “Evans District”, and included Evans Road and Mann School Road. Between 1806 and 1826, Daniel Mann taught school in his home, (Hence the name of the road.), before a proper school house was erected in the vicinity of Mann School Road and Burlingame Road. That school house was later replaced by a new building in 1853.
Greenville was District 14. According to Mr. Davis, the first school in this area consisted of a room in the Greenville Tavern, a.k.a. the Waterman Tavern, sometime around 1750. This seems laughable when one considers that no establishment that serves alcohol can be located within 200 feet of a school in Smithfield today.
The first school house in Greenville was constructed sometime later in the vicinity of the present-day Greenville Post Office. In 1804 it was replaced by a two-story structure known as the Greenville Academy, which was later relocated on Smith Avenue and converted to housing. In 1874, another two-story school was built on the site of the former academy and remained in use until the William Winsor School was completed in 1930.
In 1939, the former school was acquired by the Greenville Grange and utilized as a meeting hall until it was demolished to make way for new development in the 1980s.
The Village of Stillwater was District 15. As with other early districts the first “school” was taught in a private home – in this case the home of John Smith Appleby, which everyone knows today as the Smith-Appleby House Museum. Stillwater’s first school house wasn’t built until 1828, but its exact location is unclear. In 1856, (Some sources state 1869), a new school was erected just to the north of the intersection of Stillwater Road and Hanton City Trail.
Georgiaville was District 16. Up until 1820, school was held in the home of John S. Farnum before classes were conducted in a building owned by the textile mill. The first school house was erected on Railroad Street in 1850. It was originally a one-story structure, but a second floor was added in 1873.
From 1924 to 1942 the building was utilized as a fire station by the Georgiaville Fire Company before the present station was built. It later served as a DPW garage before being burned for training by the fire department in 1962.
Esmond (formerly known as Allenville and Enfield) was District 17. The first school was erected in 1820 on Maple Street, but was replaced in 1849 by a new building on Esmond Street. Another school was later built on Chamberlain Street and is today a private residence.
West Greenville, District 20, was one of the smallest districts in town. Its school stood on Route 44, just before West Greenville Road. The building reportedly began its existence as a grist mill, but was moved to that site by Captain Elisha Steere to serve as a school.
The first school house in Spragueville, (District 28), was constructed next to the Spragueville Dam in 1808, and stood until 1920.
Mr. Davis also noted that Smithfield had a school house that wasn’t designated its own district. He wrote in part, “Levi Barnes built a small school house at his own expense on Wolf Hill about 1825.” Levi had nine children, and hired a teacher to educate them, as well as any of his neighbor’s children who wanted to attend. The building was later converted to a home, and was still standing as of 1933.
Today, Smithfield has six public schools which are all under one school district, and although school buses have replaced horses, the story of trudging to school barefoot in the snow endures.