The Little Red Schoolhouse is set in the crossroads of a picturesque setting in historic Ridgefield, CT. This small gem of a schoolhouse was originally set between dirt crossroads in a colonial farming community. Today it stands on a country road surrounded by gracious homes.
In 1756 the Puritan people were strong believers in education. The Ridgefield community decided to build a schoolhouse in which to educate their children. Schoolhouses in New England were often constructed on the islands made by crossroads. This provided easy access and no one would dispute that the town owned the land. The initial building and maintenance of the schoolhouse was a community affair. Parents would lend a hand with their carpentry skills. Students would bring firewood. In the 1770’s as the Revolutionary War raged on students attended the little school house. Education was valued.
Fortunately, there is an excellent account of what the schoolhouse was like at the turn of the 19th century. Samuel Griswold Goodrich, the writer of the Peter Parley stories, attended the schoolhouse. He later wrote an extensive account of what it was like attending the school and living in Ridgefield in his book, Recollections of a Lifetime, Volume 1. The original building “consisted of rough, unpainted clapboards, upon a wooden frame. It was plastered within, and contained two apartments a little entre, taken out of a corner for a wardrobe and the school-room proper. The chimney was of stone, and pointed with mortar, which, by the way, had been dug into a honeycomb by uneasy and enterprising penknives. The fireplace was six feet wide and four feet deep. The flute was so ample and so perpendicular that the rain sleet and snow fell direct to the hearth.” Describing the interior he notes, “we were all seated upon benches, made of what were called slabs – that is, boards having the exterior or rounded part of the log on one side: as they were useless for other purposes, these were converted into school-benches, the rounded part down. They had each four supports, consisting of straddling wooden legs, set into augur-holes. Our own legs swayed in the air, for they were too short to touch the floor. Oh, what an awe fell over me, when we were all seated and silence reigned around!”
Goodrich describes the exterior landscape as follows: “The ground hereabouts – as everywhere else in Ridgefield – was exceedingly stony, and in making the pathway the stones had been thrown out right and left, and these remained in heaps on either side, from generation to generation.” He recalls a nearby chestnut tree that the boys used to throw sticks and stones at to knock off the chestnuts.
Ridgefield was a farming community and they adjusted their schooling accordingly. Initially, there was a women’s school in the summer months attended by young children. The older children were needed on the farms. In the winter a male teacher was hired to teach the boys and girls in the neighborhood up to the age of eighteen or even twenty. Goodrich says as many as forty scholars could be crowded into this little building!
Samuel Griswold Goodrich, alias Peter Parley, attended the school from 1799 to 1803. Although he remembers the school with fondness, he was appalled that children were taught using adult books or scary nursery rhymes. After his experience at this schoolhouse he went on to rectify the situation, becoming one of the most famous children’s book authors of his time.
During the early 1800’s the old building was replaced with the current larger building. In 1830’s, before the Civil War, the blackboards were installed. In 1893 it was estimated that the yearly cost of a student was $8.01. (In 2010 the estimated cost per student was $7,830.) The current interior of the building is similar to the way it looked in 1895 with its black pot belly stove and iron and wooded desks.
In the early 1900’s the schoolhouse sustained minor damage when one of those new inventions, the Model T car, failed to make the corner turn and crashed into it. A member of the prominent Pinchbeck family attended the school in the early 1900’s, John Pinchbeck, Sr. His writing book still lies in the classroom. In the 1970’s a marble bench was installed outside the building and dedicated to his son for all the service he had done for Ridgefield as Tree Warden.
In 1915 the school bell stopped ringing and the flag was taken down. The schoolhouse closed its doors. Several schoolhouses were consolidated and students started attending the new Benjamin Franklin Grammar school on East Ridge. It remained a grammar school until 1927 when it became Ridgefield High School. Today it is the Richard E. Venus Municipal Building, often referred to by locals as the “old High School”.
The town of Ridgefield owns the little red schoolhouse and its grounds. For many years the Ridgefield Garden Club leased the site from the town. In February 2012 the Ridgefield Historical Society took over the lease. The Historical Society maintains the interior of the building, oversees the content of the building and staffs it for open houses and tours. The town of Ridgefield continues to maintain the exterior of the building and the Ridgefield Garden Club continues to maintain the ornamental plantings on the site.
Recently, there has been a resurgence of interest in the little red schoolhouse. It’s been given a “facelift” inside and the landscaping has been refreshed. An educational video has been made and educational material has been displayed and posted to help visitors enjoy the history behind our little gem of a school, the Peter Parley Schoolhouse.