New Canaan Now & Then: Rock School


Rock School

In 1650, the Connecticut Colonial Legislature enacted the first compulsory school law but it wasn’t until 1795 that the state began supplying state funds for education. 

New Canaan’s first one-room schoolhouse was built circa 1799 by residents of New Canaan’s School District 2.  The Rock School, as it was called, was located originally at Canoe Hill and Laurel Roads on a rocky outcropping donated by David Lockwood.  It was built from repurposed beams and boards, served grades 1-12, and was in continuous use until 1933.

Education was very different than it is today.  The year was divided into summer and winter terms.  The teacher was paid approximately $5 a month, and so was forced to take lodging with the students.  At the time it was built, the school curriculum involved the “4Rs” – reading writing, arithmetic and religion.  New Canaan was a parish of the Congregational Church until 1801, and much of the learning focused on scripture and religious teachings.  Boys went to school from October through mid-March; they helped on the farms the rest of the year.  Girls attended when they could be spared from household work.  

Students had chores at school.  They might be required to bring in firewood for the stove that heated the classroom, or water from the well.  They all drank out of the same bucket of water using the same ladle.  Books were extremely rare because paper was very expensive.  Instead, students had “hornbooks” – small, wooden paddles with one sheet of paper protected by a thin piece of cow’s horn.  The paper usually held the alphabet, pairs of letters to help with reading, and the Lord’s Prayer.    

Sometime after it closed in 1933, the Town wanted to widen the intersection, which would mean demolishing the school.  Charles Stevens purchased the building for $35, and had it moved across the road.  With some slight modifications, it served as a residence for Mrs. Herbert Richdale from 1942-1970.  When a portion of her property was sold to a developer, the building was threatened for a second time. 

On November 13 and 14, 1972, students in Miss Eleanor Smith’s U.S History Class visited the Historical Society.  During that trip, they were asked if they wanted to help save the Rock School from demolition.  The students were excited by the idea, set up a steering committee, and began promoting the effort in the elementary schools.  All grades participated in bake sales, candy sales, fundraising plays and movies, a potluck supper and auction, and even a walkathon.  With the help of Don Hersam, publisher of the Advertiser, they had raised enough funds by the spring.  

On May 1, 1973, the Rock School was moved to the Historical Society’s campus at 13 Oenoke Ridge Road.  High school students escorted it along its route, which took three hours.  The third and fourth grades of Center School greeted the little building at its new location, along with a 1902 student from the school.  Over the next summer, students and other volunteers worked to restore it.  It was formally dedicated to the children of New Canaan as part of the bicentennial celebration in 1976.   It remains a museum where visitors can come inside, sit at the desks, and imagine what it was like to be educated in a one-room schoolhouse in the 1800s.  

“New Canaan Now & Then” is presented in partnership with the New Canaan Museum & Historical Society.

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